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TELEVISION : Just Call Him Bankable Boy : Adam Sandler has parlayed Opera Man, Shaky Lipped Guy and other ‘Saturday Night Live’ guises into Three-Deal Dude

<i> Chris Willman is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

On this sunny late spring day in Manhattan, a boy’s thoughts should be turning to Heather Locklear, especially when the boy is “Saturday Night Live” cast member Adam Sandler and Locklear will soon be hosting the late-night show’s season finale.

But for some reason, Sandler is focusing on the none-too-likely chance he’ll get to interact on camera with that same episode’s musical guest, Janet Jackson. It seems they share a talent.

“I’m great at humping a chair,” he claims. “That’s what got me ‘Saturday Night Live.’ I was in Lorne’s office humping his chair and he said, ‘My god , that’s funny, you’re hired --seven-year contract.’ ”

Sandler “does” his boss, “SNL” honcho Lorne Michaels, as a sort of effete New England intellectual enthusing over the bathroom humor of his young charges. Otherwise, Sandler doesn’t really do many impressions (with famous exceptions, like Eddie Vedder and Axl Rose), and he certainly doesn’t impersonate brainiacs or snobs as a matter of course, rather carrying with him a weirdly off-center dunce gallery nonpareil.

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And though it’s certainly not over till the Opera Man sings, plenty of folks think this 27-year-old--with a hit comedy album still on the charts, and three movies on the way--is the hottest breakout prospect among the younger “SNL” cast members.

On this Saturday in spring, though, with the season accelerating toward a wrap, Sandler is trying to concentrate on the remaining shows at hand before he goes back to Los Angeles to work on two movies over the summer.

In the infernally messy office he keeps in the “Saturday Night Live” dorm--er, wing--of Rockefeller Center, he considers the possibilities for error that exist in the heat of live broadcasting. Like if--Lorne forbid--the crazy tics of one character should start to bleed over into the feeble idiosyncrasies of another.

“When you’re in a lot of stuff in one show, it’s hard to all of a sudden get into the next guy,” says Sandler, parting the clutter to find his couch between dress rehearsals.

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“One time, I did Shaky Lipped Guy on that Halloween show, and then I did Canteen Boy, and in the middle of Canteen Boy I started shaking my lip. Everyone was looking at me like ‘What are you doing ? Canteen Boy doesn’t shake his lip!’ ” He shudders to recall the accidental osmosis.

The obsessive-compulsive details may differ from weird character to weird character. But Sandler’s creations do mostly share an inability to fire up all their synapses in a linear row. His most popular recurring part on the show, Opera Man, is a tenor who sings in satirical non sequiturs.

From there, it’s downhill on the evolutionary scale, as Sandler’s other increasingly popular personas--Cajun Man, Canteen Boy, the Herlihy Boy, et al.--seem very probably in-bred, like maybe they’re tremulous-voiced distant cousins to both Jerry Lewis and that banjo-playing “Deliverance” kid.

Losers are his specialty. The strangest thing is his knack for creating imbeciles that the audience can feel compelled to laugh at and feel a little sorry for too. Even their creator takes pity on them.

“I do, I do,” he says. “After I’ve seen it on tape, I’ll laugh, but I’ll say, ‘Oh, the poor guy--Canteen Boy’s having a rough day today.’ I feel like people will respond to it because they know people like that or they’ve seen them growing up. The Canteen Boy, the reason you feel bad for him and you can laugh is because he, and I guess a lot of my characters, they don’t notice they’re getting made fun of. So they’ll say something back that’s not that great a quip, but in their mind they won the argument. Does that make sense?”

There may be something in this rough justice: Although Sandler’s humor can be as coarse, profane and puerile as any other young comic’s--especially in the high school shenanigans of his recent album, “They’re All Gonna Laugh at You"--there is also something unusually sweet about it at times. He has a real, if absurdist, affection for the pathetic.

Growing up, Sandler says, “I had my moments of being humiliated, and then I had moments of doing something humiliating. I’m glad I lived out both roles. But as an almost-adult--I’m supposed to be an adult, but my head is not quite there yet--and as I get smarter, I do realize how much more I like people who get humiliated or have a tough time. I’d rather write about them. I don’t know why. It’s more interesting than a winner.”

Even the losers get lucky sometimes. Although the Canteen Boy isn’t scheduled to get his own “SNL” spinoff film anytime soon, Sandler does have three feature films on the way in which he’ll essay less exaggerated, more mainstream misfits with milder social adjustment problems.

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First out of the docket--opening Aug. 5--is “Airheads,” a rock ‘n’ roll comedy from director Michael Lehmann (“Heathers”) that stars Sandler alongside Brendan Fraser and Steve Buscemi as members of an unsigned band who take a radio station hostage to take their tunes directly to the masses in a desperate end run around an uncaring music business.

Says Lehmann: “There’s something that he really brought to the part he plays in the movie that wasn’t in the script. Because his character was one that was written as being the cute, good-looking member of the band that gets all the girls, he was supposed to have long, flowing hair and a really cute face. When I met Adam, I thought, ‘Women find him attractive, but he’s not by any means what you would call cute in the Davy-Jones-of-the-Monkees sense.’ We tried the long wig, but it looked like a wig on him.

“So we shaved his head instead, and we ended up doing things that took away from what would normally be his attractive qualities. But because of his innocent charm, combined with that ‘loser’ kind of quality, the way it worked is that you could believe that when people pointed to him and said that girls really like him, it was both funny and also somehow rang true.”

Indeed, the feeble-mindedness of so many of Sandler’s characters hasn’t impeded the comic’s apparent sex appeal. Testament to this is found in the fan letters that come into “SNL,” such as the long appeal mounted on his office wall from two teen-age girls in New Hampshire imploring Sandler and office mate David Spade to be their dates at their high school prom.

He didn’t take them up on the invite? “No. I wanted to. I guess they were playing some cruel joke on us because we called and they said, ‘ Ewwww !’ ”

But, seriously, “I’m not Joey Lawrence, you know,” he says. “It’s not everywhere I go people going Ah-dam! Just nice people talking. When I do stand-up shows at colleges, girls will talk to me after the show, and that always feels good. I like talking to them. I like girls. Girls are soft and pretty.

“My girlfriend’s cool about it. My girlfriend’s hot-looking. I could have 10 girls talking to me and then one guy comes up to her and says, ‘How’s it going’ and I’m like ‘ What’d that guy say to you ? Well, next time don’t look at him ! You looked at him !’ ”

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Sandler met his love interest at a comedy club in New York five years ago, before he moved West to work the clubs in Los Angeles, where he was discovered by Lorne Michaels’ conduits and dispatched back to Manhattan. Sandler zooms in on the phrase “five years,” counting every season precious at his ripe old 23 as his voice gets all craggy: “I feel like an old man. I’ve got so much to give, though. I hope the Lord lets me live long enough .” (A new shtick--Elderly Boy--in the making?)

A few weeks later, Sandler is holed up in a trailer thousands of miles from home in Venice, Calif., waiting for his call on a movie shoot. It’s “Lifesavers,” a Nora Ephron project set around (and due for release at) Christmastime, which would explain the huge tree in the middle of a blocked-off ocean-side avenue and the thousands of lights incongruously adorning the adjacent shops.

In the movie, which focuses on goings-on surrounding a Venice suicide hot line office on Christmas Eve, Sandler is playing a goofball (surprise) with an unrequited crush on Rita Wilson, who really has Steve Martin as her love interest. Sandler’s role was originally intended as a small one, but Ephron liked what he was doing so much that she let him improvise additional material. He even gets to serenade Wilson on the ukulele with love ballads of his own earnest, warped composing. (Wilson appeared in Ephron’s “Sleepless in Seattle,” which starred her husband, Tom Hanks--who, coincidentally, hosted “Saturday Night Live” the night Sandler made his first appearance.)

Has his part been bolstered to help ensure the movie’s youth appeal, maybe? “Juliette Lewis (playing an ex-con) will do that,” he responds. “I’m just padding. But Nora’s kids did tell her that they would go if I was in the movie.”

Martin stops by the door of Sandler’s trailer and sees he’s doing an interview: “So you’re representing your dark side to them? Or gonna go with the straight side?” Then he whooshes off.

Demons, he said? “There is a body under this trailer,” Sandler announces, in the wake of Martin’s departure. “That’s our little secret.” But from all indications, Sandler doesn’t appear to have much darkness or straightness to him.

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The Manchester, N.H., wonder years he describes have an idyllic glow, at least in the shorthand form he presents them in: lots of friends, lots of girlfriends, fairly supportive parents, an older brother who inducted him into the ways of music and comedy and a town full of folks willing to indulge his juvenile experiments in laugh-getting, mostly.

“I loved being funny in class,” Sandler says. “But I tell you, the funniest stuff I did when I was little, first to sixth grade, was at movie theaters, screaming at the screen and making the whole theater laugh. I’d always say like five jokes, and there would be four power laughs. And then the fifth one I would say, ‘Hey, nice hair!’ or something like that, and somebody would go, ‘ Hey, shut up ,’ and then it would just take away the other four jokes I killed on--everyone turned on me. But that was definitely the place where I was funny.”

As a kid, Sandler says, he usually fell asleep somewhere around the sports roundup during the weekend late news when trying to stay up for “Saturday Night Live.” Meanwhile, it was really a Rodney Dangerfield record, he says, that turned him on to comedy as a preordained vocation, along with Cheech & Chong albums and repeat viewings of “Caddyshack” that he memorized to impress his older brother.

“Caddyshack” seems to be regarded by Sandler as the touchstone of all contemporary filmic comic art. And the influence is obvious in many regards, none more so than the fact that the Bill Murray character there could be an older relative to some of Sandler’s recent characters.

“Carl the assistant greenskeeper? Yeah, he would be good friends with the Canteen Boy,” Sandler agrees. “Except Carl had a violent streak in him. He said he would slice the guy’s hamstring. The Canteen Boy has never hurt anyone in his life. He’s afraid of violence--he’s a peacemaker.”

Sandler, on the other hand, did not shy away as a youngster from punching out his fellow schoolchildren in certain instances. In the one blemish on the rosy childhood he paints, he admits using fisticuffs on occasion to settle scores that might begin with an anti-Semitic comment whispered as he walked the length of the bus to get off in front of the temple for Hebrew school. Manchester was not a very Jewish town, he says.

Despite this, his was not to be a bitter or angry kind of comedy. He tried being nasty, because that’s what the other comics were doing, but just “wasn’t very good at it.”

“I’m not great at putting down people,” Sandler says. “Like if someone heckles me in the audience when I do stand-up, I was never like ‘Hey, nice shirt, bla bla bla,’ because I never could think of anything. It would be more like (whining) ‘Please, I’m trying to speak.’ ”

A stand-up showcase landed Sandler a gig as an “SNL” writer, though his sketches were often too eccentric for others to make their own. He soon became a “featured player” on the show before the success of Opera Man persuaded Michaels to make Sandler a regular a season or so ago.

Now, as a cult star of the younger set waiting for establishment on the big screen, Sandler is just sage enough to know these are the good old days.

“I’m not a dumb guy with my career, and I know that this is the neatest part, of just getting discovered,” he says. “People like you the most when they’re discovering you, because you’re their discovery. You didn’t get forced on them, there was no network that said, ‘Watch this guy, watch this guy.’ I was in and out of skits and people started saying, ‘Oh, I like this guy.’ Now when I play these colleges, they’re all my generation and they all feel like we connect, so it’s a fun time.

“But then I know it’s going to go away, that connection. Someone else will come along. So right now I feel like it’s the best time.”

After he wraps the Ephron picture, Sandler’s summer responsibility is carrying a film for the first time, in the form of the starring vehicle “Billy Madison,” which he co-wrote with longtime friend Tim Herlihy. It’s about a thoroughly spoiled scion who tries to convince his retiring dad that he’s worthy of taking over the family business by repeating his whole education, taking Grades 1 through 12 for two weeks each. Universal liked the project so much that the studio even acceded to Sandler’s suggestion for director, Stephen Kessler, a buddy known primarily for commercial work.

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Such is Sandler’s star power now that he can already dictate his choice of directors to a major studio, successfully?

“That’s right. It’s not star power, it’s physical power,” he corrects. “I walked into the office--I had Hal Lieberman, one of the heads of Universal, in a full nelson, and I said, ‘This is the way it’s gonna go,’ and he said, ‘Please, just don’t hurt me !’ Yeah, it feels good--that’s why you get in shape, that’s why you do it.”

The production call to continue shooting the Ephron picture comes from somewhere down Venice’s Santa Claus Lane, and Sandler adjusts his wardrobe once more in the mirror.

“I look good, huh?” A little self-affirmation; Stuart Smalley would be proud. “This is what I do before every scene: ‘You deserve this, Adam! You’ve worked hard! You’ve showed them aaalll! Those kids, that guy at the movie theater who told me to shut up, he won’t tell me that now .’

He breaks character. “I’ve gotta take this earring out.” A painful miscalculation. “Ow! You know why I take the earring out?” he asks, not missing a beat. “Two reasons: continuity in the movie, and just in case my dad stops by."*


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