You still may not be sure how to pronounce, let alone spell, his last name, but thanks to such movie blockbusters as "The Hangover" and its recent sequel, along with very successful guest appearances on "Saturday Night Live," you probably know the bearded, cherubic face of Zach Galifianakis.
One place you may not know him from, however, is "Bored to Death," the smart, quirky and critically acclaimed HBO sitcom that begins its third season on Monday, Oct. 10. Despite consistently funny scripts and a cast that includes Galifianakis (pronounced "gal-i-feh-NACK-iss," by the way), indie film staple Jason Schwartzman and sitcom favorite Ted Danson, the series so far has achieved only "cult hit" status.
" 'Bored to Death'? That's a show, isn't it? On Cinemax?" Galifianakis jokes as he calls from his farm in his native North Carolina.
This third season may finally attract more attention, thanks to one multiepisode story arc in which Galifianakis' character, cranky cartoonist Ray Hueston, embarks on a torrid affair with a much older woman played by 80-year-old Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis.
"Poor Olympia," Galifianakis says, laughing. "That story line is something I really don't know if I have seen on television, and it is exciting to explore, as they call it in the script, 'elder love.' Olympia actually is a little too young for me, but she'll do. It's just kind of interesting to be making out with such a Greek goddess."
That's only the latest offbeat zigzag, however, in the 42-year-old actor's career, which started when he abandoned his communications studies at North Carolina State University just before earning his degree, following what he terms "a bit of a nervous breakdown," and headed to New York.
"I knew I didn't want to get stuck in a 9-to-5 job," he explains. "That was part of it. I knew I just wasn't wired for that. I knew that I wanted to make people laugh from a very young age. When I went to New York, it was all about trying to figure out how to do that. It wasn't glorious at all -- romantic, yes, but not glorious. There were some sad nights; let's put it that way."
Galifianakis signed up for an acting class, but he had a hard time connecting with the earnestness and intensity with which his classmates were studying their craft, he says.
"I had a hard time keeping a straight face, because everyone always seemed so dramatic, and they were crying a lot," he recalls. "That just wasn't very satisfying for me."
A friend suggested that he give stand-up comedy a try, and after performing in the back of a hamburger restaurant, he had what he calls "one of those great 'Aha!' moments" and knew he had found a career niche.
"For me it was just about performing as much as anything else, and if acting came out of that, fine," he explains. "But I really was interested just in getting an emotional response out of an audience. Eventually I started getting auditions for various things here and there, so the comedy was kind of a steppingstone, but I didn't really have a plan."
Galifianakis landed his first TV role in 1996 as Bobby, a stoner, in the NBC sitcom "Boston Common," and as he built his off-the-wall observational stand-up career in comedy clubs, he began to book supporting roles in films such as "Into the Wild" and "Up in the Air." In 2009, however, he became a full-fledged movie star in "The Hangover," for which he won an MTV Movie Award for best comedic performance. That megahit led in turn to his recent co-starring gig with Robert Downey Jr. in the buddy comedy "Due Date" and the sweet dramedy "It's Kind of a Funny Story," in which Galifianakis played a mental patient who befriends an emotionally fragile teen.
All this success also led to something the actor never really had pursued: celebrity. He admits that having complete strangers come up to him as if he is an old friend is still kind of unsettling to him.
"It's definitely an asymmetrical relationship, and you have to keep that in mind," he says. "They know you, but you clearly have no idea why they want to hug you. That part of it is weird. It's just weird. I don't honestly think about it that much (when I go out), and some days it's fine, and some days it's heavy."
He does wish, however, that his own father would stop congratulating him on finally "making it," because as far as Galifianakis is concerned, he made it to a very satisfying level several years ago.
"I say, 'Dad, what are you talking about? I bought you a used convertible years ago!' " Galifianakis says. "I honestly don't understand this 'keeping up with the Joneses' mentality. The fame and fortune thing can become a bit more daunting than people realize. It's like if you win the lottery and it gets publicized. Suddenly you're getting a lot of calls from second cousins you haven't heard from in a long time.
"The notion of being a superstar or whatever never was part of the idea. I wasn't into that, and I'm still not into that. Frankly, it's a bit of a burden, although I know people don't understand that. If I had been interested in that, I would have changed my last name, and there were people who were trying to talk me into that. But I miss the days of just playing those rock and roll clubs and no one really caring who you are."
When it all gets to be a bit much, Galifianakis has a secret strategy that always seems to work: He just shaves off the beard that recently got him inducted by popular vote into the IFC Whisker Wars Hall of Fame.
"Right after we finished 'Bored to Death,' I shaved my beard completely off," he says. "I happened to be flying to California the next day and I found myself standing next to Ted Danson, whom I had just been working with every day for three months. I said, 'Hi, Ted,' and he just stared at me. Finally, I said, 'Ted, it's Zach.' He didn't recognize me without my beard. So that's really all I have to do, and no one bugs me. It's like the greatest thing in the world. When I shave, I do look like somebody's fat great-aunt, but my own mom wouldn't even recognize me."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times