George Wendt's rotund figure and curly hair make him one of the most easily recognizable of all film and television stars. A product of Chicago's near south suburbs--where his family still lives--Wendt spent six years at Chicago's famous Second City troupe before finding fame as Norm Peterson on the sitcom Cheers.
While Wendt's career in feature films has included roles in Forever Young, Fletch, Rupert's Land, and the upcoming Outside Providence, he has returned to live theater whenever possible, participating in a notable stage production of David Mamet's Lake Boat (directed by Joe Mantegna) along with a long run on Broadway and in London's West End in Yasmina Reza's Art. A film adaptation of Lake Boat again starring Wendt (and again scripted by Mamet and directed by Mantegna) was shot in Toronto last year and recently premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Wendt, his wife, actress Bernadette Birkett, and their five children make their home in Los Angeles although the actor recently returned to Chicago for two weeks, in order to host a benefit for the DePaul University Theatre School, take his mother out to dinner for Mother's Day, and to star in a concert version of Babes in Arms at the Auditorium Theatre.
You spent six years at The Second City and yet I've heard you say that you never really liked improvisation.
Improvising is best left to those who really love it. Improvising itself is kind of fun, but the apprehension before the improv is not. I don't think that fast; I can't write that fast. Some people can look at a bunch of suggestions and can come up with a premise, but that was never my long suit. Now, having improvised successfully is probably one of the most fun things you can imagine, but I liken it to skydiving. Probably the doing of it is a joy, and having done it is the best, but the apprehension of doing it...
What years were you at The Second City?
I started workshops there in 1973, got hired in the company in 1974--and I am still on "active reserve." It's like the National Guard: you never really leave. I do gigs for them constantly.
So how did you learn to work for the camera? And was it tough to learn those techniques?
I didn't find it that tough. One thing that was tough was hitting marks, because that was a new concept to me. The first film job I did, I kept missing my mark and they said, 'Do you want sandbags there?' I thought, 'Yeah, that's great! Thank you very much.' I realized later on that that's what you do for complete doofusses who can never hit their marks, but--hey--it works. At Second City you get a lot of experience. You're in an ongoing gig 50 weeks a year, eight shows a week. So, to amuse myself, I sometimes would see just how small I could go with the performance, and still get a laugh from the crowd. I learned that the smaller you went, the funnier it got. It serves myself, and a lot of other people, very well for film, where the camera is so close.
Is making a movie as boring as people say?
Yes. It's probably my least favorite medium in terms of satisfaction from the work.
In the last two years, you've returned to live theater and have appeared in the play Art, both in London and on Broadway. Is there a difference between audiences in London and New York?
I find a lot more energy in London. It was a lot more fun in the West End. The median age of the audience probably is five to ten years younger in London than it is on Broadway. That's partly a function of ticket prices, and partly a function of local custom and culture. The Wyndham's Theatre in particular--and a lot of the old theaters in London--are stacked like a wedding cake, with three balconies--bing, bing, bing!--so the audience is right on top of you. It was very intimate, so the energy was palpable. That said, it was a smash on Broadway as well, but [there was] just a slightly hotter reaction in terms of laughter in the UK.
Is there a difference between London critics and New York critics?
London critics will always say something nasty; they'll never rave. Even within the context of a rave, they'll find some way to tweak somebody. Also, there's a zillion papers over there, broadsheet and tabloid, consequently nobody wields the power that The New York Times does.
You're appearing in the Ovations! series production of Babes in Arms, the Rodgers and Hart musical. Can you sing?
Well, primarily the singing is handled by people who know what they're doing. I have one verse of one song, the title song. Yes, I have sung. I've done a few musicals--Second City would always have a song or two. I've done Pseudolous in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and I did Wildman--this very silly musical--both in Chicago and Off-Broadway. And I did Bye, Bye Birdie for television with Jason Alexander, Vanessa Williams, and Tyne Daly. A great cast. The critics received me in the role originated on Broadway by Paul Lynde about as well as I would hope Paul Lynde would be received if he'd played Norm in a remake of Cheers.
Was it difficult to find a professional life after Norm Peterson?
Kind of, yeah. I'm still working on that. TV is especially tough in that regard. Cheers is still running [in syndication]. I don't think TV audiences are ready to see me do something else. And I've learned that painfully. Fortunately, there is theater and movies.
What's coming up next for you?
Film, but it's really stupid to talk about things that are still in negotiations. No live theater is set for the future, but I look forward to another stage gig. Since I've been kicked out of television, I stick to movies and theater.
Do your fans show you respect?
Yeah, it's always very sweet vibes.
When should someone NOT ask you for an autograph?
When I'm waiting at a luggage carousel for my baggage that's been lost, and I've got two kids who're fighting with each other and are cranky after a long plane ride.
You and your family live in Los Angeles now, of course. But where would you live if you could live anywhere?
I think Chicago would be where I'd want to live--family and old friends and stuff. There are some other fun places to think about. Santa Cruz is calling me. I think you could live in Santa Cruz and never be the weirdest guy on your block. There would always be some 60-year-old guy with gray dreadlocks down to his butt on a skateboard with a crack pipe in his mouth.