‘I’m 61. I’m not a guy who’s waiting for his big break,” Michael McKean says with a laugh. So maybe he’s not an above-the-title star, but it’s hard to find another actor with as varied and flat-out entertaining a résumé. A sampling: Doofus greaser Lenny on TV’s Laverne & Shirley; lead singer of one of England’s loudest bands (David St. Hubbins, in This Is Spinal Tap); acclaimed Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. “I was lucky, but I tell people I was smart, because it sounds better,” McKean says of his career. “I like to think people assume I will give them something they can’t get anywhere else. Maybe they think I’ll surprise them … It’s all what falls in your lap.” It’s a little more than that, though. As David St. Hubbins put it, “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever,” and McKean has often managed to do both at once. In a good way.
On September 16, McKean starts previews in Superior Donuts, the first new work by Tracy Letts since August: Osage County. August was the most celebrated play of 2007, an extended-family drama that won a Pulitzer and a pile of Tonys. In Donuts, McKean plays Arthur Przybyszewski (“Don’t ask me to spell it”), a slightly burned-out, occasionally self-medicating, definitely shut-down former draft dodger who runs a crummy doughnut shop in Chicago’s Uptown. “He doesn’t interact with the world a lot, and he meets this young man who drags him kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” says McKean. “Everyone’s favorite story is a redemption. It’s a lot of fun to do that eight times a week.”
With time between the end of the Chicago run and the New York previews, McKean quickly segued from one stage to many others, reuniting with fellow Spinal Tappers Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer for a six-week “Unwigged & Unplugged” tour. Few could jump so effortlessly between heavy metal and heavy dialogue, but McKean frankly doesn’t see much difference between comedy and tragedy. “The funniest actors in the world are the ones who were really good actors,” McKean says. “I’m not a clown fan—I don’t think Red Skelton was funny, though a lot of people did. I thought he was silly and broke character. It’s long been my thought that ideal comic acting is indistinguishable from any other kind, as far as approach goes.” I mention Peter Sellers, and he nods: “It’s hard to imagine anyone being better than Sellers in Being There. And, for that matter, in Lolita.” McKean adds that he’d love to see his sometime co-star Jane Lynch—“Everybody’s favorite great big tall weird blonde”—get a more complex part. “If they were remaking Rebecca? I’d cast her as Mrs. Danvers in a second!”
He and Lynch have worked together twice onscreen, in the satires Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, both directed by Guest. Fans hoping for another Guest film might have to be patient: “He’s busy with other things,” says McKean. “But he’ll be fishing one day, on the river in Idaho, and something will come to him, and he’ll start making some phone calls … He knows where to find us.”
Until that day comes, McKean and his wife, actress Annette O’Toole, are writing a musical (they co-wrote a few songs for A Mighty Wind, one of them Oscar-nominated). “It’s an idea I don’t want to get scooped on,” he says. “I will say that it takes place in the twentieth century.” Which rules out Saucy Jack, the Jack the Ripper musical Spinal Tap threatened to produce. Such a fine line.