A Life Beyond Puddy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Patrick Warburton doesn't mind if fans remember him "until the day I die," as Elaine's hulking, dumb, acerbic boyfriend Puddy on "Seinfeld."

"It was a wonderful experience," says Warburton. "But it's your responsibility as an actor to reinvent [yourself]. When you do something as definitive as a character that is as high profile as 'Seinfeld,' [typecasting] is going to happen. But you are going to get typecast for one of two reasons: if that [character] is the only thing you can do; or you choose to do it. That's neither for me."

So the need to reinvent himself was one of the reasons Warburton flew to Australia two years ago to star in a little Aussie film, "The Dish," which opened here Wednesday. One of the highest-grossing films in the history of Australian cinema, "The Dish" is based on a true story about a group of eccentric scientists who manned a satellite dish located on a remote Australian sheep farm in the rural town of Parkes, New South Wales. On the eve of the historical moon landing in 1969, NASA discovers that the apparatus is the only receiving dish on Earth that is capable of broadcasting images of man's first steps on the moon.

Sam Neill plays the recently widowed, soft-spoken scientist who is the team's leader, and Warburton plays Al Burnett, a by-the-book representative from NASA who clashes with the laid-back Aussies.

"The Dish" was actually shot at the dish in Parkes, as well as in a studio in Melbourne. "The whole experience was amazing," says Warburton during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "I brought my family out. I have four children-I had three then. We just had a blast. We went traveling"

The people of Parkes were moon-eyed with the arrival of the film crew, much like the town was in 1969 with the arrival of NASA and government officials during the space flight. "It was definitely life imitating art imitating life or whatever," says the 36-year-old Warburton.

And Parkes was abuzz that a star of "Seinfeld," which is still popular Down Under, was in town. Only they weren't exactly sure which star it was.

"What was funny is that some guys from the crew were in town ordering some fried chicken. They heard one gal saying to another gal: 'Yeah, I just saw that Kramer fellow walking down the street. Yeah, Kramer is in town.' "

Director and co-writer Rob Sitch ("The Castle") only knew Warburton from "Seinfeld," but thought he'd be perfect as the bespectacled, staid Burnett.

"One of our secrets of casting is if you see an actor play a person who is stupid or dumb," says Sitch, "it is almost 100% likely that they are an extremely good actor. If someone can actually play dumb that well, it means they are really smart enough to make it work. Patrick does Puddy so well. He creates an entire universe, and everything that Puddy does is believable and funny. If you gave that job to 20 actors, 18 would come up with a fairly shallow version of a dumb person. In real life, Patrick is very smart, charming. I think deep down he knew he could play any role we tossed him."

And Warburton was pleased that he didn't have to play funny. "We said that's not really the job," recalls Sitch. "It is to make it real. He had to be a bit larger than life . . . he has got that ability--a good presence, a good voice. He has what I think the part required, a little bit of stillness. He is able to stand still and be comfortable with it."

Warburton based Burnett on his own father, an Orange County orthopedic surgeon. "He's a very good humanitarian, going down to Mexico for 20 years taking care of kids with polio," says Warburton. "A good man. A stern man. There is something intimidating about him. When I saw a screening of this I said, 'Oh my god, I am my father.' "

A New Comedy for Fox, 'The Tick'

When "Seinfeld" ended nearly three years ago, Warburton says "the one frustrating thing was knowing that we had only scratched the surface of that character (Puddy) and knowing at the same time we had to bury Puddy. It would have been a bit of a mistake to do 'The Puddy Show.' "

He did do a pilot for NBC called "Blind Men," which was a comedy about men who sold window blinds. "And then one called 'Death and Taxes' that takes place in an IRS office. That is something people want to tune in to see," he says, laughing. "You wonder why none of these pilots has gone on the air."

Warburton is excited about his new comedy series, Fox's "The Tick," in which he plays a superhero. Originally scheduled for midseason, it is being held for the fall in case there are strikes by the writers or actors.

" 'The Tick' is an ingenious character," says Warburton. "He's been around for about 15 years. It was a comic book. It has a huge cult following."

Warburton believes that actors enter the profession because they are insecure and have "problems." Though he's a strapping, handsome 6 feet 3 and weighs about 230 pounds, Warburton was a self-described geek in high school.

"My sophomore year I was 5 feet, 6 inches and weighed 105 pounds. I had my Coke-bottle glasses. I was blind, cross--eyed. I have an astigmatism. No one would hang out with me," he recalls. "I had one friend--our parents would let us sleep over on the weekend--and the two of us would go to the local coin shops and bid on coins. No one would beat us up because that would be quite unsporty, but we sure were picked on. No one would go to the Sadie Hawkins dance with me unless my sister asked a best friend at the all-girls school down that street."

Warburton, who was attending an all-boys Catholic prep school in Orange County, transferred to a public high school his junior year. He began to grow and got contact lenses. "All of a sudden, I felt I could breathe," he says.

He caught the acting bug when he was about 13, hanging out backstage watching his mother doing community theater. "My mother, Barbara Lord, was an actress. She was like the spitting image of Princess Grace, just gorgeous," Warburton says. "She did a lot of series like 'One Step Beyond.' She never professionally acted while she was raising a family. But she would do community theater."

Initially, acting made Warburton feel socially accepted. These days, he says, "I feel the need to be proud of my work. I want people to enjoy what I do. I guess most importantly, I do want and need the acceptance from my peers."

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