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The Tragicomic Tragicomedy of Peter Scolari: The Clyde Fitch Report

February 18, 2011

In early 2010, Leonard Jacobs and the Clyde Fitch Report ran the following interview with actor Peter Scolari in conjunction with his then-appearance in the Off-Broadway play “White’s Lies.” Though the run of “White’s Lies” has ended, Scolari remains a pop culture icon in his own right and The Brown Tweed Society would like to reprint Leonard’s chat, which we think you’ll mightily enjoy.

Scolari in last year's "White's Lies."

For culture vultures of my generation — and the generation and a half that have followed — Peter Scolari is a star of TV comedy and, in some ways, a relatively unsung national treasure. The sitcomBosom Buddies, which premiered on ABC in 1980 and ran for two seasons, was America’s introduction to him. It concerned two young single men living for a cheap rent in a hotel for women, which meant getting gussied up as feminine alter-egos, a kind of 30-minute Some Like It Hot for the post-’70s set.

Bosom Buddies, of course, was also America’s introduction to Tom Hanks, who played Kip and, in drag, the lovely, raven-haired Buffy. But Scolari, whose Henry and Hildegarde were Hanks’ counterparts, always struck me as more inherently antic and frenetic — the more farcical of the two. This may have been a function of their characters: Kip’s Buffy was more apt to keep the men-passing-as-women deception alive out of fear — the idea of Hanks passing as a woman doesn’t quite work, which is the essence of his 50 percent of the premise. The other 50 percent was Henry’s fey Hildegarde, for Scolari’s looks meant that he might pass more readily as the fairer sex, so fear more rarely entered that character’s equation. As a result, Hildegarde was too crazy to believe, yet eerily, creepily plausible.

Scolari next turned up on Newhart in 1984, playing the egregiously superficial, uber-Yuppie producer of the TV show hosted by the legendary Bob Newhart’s character, Dick. Scolari scored a total of three Emmy nominations for his Newhart work, and turned in, for such an on-the-surface character, mirthfully daffy performances for six years. It was fascinating how Scolari’s Michael Harris could be so tightly, inexplicably coiled: the ripe and unpeeled second plantain to Newhart’s peachy top banana.

Scolari, of course, has worked extensively across various mediums; I’ll let those of you interested in catching up on his full credits check him out on IMDB, the Off-Broadway Database, the ubiquitous and abridged Wikipedia entry, and also on IBDB, which highlights Scolari’s Broadway debut as a top-billing replacement in the musical Hairspray in 2003. Later, he proved himself a powerful starburst of energy in the revival of Larry Gelbart’s classic-of-a-classic, Sly Fox, in 2004.

Interviewing Scolari, however, proved to be a much different experience than what I expected. Which is to say that I expected to laugh and the actor is funny — in the cauterizing, deadpan-buffoon manner that actors sometimes put on when waiting to see whether their interviewer du jour is a total jerk. I don’t know if I’m a jerk, but I do know that we had a conversation, a getting-to-know-you deal back-and-forthing, and it relaxed Scolari and, I think, freed him to be the naturally honest and organically entertaining individual he is. He is also distinctly, darkly funny. He says ribald things not to test you, I think, but because he finds cackling at the appalling a bit soothing. Saying something twisted means he is being straight with you; if he were to answer a question directly, that would be weird. Our dialogue could have revolved around predictable queries — “What was it like working on Bosom Buddies?,” “How did you end up starring on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The TV Show?,” “Tell us everything about growing up in Westchester” — and generated far too predictable answers. Instead, we talked about acting, about craft and spent a lot of time goofing around. Silliness defies quotability, but he made up for it with the revelation he shared with me, which I now share with you. I am sharing it, I should add, not because it’s gossipy, which perhaps it is, but because, when all the clowning about and juggling charm settles into a groove, Scolari, who is said to juggle for pleasure, happens also to be a class act.

The interview began with Scolari climbing around the unattended bar at New World Stages looking for a spoon for his far-free chocolate pudding.

While you’re there, I’d like a Jack Daniels, please.
Sure thing.

How do they leave the liquor unguarded?
should get you a drink.

If this was a New Yorker piece, we’d already be at 1,500 words.
I got a fork!

Awesome! Can we talk about the series of blog posts than ran under your name on Playbill.com? Where you wrote about the process and production of White’s Lies?…
Those blog pieces.

Did you actually write these?
I most certainly did. The designer run-through blog was a small masterpiece. You’ll appreciate the opening line. I had never heard of never such a thing, a designer run-through, but Donna Karan really enjoyed the show. I went very into the absurd with the piece — I’m very influenced by Woody Allen, S.J. Perelman, Robert Benchley and a bunch of other dead or nearly-dead people.

When were you writing these?
Generally at night. My girlfriend and I are generally mutually insomniac, which ain’t bad, so it works out. You know, when we get into show mode, your body already knows: this time, next week, you’re not going to be sleeping. This morning, I had to take out some of the crudeness of what I wrote.

Read More…

Visit Leonard Jacobs and The Clyde Fitch Report daily for for more posts on arts, theater and politics. Follow the Clyde Fitch Report on Twitter at @clydefitch.

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