The Second City-trained performer is currently playing Edna Turnblad in Broadway's Hairspray, a part he first tackled in October 2007. Prior to that, he put in a considerable stint in the popular national tour of Twelve Angry Men. He has starred in Rounding Third in Chicago and An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf at Primary Stages, and made his Broadway debut in Art a decade ago. Wendt talked to Playbill.com about his current, and longest-lasting, New York stage gig, his old days at Second City, and how rumors get started.
Playbill.com: Between Broadway's Hairspray and the tour of Twelve Angry Men, you've been working prettily steadily on the stage lately.
George Wendt: Yes I have. I sort of take whatever comes along. Well, not everything. (Laughs) I do pass up reality television for the most part. But, I love theatre. It's by far the most fun thing to do.
|photo by Paul Kolnik|
Playbill.com: How did Hairspray come your way?
GW: Two or three years ago there was a national tour. My agent floated the idea of me doing it. There was some interest. I auditioned a couple times and did not get the role. So I figured that ship had sailed. But I guess they remembered, because about last year this time they wondered if I'd still be interested, not for the tour, but for Broadway. Playbill.com: Have you done musicals in the past?
GW: I started out at Second City, and while we didn't do musicals there, we would do the odd musical number or musical parody. There'd be some dance involved. So there was that. And then I did A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Williamstown. Peter Hunt directed. Then I did an Off-Broadway musical called Wild Men in 1993. And I did a TV version of the musical Bye Bye Birdie. I did the part of Harry MacAfee, the role that Paul Lynde did, and I like to say that the critics responded to my performance about how I would imagine they would respond if Paul Lynde played Norm in a remake of "Cheers."
Playbill.com: You mentioned Second City. One of its founders and leading lights, Paul Sills, just passed away. Did you know him?
GW: You know, I met him a few times and shared his company a few times. I was more in awe of his presence and his reputation. I didn't utter a peep around him. I was all ears listening. He was no longer involved in Second City when I joined, but he was quite the legend. Playbill.com: Was his influence still evident at Second City, even though he was no longer directly involved?
GW: Yes, he was constantly being quoted and invoked by our producer Bernard Sahlins and our director Del Close — pretty much everybody.
Playbill.com: Do you still use the things that you learned at Second City in your acting assignments today? Do you always try to bring some of that improvisational spirit to your roles?
GW: Sure. I certainly don't go about changing words or anything like that, but there are other things involved in improvisation that are hugely fundamental in any kind of theatre, such as focus, learning how to give focus, how to take focus. This is improv workshop 101. And, of course, listening. If you're not listening in an improv scene, you're just dead. You're toast. I'm talking about the utmost fundamentals.
Playbill.com: How long are you contracted for Hairspray?
GW: Through November. You want to hear how rumors get started?
GW: I'm walking down Eighth Avenue and run into a friend, and we're both running a little late, so we don't have a chance to chat. So I ring him on the cell phone. He's going one way. I'm going another. He's going into Spamalot. I asked if he had started yet. He said, "Yeah. I only have two days rehearsal. I'd done the role before. I've actually been in the show for a couple weeks now." I said, "Great." He said, "What about you? You must be finishing up pretty soon." I said, "No. I'm going to November now." Long pause. He said, "Are you going to replace Nathan?" I thought that was a classic example. The phone cuts out and then word hits the street: I'm going into November.