Wendt and next role: just Norm-al guys

May 06, 1993|By Newsday

It's almost Play Ball! time at New York's Shea Stadium. The Mets and the Dodgers are warming up on the field and George Wendt, the enduring barfly Norm in "Cheers," has emerged from the tunnel beneath the stands, prepared to toss out the first ball.

"NORM!" three women with cameras shriek for attention. Sign this baseball, this program, this ticket stub, this napkin, this wrinkled credit card carbon.

Eleven years slouched on a bar stool and he's famous -- but, hey, it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. In the Mets' locker room, million-dollar players have jostled for the chance to be photographed with Mr. Wendt. Tommy Lasorda waves from the Dodger dugout. Riders on a packed elevator in the stadium stare openly, feel compelled to tell "Norm" how much they like him. Their greetings are often accompanied by a wrist movement provoked by an imaginary beer can.

"Following in George Wendt's wake" is how the actor's fellow cast members describe traveling with him to promotions for "Wild Men," the off-Broadway play that opens today at the Westside Theater. Mr. Wendt plays Ken, an out-of-shape, beer-swilling guy whose attire for a male-bonding camping trip is exactly like the clothes he's worn to the ballgame: baggy T-shirt, tail out, and enormous white Nikes.

Yes, Mr. Wendt agrees, stooping to tie his shoelaces, beer is his beverage of choice in real life as well. "Pan beer," he says, eschewing any brand allegiance. "I've endorsed Miller in the past and I hope Miller calls again."

If this is beginning to sound like the blurring of real and make-believe lives, you're right. George and Norm and Ken have lots in common, which doesn't bother Mr. Wendt. "I was concerned that Ken was a little too close to Norm, but I thought it was a funny script so I try not to think about that," he says back in his hotel room, discussing the transition from his most famous to his most recent character. He first played Ken last summer in Chicago, on a break from shooting "Cheers."

"Lots of times people look for things to show other colors, different parts of range, but there's that other sort of philosophy about career choices -- which, believe me, I don't give a lot of thought to -- that were I to try to do Shakespeare, besides being hugely underqualified technically, of course, the fans might not like it. So if any George Wendt fans come to the show, they're probably glad it's not too far away from Norm."

The actor swigs from a huge bottle of Evian. His comments, loosely knit and self-effacing, arrive in spurts, the silences apparently not provoked by deep reflection. At one point Mr. Wendt apologizes for an inability "to crystallize it into one little sweetie for you," and he seems almost embarrassed about his enormous popularity. Discussing future film roles, he refers to himself as a "fourth- or fifth-banana type."

His becoming an actor at all seems a matter of chance. Mr. Wendt was never in so much as a grammar school play, never the class cutup, he says. "But I did love the class clowns, I was their bestaudience, I observed and stole from every one of them, I'm a compendium of them all.

"I was very unfocused," he says. "I just didn't think about it." One of the few decisions he did make, "I'm pretty sure it was in college: to make sure I didn't do something for a living that I hated. You could say that I majored in partying in college." (He was kicked out of Notre Dame and graduated from Rockhurst College in Kansas.)

While bumming around Europe for two years after college, Mr. Wendt recalled a couple of pleasant evenings spent in the

audience at Second City, the improvisational theater. "That seemed like it would be fun," he says, and so he returned to Chicago, home to the seven Wendt siblings as well as the famous theater. "I called up the box office. They sent me a flier for a workshop. I showed up, they made 85 bucks and for the first time I decided to apply myself to something."

Six years later, a minor celebrity in Chicago theatrical circles, Mr. Wendt left for Los Angeles with his wife, the actress Bernadette Birkett, whom he'd met at Second City. Two years after that, he began warming a stool at a fictitious Boston bar called Cheers. Between seasons, Mr. Wendt has done regional stage productions and films (last year's "Forever Young" with Mel Gibson) and, he points out, none of the other roles has been of a barfly.

It would have been nicer, he says, had Norm not been quite so one-dimensional. "Pretty much everybody wished that it could have been more of a challenge," he says of the show's scripts, "but not enough to want to leave such a sweet gig. The writers said it was tough to make Norm the protagonist, better to make him reactive. There was always plenty to react to."

Mr. Wendt is working with one of the "Cheers" writers to develop another sitcom for NBC. "The medium isn't as relevant as doing good work," he says of his future. "And barring good, I guess I'd do anything."

"Wild Men," his first post-"Cheers" project, was written by other Second City alums, but not necessarily with him in mind, he says. "I'm commercially viable -- or something." The show is a takeoff on the men's movement, and Ken and the other characters are on the sort of adventure made famous by Robert Bly in his book, "Iron John."

Rob Riley plays Stuart Penn, the Bly role. Peter Burns, David Lewman, Joe Liss and Mr. Wendt have signed up for his primal-search workshop weekend in the woods. Ken, however, is under the mistaken impression that "wild" has to do with carrying on in the traditional sense.

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