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John Pankow: From Mad About You to Dada Woof Papa Hot

The prolific television and stage character actor talks relationships, aging, and getting recognized on the street.

"You get stopped on the street when you're on television," says John Pankow. As one of the more prolific working actors, with two hit shows to his name, Pankow knows this personally. First up was Mad About You in the 1990s, playing cousin Ira to Paul Reiser's Paul Buchman for seven seasons. Since 2011, he's appeared as the two-faced network executive Merc Lapidus on the hit Showtime series Episodes. "People take to that show with relish, more than other things I've been involved in," he says. In terms of being recognized, "Episodes has been a hard reset for me, because I look like that guy. I don't look so much like Ira anymore."

In between his regular television stints, Pankow goes back to his first love, the theater. A fixture on stages throughout New York City, he's currently costarring in Peter Parnell's Dada Woof Papa Hot at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. In the work, he plays Michael, a musical-theater songwriter coming off a bad flop while simultaneously suffering from difficulties in his marriage. While the role may not entirely resemble Ira from Mad About You, it's in keeping with the roles he's currently being asked to play, ones that deal head-on with midlife crises and dance "the dance that comes with one's mortality."

John Pankow plays Michael in Peter Parnell's new play, Dada Woof Papa Hot, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

What was it about Dada Woof Papa Hot that interested you as an actor?
I'm a big fan of Peter's writing. I was curious when I read it. The plays Peter was writing in the 1980s — we knew each other back then — were full of historical characters and periods. There were all these fascinating journeys born out of his feverish imagination. Suddenly, here's this extraordinarily modern, personal piece, and I just thought it was a really interesting exploration of relationships, both gay and straight, and the contrast and comparison of how three couples negotiate parenthood and marriage.

Tell me about your character Michael. How similar is he to other roles you've played?
It would be so easy to write him off just as a cad or a narcissist. I don't want to give the play away, but he is struggling with his marriage. There's a longing and a loneliness he talks about with his best friend [played by John Benjamin Hickey]. I did this William Inge play, Natural Affection, a couple of years ago and that character was dealing with some of the things Michael is dealing with, in the sense that he had real midlife issues. Being the age that I am, those are notes that I'm starting to see in a lot of characters I'm being asked to play.

John Pankow as Merc Lapidus and Matt LeBlanc as himself in a production still from the Showtime series Episodes.
(© Showtime)

Do you have a preference between stage and television?
What I've often said is this: If you told me I could never do television or film work again, I would miss it and be a little sad. But I would be bereft if you told me I could never do a play again. For a control freak, it's a dream: to be the storyteller as opposed to facilitate the storytelling, which is what you do in film and TV. The storytellers are the editors and directors, and you give them choices that they play with in post-production. In the theater, you get together at seven-thirty every night, it's a different house, you're in a different place depending on what's happening in your life, and you get out there and you swing together. To me, it's the closest thing to being in a band. It satisfies my secret desire to be a musician.

Are you going back and forth between doing the play and shooting Episodes?
The new season starts [shooting] in April/May. We shoot it in London, which is just a blast. It's unusual: It's only penned by [creators] David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik. They write the entire thing and you're handed the entire season. They don't shoot episode by episode; you can shoot from any one of the nine episodes on any given day.

Mad About You was one of the seminal sitcoms of the 1990s, one that is still in syndication. What are your memories of working on it?
Paul [Reiser] and Helen [Hunt] literally shared the same brain, I think. Someone said to me, "The thing about that couple, Jamie and Paul, is that you totally believe that they're married and have a sexual relationship." There is such an intimacy there. I used to marvel at watching them work because they really could finish each other's sentences. It was uncanny.

John Pankow (right) in a promotional still from TV's Mad About You, with costars (from left) Anne Ramsay, Helen Hunt, Paul Reiser, Maui the Dog, and Leila Kenzle.
(© NBC Universal)