Dan Castellaneta arrives for breakfast in West Los Angeles with a briefcase. It's a very un-chic briefcase, the sort of thing a traveling salesman might carry on his rounds, a constant companion in the passenger seat of a rental car.
Castellaneta, too, exudes workmanlike anonymity. The briefcase, he says, contains his Day-Timer, a portable phone, head shots for casting people. At 41, he is mostly bald, of medium height and build, with an unremarkable face. Shy and a little cautious around strangers, he seems perennially the guy of whom you take no particular notice.
These lunch-pail qualities served him well in 1987, when he was plucked from the famed comedy troupe Second City in Chicago to be one of the regular players on "The Tracey Ullman Show," a sketch comedy show on the then-fledgling Fox network. Ullman, a rising comedic star, needed to be surrounded by talented people, but not talented people who might steal the spotlight. Enter Castellaneta, who had earned a reputation for brilliance but came sans the star baggage. For the actor, "Tracey Ullman" would prove to be the big break before the bigger break; when "The Simpsons" began life as animated vignettes on "Tracey Ullman," Castellaneta did the voice of the father, Homer, and he's been doing it ever since.
But if "The Simpsons" has brought him riches and a quasi-celebrity, nothing about Castellaneta's career has signaled, to paraphrase "Death of a Salesman," that attention must be paid. This might not change with Castellaneta's one-man show, "Where Did Vincent Van Gogh?," running Wednesday nights through July 28 at L.A.'s Acme Theatre, but in 90-minute bursts Castellaneta is nevertheless showcasing his incredible gift for mimicry and character acting, and this time there's no one else around to upstage him. No one, that is, except the characters he plays, including a Billie Holiday impersonator, a ventriloquist's dummy, a schizophrenic Puerto Rican baseball player, a theater director devising a musical pitting cat lovers against dog lovers, and a bike messenger who likes to hang out at the local Wendy's, striking up conversations with strangers on his lunch break.
Written by Castellaneta and directed by Art Wolff, "Where Did Vincent Van Gogh?" begins with Castellaneta as the tortured Van Gogh, given to hallucinatory spells, before revealing the show's narrator: a space alien recruiting humans from a doomed planet Earth by trying on their personalities.
Such character channeling serves as a fitting premise for an actor who has long sought refuge in other voices and other people--an actor serving the work but to the exclusion of an outsized identity of his own.
"I was never able to develop a persona as an actor," Castellaneta admits, remembering that people often said the same thing about the late Phil Hartman. "Peter Sellers was like that. You didn't really know who he was. You could never really pinpoint it. . . . Even when he had to play closest to straight, like [in the film] 'I Love You Alice B. Toklas,' it was a straight role, but he was playing a Jewish American lawyer."
Friends and former colleagues from Chicago's Second City say that once you get to know Castellaneta the shyness goes away and his antic humor bursts forth. Ullman, for one, has Castellaneta fixed in her mind this way: "Inside he's this little man from Chicago in polyester pants who's a quiet genius."
"Dan always served the scene," says Richard Kind, who worked with Castellaneta in Second City and is currently a regular on the ABC sitcom "Spin City." "He never really went out there to be great for himself. Personally, my ego is too big to do that."
Born and raised in Oak Park, Ill., Castellaneta studied art at Northern Illinois University before turning seriously to acting after college. A devotee of the work of Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris and Nichols and May, Castellaneta enrolled in improv classes (meeting his wife, Deb Lacusta, along the way) and then landed a spot in Second City, where he performed as part of various companies from 1983 to '87 and developed into a multifaceted voice artist and gifted actor.
But if the ego of a comedy star dictates that he or she always has to be the funniest person in the room, then Castellaneta is the opposite of a comedy star. What is perhaps most remarkable about his career is that he's been able to take relative obscurity so far. Second City, notes Jane Morris, a former cast member who now teaches at the Improv Underground in Santa Monica, graduates comedy stars (the late John Belushi, Mike Myers, the late Chris Farley), but most of the talented players go decidedly less acknowledged, learning to serve the work before the self and then unable to sell themselves as larger-than-life personalities in the entertainment industry. In Los Angeles, hundreds of such Second City alumni earn a kind of middle-class living as second and third bananas--doing some theater, maybe some writing, and a lot of day player work, taking bit parts on movies and sitcoms.
Halfway Between Mega-Fame, Anonymity
Castellaneta, then, is somewhere between the mega-fame of Myers and the anonymity of the day player. Auditions, he concedes, can still vex him, because his inward personality sometimes fails to leave an impression. Casting people have tended to take one look at him and think: wormy accountant. His initial meeting with Ullman and her producers left them similarly underwhelmed; Ullman had to fly to Chicago to watch Castellaneta perform as part of Second City to understand what he wasn't showing them in the casting office.
"He made me cry, actually, rather than laugh," Ullman remembers. "He was doing a piece about a blind guy who wants to be a comedian. There were flashier performers that night. But I don't like that, really."
"The Simpsons," in a sense, has brought Castellaneta a fitting kind of fame--obscurity coupled with legend. Castellaneta is the voice not only of Homer but also of Grandpa Simpson, Krusty the Clown, Groundskeeper Willie and the Ted Kennedy-esque Mayor Quimby. Last year, Castellaneta and cast mates Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer and Yeardley Smith were signed to new three-year contracts, reportedly for around $50,000 an episode. Currently in production on its 11th season, "The Simpsons" began life as a show about a bratty little kid named Bart, but it has long since become a show about an idiotic father named Homer. In turn, Homer's voice, under Castellaneta's nurturing, has become as inexorably linked to TV fatherhood as Bill Cosby's.
Castellaneta says he began to experiment more with Homer's voice when the character changed from ogre to lovable dope. What began as a loose impression of Walter Matthau became less and less cartoony. "To really cover the full force of his emotions and make it funny, I had to really pull out the stops, and I couldn't do it where I'd placed the voice before," he says.
There is no real-life Homer, Castellaneta says; the voice is a composite of disparate influences, from his father to the Town Blob, the latter a character Castellaneta remembers seeing as a child on a locally televised puppet show (former Second City people hear the influence of a voice that troupe member Kevin Doyle would do, imitating his uncle). Homer's signature cry of frustration--"Doh!"--has its roots, Castellaneta says, in a Scottish actor named James Finlayson, who appeared in Laurel and Hardy comedies.
For "The Simpsons" writers, Castellaneta's concoction has become so much a part of the character, says executive producer Mike Scully, that "when we're writing for Homer, we pitch lines in Homer's voice, which is basically our bad interpretation of what Dan does."
"We just write in character voices without checking with Dan if he can do it," Scully adds. "We just assume that he can, and 99% of the time he just nails it. He does brilliant impressions of people you don't hear a lot, like Vincent Price, William Frawley and Victor Buono."
"Guys like Dan make the best kind of actors because they completely hide behind their characters."
* "Where Did Vincent Van Gogh?" Wednesdays at 8 p.m. at the Acme Comedy Theatre, 135 N. La Brea Ave., through July 28. Tickets $15. Call (323) 655-8587.