He became a TV star as Laverne and Shirley’s pal Lenny and rocked the big screen as Spinal Tap’s lead singer David St. Hubbins, but for the past five years, Michael McKean’s heart has belonged to Broadway. From musical leading man (Hairspray) and featured player (The Pajama Game) to supporting actor in plays (The Homecoming, off-Broadway’s A Second Hand Memory) and now a star turn Superior Donuts, McKean has shown his versatility in crossing genres and making the most of parts both large and small. As Chicago doughnut shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski (don’t ask us to pronounce it!) in Tracy Letts’ new comedy, the 62-year-old actor must convey an acute sense of loss and detachment from the world around him—a difficult assignment, but McKean manages to make us root for Arthur and anchors the play’s colorful cast of characters. He recently chatted with Broadway about the challenges of his current role, his happy second marriage to actress Annette O’Toole and his long, successful career.
Superior Donuts is a comedy that’s a bit tricky to describe. What do you tell people about the play?
I tell them that it’s a little bit like real life, in that you’re only a sentence away from either a laugh or a shock. It’s a play about how you can’t outlive or outrun your past, but you can embrace the present and thereby be redeemed. That sounds kind of dour, but it’s also extremely funny. Audiences love the play and take something emotionally deep away from it, along with the laughs.
Is this the most demanding role you’ve ever done?
I would have to say so. I’m onstage for all but about 10 minutes of the play, and I don’t even get to sit down very much. There are a lot of lines, and five monologues, and there’s a radical bit of physical theater toward the end. It’s taking a toll, but I’m having more fun doing this role than anything I’ve ever done in my life. Arthur is a character I love very much because I sort of know him.
You’ve spent most of the past five years working onstage. Was that a conscious decision?
It was one of those things that jumped out at me. My wife [Annette O’Toole] and I had written songs for [the 2003 feature film] A Mighty Wind and were starting to put together a musical, and around that time Hairspray jumped out. It was like, “Are you sure you want me [as Edna Turnblad]?” I had an amazing time in this phenomenal Broadway community, and went from that into an off-Broadway play that Woody Allen wrote and directed at the Atlantic [A Second Hand Memory], then a play at Williamstown [On the Razzle]. From there, I went into Pajama Game and then to London [Love Song] and then The Homecoming. I got to work with the best directors in the business: Jack O’Brien, the late David Jones, Kathleen Marshall, John Crowley, Dan Sullivan and now Tina Landau. I’ve been enormously lucky.
There’s such variety in that list—musicals, plays, leads, supporting parts.
One zigs and zags between opportunities. And opportunities aren’t all about “My name has got to be above the title or I’m not interested.” It doesn’t work that way. You do what tickles you. In every case, I felt honored that they had brought my name up at all.
Did you start out wanting to be a stage actor?
Yeah. I was living in Sea Cliff, Long Island, and my father took me to see Stanley Holloway’s one-man show Laughs and Other Events when I was 11 years old. I said, “Man, that looks like the best job in the world. Let’s do that!” I assumed I would always live in Sea Cliff and take the train in and work in the city, just like my daddy did. Nice little town, Sea Cliff—it’s one mile square, kind of an arts community. It had a summer theater that burned down. I saw my first musical there, Wonderful Town with Elaine Stritch, when I was seven or eight years old.
Did you sing when you were young?
Yeah, I got a guitar when I was 14 and started writing songs. I wanted to become at least an adequate guitar player so I could accompany myself and jam with my pals.
How did your first break, playing Lenny in Laverne and Shirley, come about?
David Lander [Squiggy] and I had created those characters long before the show, when we were in college. We were in this satirical group, the Credibility Gap, out in L.A. with Harry Shearer and a guy named Richard Beebe. Penny Marshall [Laverne] was a fan of ours, and when she got the show, she said, “You guys should do those characters.” So they put us in, and we were in every episode.
What’s your favorite memory of This Is Spinal Tap?
The whole oddball way that it happened. We created this idea, and we couldn’t interest anybody in it because it was a brand new thing. People weren’t really improvising comedies at that time, at least in long form. The fact that we got it made at all was flukey. It was only five weeks of shooting, but those five weeks were pretty much a high every day, working with Billy Crystal, Howard Hesseman, the late, great Paul Benedict, Fran Drescher...every day there was a new friend or an old friend.
I’ve read that real-life heavy metal musicians like the film.
Are you a fan of that type of music?
I like some of it. I’m a fan of Metallica and I like AC/DC; I like a big, loud band. I like smart stuff and I like dumb stuff and I think rock music has a place for all of that.
Do you have a favorite of the movies you’ve done directed by Christopher Guest [Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration]?
Not really. A Mighty Wind is the one I did the most on. I was a writer or co-writer for about 10 of the 15 songs in the movie.
You and Annette got a Best Song Oscar nomination for “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” from A Mighty Wind. Did you think you were going to win?
Nah, we were just so thrilled about the whole prospect. We got to sit across the aisle from Elvis Costello, who was also nominated, and it was pretty cool. [A song from Lord of the Rings won.] We had dinner at the Governor’s Ball, watching all the famous people running around. As we were leaving, we saw Djimon Hounsou, who was nominated for In America, and I said, “Make way for the big fat losers!” We had a lovely night.
You did win a Grammy, though.
Yes we did, for the title song. It’s sitting on our piano.
Why were you not in Waiting for Guffman, the Guest film about theater?
I was not available. I was doing Saturday Night Live and tried to squeeze my way out of a few shows, but NBC said no. What they should have said was, “Wait 10 more shows; we’re just going to fire you anyway.” [Laughs.] Chris and I were going to write that film together, and that’s when he teamed up with Eugene Levy, which worked out well for everybody. It’s an amazing movie. I got to write some songs in Guffman.
What’s your favorite musical?
How to Succeed [in Business without Really Trying] is one of my favorites. I saw that when I was a kid, with Bobby Morse and Rudy Vallee. [A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the] Forum with Zero Mostel was probably the funniest show I’ve ever seen, although Urinetown is a close second. I thought that was a brilliantly funny show.
Are you and Annette still working on your musical?
Are you still keeping the subject matter a secret?
Yes we are. [laughs].
I assume there are parts in it for both of you.
No. Although you know what? We’re taking so long, both of us are aging into parts we could play. Five years ago, we were too young. Now? We’ll see. We have a lot of work to go, but we love what we’ve done so far.
You’ve spoken in interviews about Annette in such a romantic way, which is so sweet. [McKean and O’Toole married in 1999.]
I don’t know if it’s romantic. Romantic literally means fictional. I don’t know if the things that happened to us happened like in a novel. It was more like in a joke [laughs]. Annette and I had known each other for 20 years. She and I were good friends of Ed Begley, Jr., so we would occasionally run into each other at Ed’s house. I always thought she was gorgeous and brilliant, but we never had more than a few words of conversation. Then, all of a sudden, we were on this TV movie together in 1997 up in Portland, Oregon. Her marriage had ended, my marriage had ended, and we wound up becoming e-mail buddies. Gradually, we fell for each other and decided that this was a meant-to-be thing, and it’s turned out to be the best move of my life. I don’t know if that’s romantic or not.
How do you handle separations? She was in Canada working on Smallville for a long time.
She hasn’t done that in three years. She signed for six and did six, and then said, “I’m out of here.” They were taken aback by that. It was tough to be separated. We’re still separated—she’s finishing up a run at the Arena Stage in Washington in Quality of Life, and she’ll be here with the girls after that. Our home base is still L.A. We still have one and a half kids there, and the dog, and all of our stuff—all 3,000 books and 8,000 CDs.
You have two kids apiece?
Yes, she’s got the girls and I’ve got the boys.
Is anybody in show business?
Nell Geisslinger, Annette’s daughter, is an actress at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and my son Colin is on the stage crew and the shift crew there. Anna, the baby, who is 21, is a wonderful actress and has just recently gone back to it. And Fletcher, my younger son, is a musician. They’re all kind of peripherally in the business.
The two of you set a good example.
I hope so. We work hard, and we recommend hard work because it’s more fun that way. Olympia Dukakis was one of my teachers at NYU, and she said, “Don’t forget—the reason you wanted to do this is that it looked like fun.” And it is. If you’re not having fun, do something else!
See Michael McKean in Superior Donuts at the Music Box Theatre.