On a Wednesday night one year ago, John Stamos stood alone before a Broadway audience at the final preview of a revival of Bye Bye Birdie. A set glitch had literally stopped the show just before Stamos—in a skinny, shiny Mad Men suit as Albert Peterson—was set to perform “Put On a Happy Face.” Instead, he called to a few famous friends in the audience, Don Rickles and Bob Saget, to engage in a little dirty banter to pass the time. Rickles, claiming old age, stayed in his seat, but Saget clambered onstage, injuring his knee in the process, and joked with Stamos about the logistics of speaking into Stamos’s head mike (“I’m really glad your crotch is not miked”).
It was a telling moment for those in the audience who had essentially written off Stamos as a TV has-been—that guy from the sitcom Full House, or that guy who was once married to Rebecca Romijn. He was looser than either of the professional comedians he’d called upon, turning what could have been a painful moment for the production into a painfully funny twenty minutes.
The reviews the next day of Stamos’s impromptu emcee performance would be the best the quick-to-close show received. “I was heartbroken,” says Stamos. “I worked harder on Birdie than anything I’ve worked on. And then it becomes a failure. It could’ve been great and it wasn’t, that’s the truth. Many times I sat around thinking, ‘Why, in the scheme of things, did I do it?’ And it probably got me Glee.”
Before Stamos landed a recurring role on Glee—as Dr. Carl Howell, a dentist wooing guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury—he was one of the show’s punch lines. In the third episode of the first season, Emma says to glee-club teacher Will Schuester, “They say it takes more certainty than talent to be a star. I mean, look at John Stamos.” The subject of the dig “was pissed. People tweeted, ‘Oooooh, they just dissed you on Glee!’ ” says Stamos, who called the head of Fox TV: “What did I ever do to you? Are you guys crazy? Say anything you want about me, but don’t say I have no talent!’ ” Brad Falchuk, one of Glee’s three head writers, regrets the line now. “If I had known John then, we never would have used it. We needed someone iconic to use in that joke, and John seemed like the perfect mix of a guy who could take it.” When Falchuk finally met Stamos, the opposite was true. The actor had plenty of talent; what he lacked was the sort of confident swagger he’d expected from a career celebrity. “It’s surprising, when you talk to him,” Falchuk says. “He’s vulnerable without being neurotic. He’s very endearing.”
“I know those guys with such bravado, and I wish I could be like them,” says Stamos. “I’m not the guy who bursts into the room. I’m the most insecure person you’ll meet if you get to know me.” On the other hand, he is pretty clear about how he’s perceived. “He knows he’s famous,” says Falchuk, “but he also knows what kind of famous he is.”
For those who grew up watching Full House, Stamos as teen-idol-hot Uncle Jesse—even at the actor’s advanced age of 47—is hard to shake. (The 1987–1995 comedy starred Saget as his brother-in-law; the Olsen twins alternately played one of his nieces.) But he’s had a pretty full career since, with the exception of one fallow period after the sitcom ended. He can sing and dance well enough that he took over lead roles in Broadway productions of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Nine, and Cabaret before Birdie; notable TV parts have included a three-season stint on ER and an appearance as a self-satisfied, Ping-Pong-playing version of himself on Entourage. (The Ping-Ponging, he quickly points out, was CGI’d, though “even faking it I hurt my elbow.”) Stamos’s career, says Saget, is like “chipping away at a statue. One day people go, ‘Oh, that’s a really good statue.’ ”
With Carl, the real Stamos has found a role that allows him to send up the public Stamos. “I’ve been hired to play charming guys before,” he says, “but Carl’s kind of a wannabe of all that. He’s naturally likable, but he wants to be cooler than he is.” Two of Glee’s co-creators, Ryan Murphy and Falchuk, came to Stamos on separate paths that happened to meet. Murphy is a longtime friend; he proposed what would have been Stamos’s first post–Full House job. “It would’ve been like Charlie’s Angels, but with three male hookers,” Stamos says. “And we’d go around fixing marriages. Nowadays that sounds like an interesting cable show. Back then I was like, ‘Get the fuck out of here!’ And Ryan still wants to do the show, by the way.”
Falchuk’s introduction was more indirect; he heard Stamos on Howard Stern’s radio show this summer. “Howard has a way of needling people to get the most real out of them,” he says. “And he was just being awful to John. But it was entertaining to hear someone who was getting beat up but was still there and coming back for more. They were like two yentas, being so petty, and I was like, ‘This is the best.’ ” It should be noted that Stern and Stamos are friends. (Stamos is clearly a fan of barbed comedy. In addition to Rickles and Saget, he’s also good friends with South Park’s Matt Stone.)
The first Glee scene Stamos shot gave him a taste of what was to come. “I don’t think it was even in the script,” he says of the moment cast member Heather Morris, in a see-through bodysuit, writhed on his lap as he reclined in Carl’s dentist chair (for the “I’m a Slave 4 U” sequence of the Britney Spears episode). “In my mind I thought it would be one flash,” Stamos says. “And all of a sudden I felt like I was in a strip club. It was like, ‘Okay, I’m on Glee now.’ ” For his own musical number, in the upcoming, much-ballyhooed Rocky Horror episode, he’ll burst through a wall on a motorcycle to sing Meat Loaf’s “Whatever Happened to Saturday Night.” He was relieved to learn he would not be performing alone: “I kind of use Emma as a lady prop.”
Stamos echoes even fans of Glee in “wondering if the show’s too much sometimes. On the other hand, it’s working,” he says, adding “I guess you have to be careful what you say, but I’m not.” Stamos laughs, and for a split second, he sounds like a guy who might burst into a room. Then he’s back to himself, earnest, a little worried. “So what did people think of last week’s episode? Did they think it was too much?”