He’s the Spaciest of ‘3rd Rock’s’ Aliens
Look deep into the eyes of French Stewart and. . . .
Well, actually, you can’t look deep into the eyes of French Stewart.
The 33-year-old actor’s smiling squint makes that pretty much impossible.
“I come from a heavy-lidded people,” he jokes. “My family, you’ll see pictures of them, and it’s the same thing all the way back to Scotland.”
But that happy peer works well for Stewart when he’s working as Harry Solomon, one of four aliens trying unsuccessfully to blend into the scenery on NBC’s loopy “3rd Rock From the Sun.”
“It seems to give him the dull, uncomprehending look that is required of him,” says Stewart, chatting over lunch in Manhattan.
The series, which stars Emmy winner John Lithgow as Dick Solomon, high commander of the alien expedition to the third rock (also known as Earth), has been a critical favorite since its debut in January 1996. With towering Kristen Johnston as Sally, an alien gone silly with sexuality; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a grown-up extraterrestrial grappling with life as A puberty-wracked boy; and Harry as, well, the dim one, the sitcom most weeks amounts to inspired lunacy.
“It’s closer to theater,” says Stewart. “It’s just farce. So it sort of enables us to pump it up and chew scenery, you know, to just really go nuts. And I think from the very beginning, Mr. Lithgow set the pace.”
Stewart’s role as Harry, much like the rest of the cast (including Jane Curtin as Dick’s love interest and Ohio university office mate Dr. Mary Albright) begins on the outer limits and goes crazy from there.
“The way the character was originally described to me was he would be an idiot on any planet. So he’s got to be the biggest idiot in The universe!” says Stewart.
And a rather uncoordinated idiot at that.
As the show’s comic Gumby, Stewart is a physical comedian of sometimes frightening ability.
“My chiropractic bills are insane,” he says, noting that the stunts that look impossible usually are and, as a result, hurt the most.
“3rd Rock” has taken something of a fall, too, since being moved from its Sunday night berth to do battle with ABC’s hit “The Drew Carey Show.” At the end of the 1996-97 season, “3rd Rock” ranked 19th, averaging 17 million viewers. This year, it’s No. 40, averaging roughly 13 million viewers.
“When you’re with a network, you have a certain role, and our role is to take a chunk out of the big dog,” Stewart says. “It’s sort of a utility spot that nobody enjoys; obviously we’ve had some poor luck. But we’ve got a nice sort of loyal fan base, and that gets us through everything.”
Just sustaining the comic premise of a show as out there as “3rd Rock” is hard enough, says Stewart, a native of Albuquerque who began his career in theater.
“The challenge is to keep it anchored,” he says. “There are times where I’ve watched us and said, ‘Oh, we’ve gone too far.’ I think it always works best when it’s anchored in some sort of reality and we can basically be eccenTric. . . . It’s a balancing act, and as you settle in you can forget and get sloppy.”
This from the man who admittedly plays the most unbalanced of the off-centered characters.
“You know what,” Stewart says about Harry. “He should be considered a pet more than anything: Scratch his belly, that’s good. food. Nap. And that’s it.”
His favorite Harry moments?
“The Thanksgiving episode with Jan Hooks, where he ends up with a turkey on his head having sex in Mrs. Dubcek’s kitchen, that to me is unabashedly Harry.”
Small wonder Stewart’s whacked-out visitor is a TV devotee.
That brain-dead passion comes up in one of this season’s episodes, in fact, when Dick punishes subordinate Harry by taking away his TV privileges.
With all that time to think, something Harry is not used to, “he gets incredibly morose,” says Stewart, “and he starts to get dark, and he gets mean and judgmental. And by the middle of the episode, his eyes are wide open and he’s real surly and he’s boring everybody with his hypothesizing.”
We prefer Harry when he fits the pet profile.
So, apparently, do most fans.
“I get hugged a lot,” he says.
So what is going on in the mind of Harry Solomon?
Not much. It’s whatever is in front of him, says the actor, which is why his responses can be a bit off.
“He’s not monitoring himself. It’s what anybody would do before they think better of it.”
* “3rd Rock From the Sun” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC (Channel 4).