Dana Carvey, who makes his film debut in “Opportunity Knocks,” is being interviewed as a movie star, not as a member of the comic ensemble of “Saturday Night Live.” But old habits are hard to break. You ask him if he plans to leave the venerable late-night show in pursuit of a Hollywood career, and suddenly George Bush is answering.
“Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.”
And how does he feel audiences will react to his character in “Opportunity Knocks”? The voice that answers belongs to Garth, Carvey’s “nerdy surfer dude and loyal sidekick” in the new SNL segment, “Wayne’s World.”
“Excellent! He shoots! He scores!” says Carvey/Garth.
Between unprompted mini-skits, the impish-looking Carvey will tell you that he is, in fact, marveling at his success. “When I first started out, I just copied Dan Aykroyd’s imitation of (Jimmy) Carter in my stand-up, and now--13 years later--to be the guy doing Bush is cool,” he says.
Carvey jumps up suddenly to show off an official-looking piece of stationery that is engraved simply: “The President.” The message reads: “John, Have now seen both ‘Saturday Night Live’ tapes. The guy is improving on his entertainment ‘thing.’ GB”
It’s a note, he explains, from the president to his nephew that somehow made its way into Carvey’s hands.
The boy next door re-surfaces: “That’s kinda neat, huh?”
It seems a lot of people think Carvey is pretty neat, too.
The telephone at his Encino home never seems to stop ringing, with requests for his zany presence on such shows as “Today,” where he made an appearance Tuesday, and “The Tonight Show,” where he showed up Thursday. But it wasn’t always this way for the “Saturday Night Live” star.
“I was just dismissed a lot,’ Carvey said. “I looked so innocent and boyish that no one thought of casting me as a comedian.” He slips into a Hollywood agent-type patter: “A big belly is funny. Bald is funny. An overbite is funny. Big ears are funny. Short is funny. Too tall is funny. You are not funny!”
He attributes being miscast as a naive, straight man in several television pilots and series to “looking like Huck Finn.”
“When I came to Hollywood I was 25, but I looked like a fetus with tennis shoes,” Carvey explains.
In the years since then no wrinkles or gray hairs appear to have set in, but Carvey is no longer being offered the innocent, boy-next-door roles. After playing a colorless character in the short-lived TV series, “One of the Boys,” with Mickey Rooney, a mime waiter in the rock movie spoof, “This is Spinal Tap,” and being edited out of the Sean Penn movie “Racing With the Moon,” Carvey is ready for some recognition.
Known best for his quirky “Saturday Night Live” characters--the priggish Church Lady and the arrogant Teutonic bodybuilder Hans, Carvey has just embarked on the same crossover journey undertaken by a host of SNL comedians before him.
“It’s entry-level movie stardom,” Carvey says.
His starring vehicle is a fairly ambitious role. In “Opportunity Knocks,” which opened Friday, Carvey plays likeable con man Eddie Farrell, a two-bit hood from the south side of Chicago. Farrell pulls off the ultimate “con” by convincing a wealthy Chicago family that he really is a Harvard-educated whiz kid/wine connoisseur/ladies’ man and wooing the family’s daughter.
The role is that of a leading man, but Carvey does dot the dramatic landscape with some familiar SNL signs, doing an impersonation of George Bush, a stint as a wildman rocker, and a host of ethnic accents.
“I think he pulled it off with great panache, actually,” said the film’s director Donald Petrie. “He’s also a good actor as well as a funny man.”
Said Carvey’s co-star actor Robert Loggia: “I think he’s going to have a helluva career. He’s likeable and I think that’s something that can’t be manufactured. You look in those baby blue eyes and see that pixie smile and you say ‘This guy is all right.’ ”
Indeed, the “Saturday Night Live” star exudes likability from the moment he invites a reporter into his home, extending a steaming mug of tea. While thoughtfully mulling over his career choices, he slips into accents and impersonations as easily as someone might slip on a sweater. Take “Bat Rainman,” for instance: “Yeah, gotta get the Joker. ‘Course I’m an excellent Caped Crusader. Yeah.”
Unlike SNL predecessors Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, who have ventured into dramatic roles, Carvey wants to concentrate on what he does best: comedy.
“My main thing is I just wanna be funny,” Carvey said. “I’ll leave it to De Niro and Meryl Streep to hug blocks of ice, play dead, or wake up on the kitchen floor drenched in sweat in the fetal position, screaming ‘I am not an animal!’ ”
“I thought at 34 and after three years on ‘Saturday Night Live’ I really wanted to try to do a first movie,” he said. “It was a better script than most scripts I’ve read and I wanted to do something more as myself for the first movie.”
He has no illusions that this is his “Citizen Kane.”
“It’s not a film that’s going to hold up well under intense scrutiny,” he said. “I mean, film students probably shouldn’t write papers about it. It’s a light romantic comedy.”
Carvey says his next role--in the film “Beverly Hills Ninja” set to start filming in June-- will be light years away from this movie.
“It’s avant-garde, new-wave comedy” in the style of Peter Sellers, Carvey said.
Carvey has also gotten offers for a film starring his Church Lady character, but dismisses those as “a short career. That’s 15 minutes of fame for sure.”
But, don’t get him wrong. That self-righteous Satan basher will still be around on “Saturday Night Live” episodes to excoriate celebrities and prattle on about the insidious “Prince of Darkness.”
“I like the character, I’m very proud of it,” Carvey said. “It was kind of satisfying because a lot of comedians had done either a priest or an evangelist . . . but no one had done those women behind the punch bowl: those women in orthopedic shoes, very androgynous, short hair, asexual, very judgmental.”
Indeed, Carvey says he plans to stay on “Saturday Night Live” for as long as they’ll have him, or at least for another season, when his five-year contract runs out.
“After struggling 10 years as a stand-up, to get on “Saturday Night Live” . . . I never just wanted to do 10 shows, get a hit character and bounce out of there,” Carvey says. “You look back on people that have done three, four, five seasons there and they have a legacy that they can be proud of. . . . I feel like I would just love to be connected to that whole legacy. And hopefully next year will be my best year.”
So, where does he see himself in another 10 years?
“Oh, probably on Hollywood Boulevard in a tattered dress holding my hand out saying (in a quavering voice) ‘Isn’t that special?’ Hoping for a quarter, a dime or a nickel. People would say: ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Oh, he used to be the Church Lady.’ ”