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By ERIC GRODE
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
"Actors play actions, and my actions are very clear in this. There's this guy that I've hitched my star to, and my job is to keep him on track."
Michael McKean is talking about Dick Jensen, the campaign manager he plays in the star-studded revival of Gore Vidal's political potboiler The Best Man, which opens April 1 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. What makes the 1960 play feel antiquated, in the best possible way, is that in this case, keeping a candidate "on track" can mean "keeping him moral" instead of just pulling his puppet strings.
After all, Jensen's guy, William Russell (John Larroquette), is faced with an ethical conundrum when he comes into possession of sordid personal information that could torpedo his main competitor, a flashy young climber named Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack). Jensen, an East Coast professor who is new to the sharp-elbowed world of politics, guides Russell through the deadlocked presidential convention.
McKean, 64, says current politicians were of limited use as he fleshed out his character "Karl Rove is the most famous campaign manager today, and he was no help at all in putting this character together. I based my character on the invisible people in the campaign."
He continues, "I'm not the career politician type," once again referring to his Best Man character in the first person. "If this doesn't work out, I'll go back to teaching." The implication is that the play's other characters also could benefit from cultivating a life outside of politics.
McKean, a longtime fixture of television (Laverne and Shirley, the oldest person ever to join Saturday Night Live) and film (This Is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind), has become an equally familiar face on the New York stage. The last decade has seen him take replacement roles in Hairspray and Our Town, key supporting parts in The Homecoming and The Pajama Game, the lead in Superior Donuts, and even his first Shakespeare in more than 40 years (King Lear opposite Sam Waterston at the Public).
Along the way, McKean has worked four times with the prolific producer Jeffrey Richards. It was that connection that sold McKean on signing on for the relatively small role of Dick Jensen. "This is just Jeffrey Richards calling me and saying, 'Listen, I've got James Earl Jones …'---and he could've stopped right there---'… Angela Lansbury, John Larroquette, Candy Bergen. …' The answer can only be yes. It's a no-brainer."
Vidal and the director, Michael Wilson, ultimately decided not to update the text, and McKean says references to talk show host Jack Paar and journalist Joseph Alsop haven't thrown audiences. On the contrary.
"Listen, I'm in favor of dumb-ass entertainment as much as anyone you'll meet," says McKean, a million-dollar Celebrity Jeopardy! winner who is still probably best known as half of the TV duo Lenny and Squiggy. "But it's nice to be part of something that keeps the audience thinking and on its feet. We really like the story we're telling."
Eric Grode is the author of the “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press).