You’re performing here in Re-Animator: The Musical, as you did in the original 2011 Los Angeles production. It’s campy and gory—the first few rows can expect blood splatter. Some of it is yours, isn’t it?
The [cult 1985] movie is fun, but this is even more fun. I play the dean of the medical school, and in the second act, it happens right there onstage: I get torn to pieces and reanimated as a zombie. Then I’m lobotomized under the control of Dr. Carl Hill, who has been beheaded, so he needs a body. So he’s walking around carrying a head the whole act. It’s about 90 percent sung through, very little dialogue.
Looking back: Before you received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Jesuit Rockhurst College, you were expelled from the University of Notre Dame for earning —is this true—a 0.00 GPA?
That actually wasn’t my cumulative. I was rockin’ a solid 2.0. But my first semester of my junior year, I moved off campus and didn’t think it through. It was winter, I had no way to get to campus, I didn’t have a car. Consequently, I cut a lot of classes and didn’t go to exams. I had one of those burnout moments. It might have been a separation thing, consciously or subconsciously, from my dad. If I had any courage, I would have done something significant like burn a draft card. I took the passive-aggressive route and flunked out of my dad’s alma mater.
Your showbiz roots are as an improv comedian with The Second City in Chicago, where you’re from. So your academic comeback in economics didn’t take?
I was a clueless young man, frankly. An idiot. But does anyone actually major in what they’re going to do? I thought I would try something I didn’t hate, and the only thing I could think of was The Second City. It looked like young men and women goofing up on stage. So when money ran out when I was backpacking in Europe, I called the box office and inquired about the workshops. I was completely green. I had no theater background in high school or college or community theater. I walked in cold to The Second City workshops in 1973, and for the first time in my life, I applied myself to something.
You’re known as a comic actor, but are you still most comfortable doing improvisation?
I kind of lost touch with improv. That’s hard to do when all my best friends, including my wife [actress Bernadette Birkett, who played the voice of Vera, Norm’s never-seen wife in Cheers], do it on a regular basis and they love it. But I got so spoiled by having tremendous writers on Cheers that I hung up my improv shoes until quite recently. We did a comedy festival in Ireland and I went with a bunch of old Second City people, and it was great. It’s scary as heck, kind of like skydiving. It’s the apprehension that’s killing you in the plane on the way up—although I’ve never skydived.
Regale us with memories of your Cheers audition.
There was only one word in my audition: “Beer.” I was to be Shelley Long’s first customer in the pilot where she goes into one of her five-paragraph things: “Hi, my name is Diane, I’ll be your waitress, well, I’m not really a waitress, I’m an academic,” and she recaps the whole story. And she says, “I’m sorry, I should take your order, what can I get you?” And I say, “Beer.” So the casting director, the late Stephen Kolzak, said to me, “There’s really not enough here to audition with—one word, one syllable,” so he gave me this other role on the spot, this guy who was just going to have one more and not gonna leave. I did it cold, and it worked out. His name was originally George, but they changed it to Norm.
You won a much better role than you hoped for? Pretty lucky.
But six months ago we were doing a Q&A, an evening with [Cheers creators] Glen and Les Charles [both raised in Henderson] and Jim Burrows at UC Santa Barbara, and they had me as a surprise guest halfway through the program. I’m just watching in the wings ’cause I love the boys and they were asked, “Did you have anybody in mind with casting?” And they said, “Oh, we had so much problems, so many combinations of [actors] for Sam and Diane, but we had Rhea Perlman in mind for Carla, and George.” And I’m like, “What?” I’m kind of glad I didn’t know because I would have shot myself in the foot and tanked it. They had written an episode of Taxi where I was an exterminator who came to kill Louie’s (Danny DeVito) cockroach. I guess I scored in their heads.
Name your favorite Norm-isms.
It’s like “Stairway to Heaven”—it’s a great song but everyone’s sick of it. The gold standard would seem to be, “It’s a dog-eat-dog world and I’m wearing Milk-Bone underwear.” That seems to be the universally most loved, and I can’t disagree. But there’s under-the-radar ones, like:
“What’s shakin’, Norm?”
“All four cheeks and a couple of chins.”
“Sure, Coach, but stop me at one.” Then I glance at my watch and go, “Make that 1:30.”
Does anyone yell Norm! when you walk onstage?
It’s happened. Thankfully, not that much.
Would you want to do a sitcom again?
Indeed. I am doing a sitcom again. It’s a new show on TBS called Buzzy’s [from Will & Grace creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick]. It’s a workplace ensemble comedy in a barber shop/hair salon, and I’m the geezer, I’m Buzzy. I think we’ll be on in the summertime.
Is there a typecasting downside to playing an iconic TV character?
I’m very happy for it. I don’t hear about the [roles] that got away [because of it]. When I do get cast in things, it’s usually not [as] an out-of-work accountant who sits at a bar, but there’s probably big movies that won’t consider me because of my association with Norm. That hasn’t stopped people like Woody [Harrelson] or John Goodman, who was Dan Conner [on Roseanne] as long as I was Norm. But they’re more talented guys.
Re-Animator: The Musical
Through Jan. 18, Troesh Studio Theater, $44, 702-930-8113, TheSmithCenter.com