In over two decades on the Great White Way, Michael McKean had never missed a performance—but in 2012, on his way to perform in The Best Man on Broadway, the stage and screen star was struck by two cars, sending him to the hospital in critical condition. Now, the Laverne and Shirley, This Is Spinal Tap, Best in Show and SNL funnyman is back with a vengeance in a new dramatic role, playing FBI director J. Edgar Hoover opposite Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way. Below, McKean chats with Broadway.com about returning to Broadway after his accident, sharing the stage with Walter White—err, Bryan Cranston—and his thoughts on a Best In Show musical.
This is your second political play on Broadway in a row—what about All the Way hooked you?
I was in Ashland, Oregon—my daughter [Nell Geisslinger] is an actress up there—so we were up there seeing some shows, and this play about LBJ sounded interesting to me, it was called All the Way. The very next day, [producer] Jeffrey Richards called me and said, “Hey, I hear you’re up in Ashland, why don’t you see this play called All the Way?” I said, “Well, I already saw it!” So a couple of months went by and he called me again, and he said, “Well, we’re gonna do the play, and do you want to play Hoover?”
This is a juicy role—how did you approach embodying J. Edgar Hoover?
A lot of characters in this play, online, you can find them speaking extemporaneously, but you can’t find that with Hoover because he never did anything that wasn’t rigidly prepared. He was a stammerer when he was a kid, so I think his control of his image became very important to him. So I did some research on his life and tried to get a feel for what the guy is like inside. In this case, it’s a very simple action in this play, just to destroy Martin Luther King. He felt that King was a communist, and an organized black revolution could be the kind of trouble that he couldn’t address. He had a pretty good-sized ego and he thought he could defeat world communism. He was afraid of anything he couldn’t control.
It’s so wonderful to see you back on Broadway after your accident—how are you feeling?
Oh, I’m fine. I broke my leg, and I’m really lucky that that’s all that happened. I did some physical therapy in Los Angeles and I encountered people who are in much worse shape than me. I was up on the stage about six months after it happened, so I’m very lucky.
Do you remember the incident?
Yes, I was standing on the curb and that controversial yellow light came up and one woman decided she wanted to make a left at exactly the same moment that a guy thought he was gonna charge through the yellow light, and they collided and double-teamed me. I’d love for there to be a cautionary tale, but you can’t tell people not to stand on the corner and wait to cross, ‘cause that’s what you’re supposed to do! [Laughs.]
Has it changed the way that you walk around the city?
No. My wife, [actress Annette O’Toole] won’t use that corner now. If we’re walking together and we get to that corner, she says, "No, let’s go down and cross over here." I say, “Well, the corner isn’t what hit me.”
How cool is it to be working with Bryan Cranston, who is at the height of fame right now—
You don’t know that! He could get even more famous. [Laughs.]
Touché! How does having this superstar in the cast change the experience?
I’m a big Breaking Bad fan, and the guy’s incredible, but it’s turned out to be more than that. He’s transformative. This is a guy who finds whatever there is to be found and he makes strong choices. He’s right on the money. Bryan’s star is very bright, but his LBJ is brighter. It’s active and it’s a real guy and he’s just doing a magnificent portrayal.
Would you ever want to star in another Broadway musical? You really hit the ground running with Hairspray.
Hairspray was a lot of fun to learn—but a year and a half later I was back with The Pajama Game and that was hard. I had two big spotlight dances but also all the choral dances and everything. Getting into that stuff, at the time I was 58, and it’s like, enough is enough. There are parts I’d love to play, but I don’t think it would be on Broadway. But you never know!
Speaking for theater fans everywhere, why hasn't Waiting For Guffman [which McKean contributed lyrics to] become a musical?
Chris [Guest] and Eugene [Levy] looked at it—there are people who want to do Best in Show and Spinal Tap as musicals… The main problem, I think, in adapting any of these for the stage is these films were created improvisationally and because they were documentary-style, the viewer was essentially a character. I don’t think that works the same way on stage. Plus, Guffman’s got some great songs in it, but you can’t do a musical with only five songs.
After two political roles on Broadway, would you ever want to run for office?
Never! Never! I can’t imagine a worse life. I have my own superpowers. I don’t need someone to elect me to have power over other people. It’s awful just to have your life turned upside down and shaken loose. It’s just crazy. I don’t need that House of Cards thing. I love watching, but I ain’t gonna be in it!
See McKean in All the Way, opening March 6 at the Neil Simon Theatre.