George Wendt knows his way around a tavern. For eleven seasons, he starred as philosophizing barfly Norm Peterson on the classic sitcom Cheers, a role that brought him notoriety and legions of fans eager to call out his name — "Norm!" — whenever they saw him. In the twenty years since that show went off the air (though it's never really gone off the air entirely), Wendt, a Chicago native and veteran of the prestigious Second City comedy troupe, has carved out a pretty solid stage career, appearing on the New York stage as Yvan in Art, Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, and Santa Claus in Elf. He also played Juror #1 in the national tour of Twelve Angry Men and costarred in the Los Angeles, New York Musical Theatre Festival, and Edinburgh Fringe Festival productions of Re-Animator: The Musical.
Wendt is back on Broadway, and back in the barroom, in Richard Greenberg's new stage adaptation of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, but this time he's serving the drinks (to Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke and rising New York actor Cory Michael Smith) instead of imbibing. His role, Joe Bell, came just months after having to bow out of a Chicago production of The Odd Couple to undergo coronary bypass surgery. Days before Breakfast at Tiffany's officially opened, Wendt shared good news about his current health, the cattiness of his feline costars, and his appreciation for the cult fans who have followed his long-running career.
How are you feeling these days?
Good, thanks…Oh, you mean after my bypass surgery?
I feel great!
Can you give me a timeline of how that went down? I know you were getting ready to do The Odd Couple in Chicago at the time.
I was in rehearsals for The Odd Couple [at the Northlight] that B.J. Jones was directing, and it was me and Tim Kazurinsky. It was our first ten out of twelve [hour rehearsal day], and at the end of the night, Tim was driving me home, and I told him that I had been feeling chest pains for the past few days. There was no heart attack, which was the good news. It was such a complete drag. To have to bow out of The Odd Couple was really horrible for me. But that was November 1, and to land on my feet on Broadway in January when we started rehearsals was a blessing.
How did Breakfast at Tiffany's come about?
It was a pretty typical way on my end. My agent said they were interested and sent me the script, I loved it, and they offered it to me. It's pretty standard-issue. There wasn't much auditioning.
Was there any trepidation on your part that being behind the bar would too closely resemble a former role of yours?
That's probably why I got it offered to me. If I get a job offer to work on Broadway, I don't go "Ooooh, that's too close to Cheers, I'm gonna pass." They could've put me at the bar and I'd be there.
Tell me about your character, Joe Bell?
Joe's a veteran bartender and owner of the tavern. He's just a pretty straight-forward guy who's a confidant and father figure to Fred and Holly. He has a bit of a crush on Holly, but take a number! There's a lot of that going around.
You and Emilia don't have much stage time together, but your goodbye scene at the end of the second act is absolutely heartbreaking.
She leaves a trail of broken men, that's for sure.
And heartbroken cats, too.
Did I read somewhere that your dressing room and Cory's dressing room are separated by a room for the cats?
I think one of them has taken over Cory's room. He doesn't like to hang out with the riff-raff. The understudy cats are now in the cat dressing room, and Vito is in with Cory now. It's pretty bad in that understudy room. You talk about All About Eve…the claws are out in that dressing room!
[Laughter on both ends of the phone.]
It's a tremendous metaphor for Holly. We can't get the cat to do what we want 'im to do.
Were you familiar with Breakfast at Tiffany's before you started?
Only the movie. When I read the script, I was like, "Wow, this is so gorgeous and so different from the movie." I had never really understood the fuss about Capote. I never read anything, I saw [the movies of] In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany's, and I knew he was cute on the chat shows, but wow, he's just a stupendously beautiful writer, with jaw-dropping language. The novella is written in the first-person, and Fred does a bit of narration in the first-person language [in the play]. You can read it in an hour practically, maybe two hours. Do you know the play The Little Dog Laughed?
I do. The two are related in some way, right?
My wife, Bernadette Birkett, had just done it last summer in L.A., and I thoroughly enjoyed the play and the production, but I didn't realize how resonant it was. The whole motif — I don't know if that's the right word — of The Little Dog Laughed is set around the movie version of Breakfast at Tiffany's and how it was sanitized.
Switching gears a bit, I have to say that Re-Animator: The Musical, which you did this past summer, was one of my favorite shows of 2012. Are there any plans for it to have a future life?
I think it's safe to say that things are in the works. We don't know where it's going to land next, but New York is certainly a possibility. It's really a fun piece. We did it in L.A. and won every award in sight for [composer/lyricist Mark] Nutter and [book writer] Stuart Gordon. Then we booked the Edinburgh Festival, and thought we'd do NYMF that way. So we did NYMF for the eight shows, and then a month in Edinburgh. Not tooting my own horn, but out of 2,700 shows, we were one of five to qualify for Best of Fest. We did not win — a South African production of Miss Julie won — but in order to qualify, you have to have five five-star reviews. We had seven.
And a legion of cult fans, who would deliberately sit in the first few rows to get splattered with the stage blood.
The cult fans are funny. By the end, people were purposely wearing white to get their red badge of courage.
You know your way around cult fans, with Cheers. How does it make you feel to still have that sort of fan base? Do you meet audience members at the stage door?
We all want to do our jobs, and do our jobs well, and to see audiences respond in such a jubilant way is a job well done. I'm a bit old [for stage-dooring]. I mean no disrespect, but I give them a nice polite "Hello," and I'm on my way. I understand they're really there for Emilia and Cory.
Do you still get the "Norm" greeting?
Not very often, finally. At this point, my little brother looks more like Norm than me, and he's fourteen years younger. I just look like some white-haired geezer.
Do you at least get drinks sent to you in bars?
I do! [Laughs]