Nathan Lane doesn't need to do a television series.
A Tony Award winner for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," he's one of theater's brightest and funniest lights. He's also a full-fledged movie star thanks to his funny performances in the 1996 blockbuster "The Birdcage" and the 1997 slapstick farce "MouseHunt."
But here is Lane, sitting on the Paramount set of his new NBC comedy "Encore! Encore!" explaining why he decided to take another shot at conquering the sitcom world. Sixteen years ago, Lane starred with Mickey Rooney and Dana Carvey in the short-lived NBC comedy, "One of the Boys."
"I guess there's some sort of unspoken show business rule," says Lane, breaking into a snobby British accent: " 'You do the theater and then you move into television and then, of course, that is your stepping stone to film stardom.' I've done it every which way. I've done theater for many, many years and then had some success in films. I would do television sporadically. I thought this was a good time to try it."
And he was looking for a more "livable" schedule. "There is something that felt nice about this," he says, "sort of having a home base. Somehow packing up for four months to go off and make a movie. ... I wanted to try this."
"Encore! Encore!" is the latest series from the Emmy Award-winning creators of "Frasier": David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee. Lane had been a guest star on their show a few years back, earning an Emmy nomination as a man masquerading as Frasier Crane.
Lane, 42, who is friendly and funny but noticeably tired from the previous evening's taping, relates that the producers told him if he ever wanted to star in a series, they would be glad to develop a show for him.
"I always liked the idea [of doing a series]. For some people, it's the least form of entertainment, but when it's really done well like on 'Fraiser' or 'Seinfeld,' it can be really satisfying."
Lane plays Joseph Pioni, a larger-than-life, self-centered opera star who is forced to return to his family's vineyard in California after a freak vocal accident. Joan Plowright plays his mother; Glenne Headly is his divorced sister; Trevor Fehrman is her 16-year-old son and Ernie Sabella, who was the voice of Pumba to Lane's Timon in "The Lion King," is the gruff vineyard manager.
Lane says he and the producers batted around ideas for the premise of the series. "They came back with this," he explains. "It combined a bit of what I was thinking about in terms of a character. You know, somebody who is a celebrity and was difficult and tempermental--all of those fun things to play. I haven't seen a show about an opera singer. There's sort of a poignant side of it--this freak accident happens and now he can't sing. So there is a sadness to it as well."
Despite its pedigree and award-winning cast, there was industry buzz this summer that "Encore! Encore!" was in trouble. Two actors in the original pilot were replaced, and at the annual July meeting of television critics in Pasadena, NBC neither screened the pilot nor brought in the stars for interviews.
Lane maintains that the series is in fine shape. "In my struggle to become a mature adult, I try not to let things like that bother me," he says with a small smile.
"[The rumors] don't have any basis in reality. Everybody felt that they didn't want to show them the pilot because they recast two roles. The fact of the matter is, we couldn't be at the thing because Joan and I were both doing films. We're movie stars--that's why they built the show around us," he says, laughing.
He feels at home working with his pal Sabella, who also appeared with him in "A Funny Thing" and "MouseHunt," and is enjoying co-stars Plowright and Headly. "Joan is heaven," Lane says. "She is such a funny and sweet woman. I have known Glenne a long time. I think we have strong work ethics. There is already chemistry."
Lane also felt instant chemistry with Bette Midler on the set of "Isn't She Great," which he shot this summer. Midler plays "Valley of the Dolls" novelist Jacqueline Susann and Lane is cast as her husband, Irving Mansfield.
"You know what I call Bette?" Lane says, laughing. "Feisty Spice. That's my nickname for her. I think we were destined to work together. We had so many laughs and she's so funny. There were days she could kill me, she's so funny. We were like an old married couple. We were like the battling Bickersons the way we would carry on. She's wonderful."
Despite his commitment to "Encore!," Lane hasn't abandoned the theater. He's scheduled to fly back to New York during a hiatus from the series to do a workshop with Victor Garber ("Titanic") of Stephen Sondheim's new musical, "Wise Guys."
Jon Robin Baitz ("The Film Society," "The Substance of Fire") is also writing a play, "A Small Hotel," for Lane and Julie Kavner. "I think we are doing a reading of it in January at L.A. Theatre Works," he says. "All he says is that I play a marble magnate. I'm the king of marble!"
Lane is planning to put down roots here. "I'm looking to rent a house," he says. He's also going to try to finally learn how to drive.
"If I told you how many times in New York I sat at driving school, me and six illegal aliens, watching a movie called 'Blood on the Highway.' I'd get my learner's permit and go into a panic. That's one of the things I have to do--again in my struggle to become a mature adult."
"Encore! Encore" airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.