BWW Interview: MUCH ADO's John Pankow, From Shakespeare to Sitcoms & Back Again
Much Ado About Nothing, the Public Theater's free Shakespeare in the Park production now in previews, is the fifth appearance on the Delacorte stage for John Pankow, who plays bumbling policeman Dogberry. Pankow's history with Shakespeare in the Park goes all the way back to 1984, when he shared a scene in his role as a soldier with Kevin Kline in Henry V. Since then, however, he's been playing it for laughs: Speed in Two Gentlemen of Verona (1987), Stephano in The Tempest (1995), Lucio in Measure for Measure (2001).
Though Pankow is best known for a comic role on screen--Ira Buchman, the wiseacre cousin of Paul Reiser's character on the long-running sitcom Mad About You--his stage credits both before and after his Hollywood stardom are extensive. In recent years Pankow was seen off-Broadway in Christopher Durang's Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them at the Public, Equivocation at Manhattan Theatre Club, a David Mamet double bill at Atlantic, and Kenneth Lonergan's Medieval Play at Signature Theatre. And now he's back on television, as soulless movie executive Merc Lapidus on Showtime's comedy Episodes, which returns for its fourth season next year. Pankow has had a very successful personal life, too: He's been married for almost 30 years to actress Kristine Sutherland, and they have a daughter, Eleanore.
BWW spoke with Pankow the day of the first preview for Much Ado About Nothing, which officially opens June 16 and is scheduled to run through July 6 at the Delacorte in Central Park.
How does it feel being back at the Delacorte?
It's one of the great venues. It's an event: You stand in line, you have a picnic... There's a festive aspect that's built into it because it's in the park. It's beautiful, with the Belvedere Castle in the background, and in this case, we have the extraordinary John Lee Beatty doing the sets. There's a magical aspect to it. It's a lot of people, 1,900, but it has this very intimate feel to it. For actors it's a great joy to get that much energy back from such a large crowd. And it's not like anything else in New York, either. Playing outdoors has a whole different feel to it. It's just fun. I don't know many actors in town who have done it who aren't mad for it. It's always been a gorgeous experience.
I was once seeing a play there and a raccoon walked on stage in the middle of the scene. Have you encountered anything like that?
Those critters are all over the place! The raccoons are famous. I've never been on stage when one's come on stage, thank god--'cause, you know, good luck competing with a raccoon, they're not gonna be watching the actors. But that's it: You don't know what's going to happen. There's helicopters that fly over, there are swarms of insects, there's rain. You're dealing with the elements, and there's fun to be had in terms of all those obstacles coming your way.
Dogberry is not the first Shakespearean fool you've played in the park. How does he compare to the others?
They're cut from a similar cloth in that they provide some sort of comic element, but there's certainly some pretty distinct differences. Stephano, a flat-out drunk, in Tempest. Lucio, just a smooth-talking kind of wise guy. Speed, a bundle of riddles that you have to unravel for the audience. This guy in Much Ado is Mr. Malaprop. He just cannot get the words right; his vocabulary is upside down. But there's an earnestness and a kind of zeal about him.
Would you like to do some serious Shakespeare?
I did Pisanio in Cymbeline at Lincoln Center. It was a very gratifying experience, because I've done many, many serious parts in non-Shakespeare plays. A downside of doing enough clowns is people go, "Oh, that's what you do." It's exacerbated by the fact that I've done a couple of sitcoms. People start to see you a certain way--it's one of the things actors contend with.
When I first came to the city, I did tons of plays from the U.K. I did three Caryl Churchill plays, I did Amadeus by Peter Shaffer, I did Brian Friel's Aristocrats, I did Henry V with Kevin Kline--that was my first [at the Delacorte]. I started to get pigeonholed as this guy who only did plays from the U.K. Then I was blessed enough to land a television show, and that changed things. Suddenly it was, "Oh, this is the guy who does New York street comedy." For 14 years I did nothing but plays and the occasional movie; it was amazing to me how six years on a television series changed the paradigm--bang! I was battling a whole other set of prejudices. It's just a fact of the business.
That said, I knock wood every day of my life for the career I've had. I'm on a 35-year run without having to do anything but act. No one is more grateful than I. The cup is not half full; it's overflowing. It's a great life, and I don't take it for granted.
Shakespeare, sitcoms...where did you think you were headed when you were training to be an actor?
I went to this small university in Chicago called Northeastern Illinois University--which, looking back, was, fortuitous for me, entirely steeped in language. It was a complete language-based program. Most of the professors were from Northwestern: Frank Galati, that chamber-theater thing, we did intepretation of poetry, intepretation of prose, dramatic literature. I have just always loved language as a result. It really put me in a very good stead. I've always adored doing Shakespeare.
I left in the middle of my junior year because I saw this play--at a then-exploding theater called the St. Nicholas, just starting out--I saw this production of a play called American Buffalo, by this unknown playwright, David Mamet. William H. Macy was playing Bobby, the juvenile. I saw in the program that they had a two-year professional training program, and I jumped on it. I auditioned, got in. That was Meisner-based, which was all about listening and the behavior, not language-based at all. So a lot of peers of mine who trained at St. Nicholas would have been intimidated by doing Shakespeare. The second play I did professionally was Taming of the Shrew.
Why'd you leave New York for L.A. when you were working regularly in theater here?
When we had a daughter, I thought: If I want to educate my child and I want to make a living, I'd better get myself into some television--because theater is more a hobby at the end of the day, sadly. It's very difficult to cobble together a living doing just plays, so you have to supplement it. At the time that was the place to do [TV]. It's all changed. Now there's arguably as much, if not more, television production here than there. That was not the case in the early '90s.
But you didn't want to stay once the show went off the air?
We never really looked at it as home. We looked at L.A. as, like, you go out there, you've got your little pan of gold, you're shaking it, shaking it--here's a nugget--shaking it, shaking it--here's a nugget. You get enough nuggets, you come back home.
We were the freaks, my wife and I. I was out there on a television show, she would up getting on a television show as well [Buffy the Vampire Slayer], and people kept saying to us, "Why don't you buy a house here?" We only rented out there. We bought our apartment here, like, nine years before we returned. We were always here for the summers, for the holidays, for our daughter's spring break. We went and lived in Italy for a year when Mad About You ended, then came back and let our daughter finish eighth grade [in L.A.], came back here in 2004 and have been home ever since.
Listen, I had a ball doing it. It's fun to be in a place where you're working. I'm not one of these people who hates L.A. But absolutely New York is the place for us. It feels much more like home; it's what we're used to.
And now you're satirizing the whole L.A. scene on Episodes.
I think the Merc character is based on some very specific guys that [series creators] David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik have encountered in their journey through show business. I've never really queried them to who specifically it is, but I'm sure the impulse to write it was to be able to exorcise the demons, as it were. And have fun doing it. It's certainly not far off from stuff one sees in Hollywood, I would say that. L.A. is this seemingly beautiful, placid, tranquil place, but it's deadly. Underneath all that, it's very competitive, very aggressive, there's a great deal of naked ambition to contend with. It's not necessarily a bad thing--it just is what it is. Life anywhere you are is not easy--it's beautiful and it's tough. That's just what it is like in L.A., and that's what these guys are tapping into, in a very funny way. I just got the first three scripts for Season 4. It's not often that I read scripts and I belly-laugh. They go to some crazy places, and they kind of crash down the walls of political correctness a lot. We're going to start shooting at the end of July.
Does your daughter want to act?
Oh, no, not at all. She thinks we're kind of cracked down the middle, frankly. "Why would you want to stand in the light while people sit in the dark and watch you?" It doesn't make much sense to her. But she enjoys going to the theater. She's grown up around actors, she loves actors, but it's the last thing she'd want to do.
Why'd you decide to live in Italy for a while?
My wife and I were both real Italophiles. We would go there every year, and then we had very dear friends who relocated there from New York City. We went to visit them, and talked about renting there. Then we got an email that there was a house for sale. We kind of had a dual midlife crisis and bought this house--without much thought. A tiny, little house in the country, in Umbria. So we just dove in and went there for a year. We've established a great life there. We have wonderful friends there, we still have the house, and we spend a good deal of time there.
Do you speak Italian now?
Yes. I am the Italian coach for Much Ado About Nothing! The play is set in Messina, Sicily, so you'll hear me jabbering in Italian. We have many, many meals and evenings in Italy where there's no English spoken, because nobody speaks English where we are. And it's a joy. We came to it late in life, but it's such a wonderful key into another culture if you have that access.
So is Much Ado representing Italy well?
[Director] Jack O'Brien and John Lee Beatty and the great Jane Greenwood, who's done the costumes--they've created such a beautiful world. The music in this play, and the dancing...which is very much a part of the Italian thing. If you spend any time in Italy, which obviously I have, that's huge. I've been to many sagras, which are these local community-held festivals. There's always music and always dancing, and what's so gorgeous about it is there's little kids everywhere and there's grandparents everywhere and everybody's comfortable. It's, like, things that you only find at a wedding in America, where everybody's together and having a good time, it's multigenerational, everybody celebrates being together.
I did a movie in Italy, long before we bought the house. It was shot on location, and Eleanore went from three to six months in Rome. This was the greatest job in the world, although the movie was not great--but it's truly not important what movie it was. I would do Porky's 6 in Rome! A remarkable thing happened: We're sitting with Eleanore outside a gelateria, these boys come by--five, six teenage boys, all in jeans. They're coming down the street, they see Eleanore and stop. She's, like, five months old. One of them picks her up, and they pass her from boy to boy to boy, and they're cooing over her and kissing her. Imagine this happening in the United States. You'd never see it. Kids would never--even if they had the impulse, they'd stifle it. It's much less segregated generationally. There's a huge amount of respect shown to the elderly, a huge amount of repsect show to children. Kids don't eschew being with their grandparents, they love having babies around. That's the world we're going for in Much Ado About Nothing land.
Production photos, top to bottom: Pankow (right) with Matt Bittner in Much Ado About Nothing; Bill Irwin (left), Teagle F. Bougere and Pankow in 1995's The Tempest; Pankow with Daniel G. Pino in Measure for Measure, 2001; Matt LeBlanc and Pankow on the Showtime series Episodes. [Much Ado photo by Joan Marcus]