Actor George Wendt continues to make a name for himself onstage and screen, and his latest endeavor has him returning to his roots in the Midwest. Being an alumnus of Second City paid off him before eventually landing the part of Norm on the TV show Cheersand he appeared on all 275 episodes.
He's played gay several times, including a closeted role in Finding Providence and, most recently, on a TBS sitcom, Clipped, that debuted this year.
Set in 1959, Northlight Theatre's production of Funnyman now has Wendt starring as Chick Sherman, a comic who is trying to revive his career.
Windy City Times: What was your journey to being in Funnyman?
George Wendt: I couple of years ago, the director BJ Jones told me that he had commissioned the play, with Bruce Graham [as] the playwright. This is Bruce's fourth world premiere here. When the first draft was done, BJ sent it to me. I was floored and really liked it. There were more drafts and little by little it got done.
WCT: Your character, Chick, is based on a couple of real-life people?
GW: More than just two. Primarily, the two you are thinking of are Buster Keaton and Bert Lahr. There is also some Charles Laughton in there.
WCT: The character is so multilayered. How was the rehearsal process?
GW: I don't want to sound like a cliche, but so much of it was just learning the words. That took a couple of week's rehearsal then by the third week we were starting to pull some things together. The words started making some sense after that.
WCT: Celebrities still have demands like in this show.
GW: Yes, the riders still have not changed.
WCT: But, basically, many celebrities just want to be loved, like Chick.
GW: That is so sad but true.
WCT: Did you identify with the character possibly with being pigeonholed in your career?
GW: Yes, lots of things. I strive to not be an asshole like Chick Sherman is. I don't have that in common with him. People obviously remember me from Cheers playing Norm and they remember Chick as the Mad Hatter. I really relate to not being there for my kids because I was out of town working. That hit home with me and I am sure hits home with my kids, too.
WCT: Being from the South Side of Chicago, how does it feel to be in Chicago again?
GW: It is great to be home. I had some family here at tonight's show.
WCT: How was the Clipped experience?
GW: It was so much fun. God, I hope we get picked up! It was like stepping into a comfortable pair of shoes. It is a multi-cam sitcom but so raunchy! In the last few decades television has gotten way raunchier. I can't believe some of the stuff we got away with. I got to smoke a vape over by the barber chair. My boss, Dan, asks if I can take another client but to not smoke. I said something like, "If you think it's weed, then it isn't!"
WCT: What was the reaction to the [same-sex] marriage?
GW: It was phenomenal. Max Mutchnick, one of our main writers, was so proud of that. It was right when things were coming down.
WCT: What was the process of becoming Edna Turnblad in Hairspray like?
GW: Oddly, not that involved. I got to show up right at half hour. It was ludicrous when they asked to fit me for the fat suit. I asked, "Have you seen any photos of me? I don't need a fat suit." They wanted me to have a big ol' woman's booty and, of course, the breasts. That took about three minutes to get into. I just sat there in a chair and they did my hair.
If you recall from the show, Edna looks like shit the first time you see her. She is the scraggly woman with no makeup except for the huge eyebrows. I had to shave my eyebrows and draw them in at the time. Throughout the show, you get bumped up. I had a complete makeup and wardrobe change in "Welcome to the '60s." It was quite an operation, with eight dressers.
WCT: How many drinks have you been offered for free after being on Cheers?
Find the Funnyman now until Oct. 25 at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, Skokie. Tickets are at www.northlight.org and 847-673-6300 .