Lee Tergesen knows a little something about playing extremes.
As Terry in both “Wayne’s World” movies, he was the slow-talking, long-haired, party animal/camera operator and flunkie to infamous cable-show hosts Wayne and Garth.
On USA’s “Weird Science,” which began its new season this month, the actor is Chet--quick-talking, buzz-clipped, mercenary and merciless. More than anything else, Chet torments younger brother Wyatt (Michael Manasseri) and his pal Gary (John Mallory Asher), the duo who have concocted computer-babe Lisa (Vanessa Angel).
A kind of ‘90s “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Weird Science” is based on the 1985 hit movie with a theme song so catchy it’s hard to just say the name and not break out into the Oingo Boingo chart topper.
“Chet was the very opposite of what I’d been doing,” Tergesen, 29, recalls from the West Los Angeles home he shares with wife Tanya, an aspiring actress who works in child care. Tergesen calls his “Weird Science” character “a gun-totin’ misogynist with a hankerin’ for cigars.”
“It was an opportunity to do something very broad, very crazed. I put my own take on it, since I hadn’t seen the movie or (actor) Bill Paxton’s original Chet in a long time.” Tergesen has turned Chet “a lot more out, on the crazy side. He was more subdued in the movie.”
Chet reminds Tergesen “of people I knew in high school and sort of like the people who try to inflict themselves on you all the time.” But the militaristic survivalist “comes a lot from the writing. There’s a certain amount you just put in. Like, how would you say, ‘You puke lip’?”
“Weird Science,” he says, “is just fantasy.”
The Ivoryton, Conn., native began his career in musical theater, which led to drama school in New York, where “the acting part of it” became more appealing than singing and dancing. But, he says, “I spent my entire time in New York as a waiter. It was a drag. I was doing plays all the time, but there’s no money in it.”
The experience left Tergesen frustrated and he found himself “on the fence by that point. After graduation, I thought I’d be making a living at it.” A conversation with his older brother, a recording engineer, kept the actor on track: “He told me, ‘If you love it, you have to stick with it. This is the kind of business where you can be 40 and just make it.’ It just put things into perspective for me and instead of being anxious for the payoff, I just let it go and decided to do what I want to and take each step one at a time.”
In 1990, he came to Los Angeles to help friend Tom Fontana (now executive producer of “Homicide: Life on the Street”) move. While the duo dined at a restaurant, a casting director approached Tergesen and asked if he was an actor. “He told me there was a part in this movie and at that time, I couldn’t imagine what it could be.”
The movie ended up being 1991’s high-profile “Point Break,” starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. With his already-long hair dyed black, Tergesen played one of Swayze’s bank-robbing gang. “It was just amazing,” he says. “The sky opens up and you can’t see the connection between anything I’d done before that. It just happened all on its own.”
He moved to L.A., where his hair and wild look landed him roles in both film and television, including a role as a “fringe detective” in the TV movie “The Killing Mind,” a recurring role on NBC’s “Homicide” and the “Wayne’s World” part for which he’s still recognized, despite his considerably cropped ‘do.
“I’m in the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ scene. I wasn’t originally supposed to be there, but I kept telling the director, that’s me . I should be there. Now it’s a classic moment.”
Now that “Weird Science” is in its third season, he and Tanya are looking to travel to Europe when shooting ends in August.
“Right now,” he says, “I could see myself acting for the rest of my life. But every time as an actor when you finish a job you ask, ‘Will I ever get hired again?’ ”
“Weird Science” airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. on USA.