My slightly trembling fingers dialed the phone number of a Detroit inn and I waited for the receptionist to connect me. At the sound of a distantly familiar voice I asked, "Is this Mr. Scolari?" "Peter," he confirmed. Then laughed, "Hang on. I'll get my Dad." My hand, now poised to capture each spoken word on paper, drew calm, as did the interviewer, disarmed by Peter Scolari's soft-spoken humor.
The voice on the other end of the telephone wire emitted warmth and kindness mixed with an easy wit, not the least bit biting, leaving me feeling easy-chair comfortable, the kind of comfort one feels while watching a favorite sitcom. I asked about Detroit, where he was on tour performing the role of Vince Fontaine in Grease! "Detroit's a little cold Sandy, can you bring me a sweater?" I had introduced myself as Sandra, but let it slide figuring he'd immersed himself in his role. Hopefully he found that sweater before he and the rest of the company 'bus and trucked' their way northeast.
That is, if he made it to Boston. Grease! is "quite an energetic production. I may be hospitalized before I get there." He is eager, however, to return to "our fair town," a favorite city that conjures memories of best friends and boyhood girlfriends. He adds "all the chatter is that this show is just a rocket ship and I'll vouch for it. Trust me."
But this actor, well versed in physical comedy, is up to the challenge of breaking into this "very very fast paced" show and the demanding role of DJ Vince Fontaine. His character opens the show mingling with the audience and continues his "broadcast in his own little panel, 30 feet above the stage, doing commercials and giving transitions in scenes and setting other scenes. By the second act he joins the play somehow and becomes a significant player..."
Scolari cites Wolfman Jack in the film American Graffiti as his inspiration. In this classic, Wolfman Jack's voice begins as a background presence that permeates the action, his excited growl reverberating through the radios of vintage cars cruisin' the main drag and ends in a scene with Richard Dreyfuss, where "he's just a soulful guy just kind of explaining things," says Scolari in a raspy, remarkably accurate 'Wolfman' drawl. Though their voices are disparate, the balance between narrator and player is quite similar. And, above all, it's fun. "It's not Chekhov, but it's fun." In fact, "you can't show up if you're not ready to have fun," jokes Scolari. The same holds true for the audience. Aside from the energy of Grease!, Scolari lauds its talented company. He is enchanted by Jasmine Guy, the streetwise, wise-cracking Rizzo. "Ialready knew her quality as an actress. But Jasmine can sing and dance like a demon." He describes long-time friend Adrian Zmed (Danny Zuko) as "a wonder... His singing voice he was always a good singer but he's so strong now. As a dancer," he pauses, "I just kind of watch him in wonder."
In fact, Zmed was integral in drawing Scolari to Grease!, as was the allure of the New York stage. "I've been trying to bring my career back to the New York theatre for the last couple of years and have had some real fun doing it." When first approached he was uncertain about the part, unsure if it "sounded like something I could do," or "if there was someone more suited to the part." After all, Scolari adds, "I don't like to just grab any ol' role." The tour was very accommodating of his schedule he'll be acting in an HBO miniseries in January. "They made arrangements to plunk me in the show at exactly the time that I would be free and then I'd be gone. Now I'm sentimental and I don't want to leave . . ." the silence wistfully heavy.
A marvelously versatile artist and a member of Actors' Equity since age 19, Scolari's career has bridged stage, television and screen. He performed for years with the Colonnades Theatre in New York, as well on Broadway and in more than 12 off-Broadway productions; he co-starred with Tom Hanks on ABC-TV's comedy "Bosom Buddies," and received awards and nominations for his work on the long-running series "Newhart;" his film endeavors include the recent That Thing You Do; as well as dramatic roles in the musical Stop the World I Want to Get Off (on the Arts & Entertainment network) and numerous television movies. Scolari speaks proudly of his work in Stop
the World..., a role far more serious than he or director Bill Castellino had first imagined. "The character is as dramatic a role as I'll ever play . . .I hope that in my career Iget challenged like that again." Then, as if to break the gravity of the moment, he added, "don't mind me doing dishes while I'm talking to you." There are unspoken struggles behind his jocularity: in his versatile career, he has made compromises. Because with versatility comes transition, lifestyle changes and very real career decisions.
Though audiences are most familiar with his television personae the stage remains his first love. "And probably my second as well." Stage is his "first language." "I first learned to act in front of an audience [where] it counts, [without] starting and stopping." He recalls his "hands-down, ground-breaking kind of part," the role of Camille in the French farce A Flea in Her Ear at the Colonnades in 1976-8, which educated him about the stage, French farce, comedy and physical comedy. A comedian was born, though at the time he "didn't think I was funny at all. I had funny friends. Clever maybe, but funny would have taken me too far out of my personal seriousness." It was there he learned "the great wisdom in my life, that if you can be a goof, a mucch, y'know, a gavone then that's good."
Yet Peter Scolari is much more than a comedian. What is most striking when speaking with him is his genuine praise of those he has worked with. After deeming Tom Hanks "a bit of a goof" he adds slowly "he's just one of the best friends I've ever had," as if he's reflecting on the difficult times Hanks has seen him through. "I would just do anything for him." Of Bob Newhart, "he's brilliantly funny...and as giving a performer as there ever was" while he describes the "Newhart" cast as "not only a family but a kick-ass comedic troupe" whose friendships transcend the professional. The more he spoke of the artists who have touched him, the more I learned of Scolari. It is said "we know a man by the company he keeps." If so, Peter Scolari has revealed as much about himself, his passion and grace however unwittingly as he has about those he speaks of so highly.
-- By Sandra "Sandy" Giardi