You might know him as golf pro Shooter McGavin. It's possible you could recognize him as greaser Goose McKenzie. He might even bear some resemblance to former Attorney General Harry M. Daughtery. Christopher McDonald has taken on all of these aliases, in cult classic films like Happy Gilmore and Grease 2, as well as in the hit television series Boardwalk Empire. A tried-and-true film and television veteran, noted for his portrayal of screen villains, McDonald has added "lawyer" to his oeuvre, appearing on Broadway in 2007 as Billy Flynn in Chicago, costarring on the television series Family Law and Harry's Law, and now playing real-life litigator Eddie Hayes opposite Tom Hanks in Nora Ephron's bio-drama Lucky Guy, currently running at the Broadhurst Theatre.
TheaterMania recently talked with McDonald about his life as a screen attorney, receiving clothing tips from the gregarious Hayes (who was immortalized in Tom Wolfe's seminal novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities), and hanging out with Hanks, on stage and off.
How did Lucky Guy come about for you?
I was constantly nagging my New York representation about getting me onto Broadway. This play came along, and I read it, and I've been doing a lot of lawyers lately, so I wanted to try another character. I was reading for [editor] John Cotter, but I was too young. I met with George C. Wolfe and I loved his direction. You don't get [direction like] that in the film world.
Were you familiar with the real-life Eddie Hayes before you started?
Not at all. I scoured the internet for stories, and then I got his book [Mouthpiece], and that became my bible. I was immersed in this terrific book, with great writing and great stories from a genuine New Yorker. One of my top two goals in this thing is to get the Eddie Hayes stamp of approval, and once I got to meet the guy and hang out with him, I was just elated because I knew that he had given me his stamp of approval.
Did you meet with him often?
I met him on the phone a few times, and then we started texting. All the texts were about the clothes…[tips like] "shirt collar inside the vest, not outside the vest." He loves his suits. You really wear a suit well, that's the important thing. Then, I finally met him. I was invited to his house and he gave me such insights into the man, the face behind the words in his book. He loved journalists, their world, the power they had, their madness in that way. They were the last of the guys who would burn the candles at both ends. He had read the play, he knew what we were doing, and I got insights. He'd never charge these guys a dime [and] he'd help them all to raise their standards of living.
Were you a clotheshorse to begin with?
My dad was, and he gave that to me. From the waist up, I look pretty sharp, but from the waist down, I'm in comfortable jeans and loafers. Eddie Hayes has, I would say, a hundred grand in shoes, because he gets them handmade. I've been learning a lot about shoes and laces. He's got 700 shirts in his closet. It's the most amazing closet, just overflowing. His sock drawer is ridiculous. One thing that's been great is that I've started dressing like him. I put on my nicest suits now that basically sat in my closest. I've put suspenders on them. It's amazing wearing these clothes and seeing how people react to you. People tell me on the subway, "Man, you are rocking that suit!"
In both of your appearances on Broadway, you've played lawyers, and you've played many a lawyer on television. In terms of background, does one build on the other?
I absolutely think that. Otherwise, I'd just be rehashing the material. I put a different spin on everything. I have some dear friends [who] are attorneys, litigators. These guys are rock stars of the world. They make law. I played a litigator on Harry's Law opposite the great Kathy Bates, and I had to be on my toes [working] with her.
Do you enjoy playing lawyers?
I'm in my lawyer period. I don't know how that happened, but I'm not unhappy that it happened. If I'm being typecast as a lawyer, I'm not complaining.
To unwind, the characters in Lucky Guy go to a bar. As a cast, how do you unwind?
Eddie Hayes doesn't drink, so I haven't been drinking. We also have three other guys in the cast [who] are non-drinkers, but we do party after the Sunday shows. We go to Bar Centrale and have a nice gathering. We do hang out, and anything involving Tom [Hanks] — it's a bromance with that guy.
Have you worked with Tom before?
No. I had met him a few times. He saw me in this show Bouncers in Los Angeles, which was very well-received and won all kinds of awards, and [he] remembered me. And that was 1987!
What impressed me most about Lucky Guy is that, with someone like Tom at the center, it could have just been a star vehicle, but instead, it's a true-blue ensemble piece.
The writing is such that he is the star, but everyone has their moment [and] it's a beautiful ensemble. He could have taken a big dressing room downstairs, but he took one on the second floor [with the rest of the guys]. He calls it "Murderer's Row." He comes out at half hour, does calls and train whistles…he's just a guy's guy. He has not played that star thing at all. We've been doing the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fundraising. Yesterday, he gave up for auction one of the notepads he's been scribbling in, [and it sold for] four grand. The night before, he was doing pictures. We raised $19,000 on Saturday night because he was taking pictures with people. I can't say enough good things about him.
You've had so many iconic roles, from Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore to Goose McKenzie in Grease 2. When people pass you on the street, what name do they call out?
If I'm at any sporting event, it's Shooter. I get Shooter McGavin a lot, because that movie is on a loop on television. It's fifteen years old and it's just crazy that people respond to that. In New York City, I get a lot of Quiz Show and Requiem for a Dream, and then, of course, Grease 2.
How does it make you feel?
I must say that I'm pleasantly surprised people remember. I'm thankful that these roles resonate with people after all these years. What more can you ask for as an actor? I don't chase that kind of stuff, but I always put my spin on it. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy that people actually remember those things.
Last time you were on Broadway, you were Billy Flynn in Chicago. Since you're not primarily known for musicals, how did that come about?
[In 2007] I lost my little brother, Daniel McDonald, a Tony Award nominee for Steel Pier…At the time, he was doing Mamma Mia!, and he had horrible cancer that came into his life out of the blue; a young man in his mid-forties taken down. I had an agreement with him. I said "You take Manhattan, I take the West Coast, and we'll meet in the middle."
As soon as he decided to stick with New York, he was doing phenomenally, and then he got sick. I wanted to see him, and I was in New York [helping to take care of him], and sure enough, [Chicago] was looking for somebody, and I thought I could probably do that while I'm here and I can take my mind off…so I was Billy Flynn. In nine days, I was taught that show and had a blast.
Would you like to do another musical?
I'd love to do another musical in New York…Jason Robert Brown, I just saw his show [The Last Five Years]. God, he's good. I studied Shakespeare, so I'd love to do some Shakespeare in the Park. Now that my kids are older, I can come back to my first love after all those years on the West Coast.