WHEN YOU PLAY Everyman before an audience of 50 millio every week, it can be hard to get a director to see you in the role of a particular man.
That is the curse that goes along with the blessing of being on a hit TV show. When the character you play has a familiarity that makes him seem like someone everybody knows, then his image can accompany your every waking moment.
Such is the case with George Wendt. Every week on "Cheers," he is Norm Peterson, the inertia-laden resident of the corner stool at this Boston bar. Every time Norm enters Cheers, the cast and extras -- and the studio audience for that matter -- call out, "Hey, Norm!" Every time Wendt enters a room full of strangers, virtually the same thing happens.
It is a fact that accompanies Wendt when he reads for movie roles. So, when he was up for the part of the best friend of the lead character in the very serious "Guilty By Suspicion," he didn't think he had much of a chance.
"My agent and I were laughing about it on the way over to the meeting," Wendt said recently. "I figured the only way I was going to get the part was to nail it so perfectly that they couldn't imagine anyone else playing it."
Wendt must have done exactly that because he's in "Guilty By Suspicion," which opens tomorrow at area theaters. He plays screenwriter Bunny Baxter, best friend to Robert DeNiro's David Merrill, a director, as both get caught up in the McCarthy-era days of Hollywood blacklisting.
"It was great," Wendt said of playing someone so far removed from Norm. "It was really different, big emotional scenes, crying, stuff like that."
The role in the movie, which marks the directorial debut of veteran producer Irwin Winkler, is clearly a potential breakthrough for the 42-year-old Wendt. It holds the possibility of being accepted as an actor who can play someone other than Norm.
Two years ago, he went to Russia during his break from "Cheers" and filmed "Oblomov," the story of a slovenly bureaucrat who stays in bed but keeps rising in the system. That was for the BBC and it has yet to be shown in this country. And for the past several summers, he's been a regular at the Williamstown (Mass.) Theater Festival. But otherwise, his film work has been in comedies that enhance, rather than clash with, his image as Norm.
Eventually, Wendt learned that he wasn't battling that image as much as he thought when he read for "Guilty By Suspicion."
"Winkler and I were going through some racks of clothes talking about the character's wardrobe when he asked, 'What do you wear on that show? A mailman's uniform?'" Winkler had Norm confused with another Cheers regular, Cliff Clavin.
"He wanted to make sure that I looked different in the movie. I told him I just wore a sport coat and tie, so I wear a lot of sweaters in this. You hang around with these movie guys, you realize they don't watch any television."
Still, Norm followed him onto the movie. "On one of the first days of filming we were at Union Station," he said, referring to Los Angeles' train station. "These commuters are getting off the train and they're all going, 'Hey, Norm!'
"I'm going over there telling them, 'Shhh. Be quiet. They don't know who they hired.' But they kept it up. Finally I said, 'Shut up, please. They think they've hired John Goodman.'"
This is not to say that Wendt is some stage-trained artiste who has labored under a vulgar weight as a result of "Cheers'" popularity. Indeed, Wendt came to acting in a decidedly Norm-like way.
The Chicago native went from a Jesuit prep school to Notre Dame, following the accepted path until he racked up a 0.00 grade point average his junior year. "That's not hard to do if you don't go to any classes, take any exams or bother to drop any courses," Wendt explained.
He ended up graduating from Rockhurst College, a small Jesuit institution in Kansas City, Mo., in 1971. Taking a then-popular method of putting off making any grown-up decisions, he headed for Europe, bumming around that continent and northern Africa on and off for the next two years.
"I knew that I didn't want to do something that I hated," Wendt said. "It was a process of elimination. Salesman? No. Doctor? No. Lawyer? No. Acting sounded pretty good."
Though he had never acted in high school or college, he signed up for a workshop at Second City, the Chicago improvisational comedy troupe that spawned John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Martin Short and a host of others. One of his classmates was a young local television executive named Brandon Tartikoff, who eventually became president of NBC Entertainment, something that helped when Wendt's name came up in casting sessions for the NBC series.