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Funny Thing, Success

Dana Carvey is back. That might not qualify as the show business headline of the week except that for many Americans familiar with Carvey’s personal comic cavalcade--the Church Lady, Garth Algar and spot-on impersonations of a squeaky-voiced Ross Perot and a goofball George Bush Sr.-- the last thing they may remember about Carvey is that four years ago, he nearly went away for good as a result of botched open-heart surgery at the post-"Saturday Night Live” age of 43.

A Bay Area surgeon mistakenly bypassed the wrong artery during an operation on Carvey in March 1998, leaving him vulnerable to a heart attack until another operation (with a different surgeon) corrected the mistake. When the original doctor wouldn’t admit his error, Carvey sued for malpractice in the full glare of media sympathy. He settled out of court and donated the proceeds to charity.

“If he had called me and apologized,” Carvey says, “I wouldn’t have had the moral authority to sue him because I didn’t need the money and didn’t need the publicity. But he was literally denying that he made the error, so I had to go through with it, knowing it would lead to a lot of misinformation about me and my health.”

Today people frequently ask him how he feels, which he understands but still must endure with private irony, especially when the question comes, he says, from “giant guys smoking cigarettes.” He demonstrates: “ ‘You awright, Mr. Cahvey?’ ”

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He wants to tell them, “I never had a heart attack or heart damage, so I’m completely whole and functional and very lucky. I don’t feel any effects, I feel great.” And has for some time. Nevertheless, while his “Wayne’s World” pal and partner in mock suburban slackerhood, Mike Myers, was busy inventing Austin Powers and building another blockbuster Hollywood comedy franchise, Carvey retreated to his Marin County home and became a stay-at-home dad to his two young sons, Tom and Dex.

He says the furious ambition that propelled him through his years on “Saturday Night Live” (1986-93) deserted him after he and his wife, Paula, had kids. “My career just didn’t mean as much to me. I thought I would just kind of fade away.”

“Dude!” Mike Myers surely would interject at this point. “No way!”

“Way,” Carvey might respond in a somewhat more earnest version of Garth’s geeky timidity.

Yet today he’s in Beverly Hills beating the drum (or at least strumming the guitar) for his first project since the angioplasties. It’s a PG film called “Master of Disguise,” in which he stars as a nerdy Italian waiter named Pistachio who must discover his hidden powers of impersonation to rescue his parents from an evildoer who has kidnapped them.

Co-starring James Brolin as his father and Jennifer Esposito as his farcical spy-world “assistant,” the Columbia film opening Friday was written by Carvey and Harris Goldberg and directed by first-timer Perry Andelin Blake. It’s a tame comedy, and Carvey is nothing if not humble about it.

“It’s a movie that I made for my kids,” he says, sipping bottled water in his room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he is dressed for an afternoon at the mall in baggy shorts, a polo shirt and off-road running shoes. A former high school runner (his dad was track coach), Carvey looks to be in wiry good shape without flaunting it. When pressed, he admits, “I ran 45 minutes on the treadmill today and did a half-hour of StairMaster. I may go lift weights and do a half-hour bike after this. I work out a lot, but basically no one could be the lead in a movie that has you in makeup 17 hours a day if they had any kind of health issue.

“There are some real eccentric things in it,” he continues, speaking of “Master of Disguise.” “I’m always trying to get the audience to laugh at stuff that can become indelible because it makes no sense, that is so abstract and silly. But sometimes the audience goes, ‘What?’ “Indeed, Carvey’s “SNL” signature came from the small details of his characters and impersonations, in contrast to the larger-than-life spoofers like John Belushi, Adam Sandler and Chris Farley, whose comic personas leaped off that stage and into the movies.

Tailored to Carvey’s talent for mimicry, “Master of Disguise” lifts off from the premise that Carvey’s character is a descendant of famous Italian impostors named the Disguiseys, who have a mythical status in the Mediterranean, equivalent to Zorro. Relocated to America, the Disguiseys have tried to go legit, but are forced to don masks and prosthetic disguises when a villain (Brent Spiner) schemes to borrow their powers to steal precious American artifacts for sale on the black market.

Meek and clueless, Pistachio Disguisey must save his parents by suddenly learning the impersonation trade, which he does, clumsily, under the tutelage of his grandfather (Harold Gould), who shows him how to harness the magical force of “energico.”

In addition to dressing in drag as a 70-year-old woman and applying a carpet of body hair to become a somersaulting Latin mambo dancer, Carvey works in brief impersonations of David Niven, Robert Shaw from “Jaws,” Al Pacino from “Scarface” and, in the last scene, George W. Bush.

He interrupts the interview now to do Bush, dressing down the titans of Wall Street for their accounting deceptions and hoodwinking of shareholders. Here comes the voice: “I’m mad at ya but not too mad.”

Although his “Saturday Night Live” fame grew from his impersonations of Perot and Bush Sr., Carvey does not see himself as a true mimic. “I don’t consider myself a great impressionist. I just tend to exaggerate. Darrell Hammond is more of a great impressionist. I just get bored real quick and want to take it further. I was lucky to get Perot and Bush in the same presidential season.”

In “Master of Disguise,” he says, he wanted his Pacino imitation to go on for six minutes until cooler heads prevailed. Fellow “SNL” alum Adam Sandler, whose production company backed the movie, helped rein him in. “Sandler has a much better sense of the rhythm of the audience and what’s acceptable for this style of movie, a cineplex PG movie.”

So, Sandler was a hands-on executive producer? “He would come and go, but in the end, it’s really up to Adam and Jack [Giarraputo], his partner. It’s their company. They have really good instincts, whereas I’ll try to put stuff in that just plays to crickets.”

Sandler, who carries the clout a $25-million-a-picture star does these days, offered Carvey the chance to come out of early retirement and make “Master of Disguise.” Carvey had written the first draft before his heart problems but was wary after appearing in a number of clunkers following “Wayne’s World” (“You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll hurl”) and “Wayne’s World 2.”

“I came off of ‘Saturday Night Live’ and did four really bad movies,” he says, referring to “Clean Slate,” “The Road to Wellville,” “Trapped in Paradise” and “The Shot.” “I was a puppet--I didn’t know. I wasn’t a very good puppet. There was a point where I had a movie green-lit at Columbia called ‘Tucson,’ but I’d already done those four in a row and I just wanted to go home.”

He did a special for HBO and then a variety show (“The Dana Carvey Show”) for the Disney Channel that flopped. Living in Connecticut at the time and commuting to Manhattan to do the show was a grind, he says, and didn’t fit in with his new life as a father. “At the end of the day, it was way too much work. ‘Saturday Night Live’ is good for cast members without children. You’re writing all the time, you’re up all night. But I was glad that the variety show thing went away because I couldn’t do it physically and raise the family.

“After that, we had to land somewhere. I came back to L.A., did stand-up, then moved up to San Francisco, where Dex started kindergarten. Then I blocked an artery.”

When Carvey took up Sandler on his offer to make “Master of Disguise” with his company, Carvey did so with the understanding that he would be given a director who would not try to micromanage his performance. Blake, who was the production designer for Sandler’s films “The Waterboy,” “Billy Madison,” “Mr. Deeds” and “Deuce Bigalow,” was looking to get into directing and Sandler put him up for the job.

“I said, fine,” Carvey says, “because I really just wanted someone who wanted to have fun and wasn’t going to try to control me on the set. On ‘Saturday Night Live,’ I never really took direction in the traditional sense. No one came up to me and said, ‘Now remember, the Church Lady is very condescending.’ I would just try to get into a trance, into a rhythm and let it go. In those [lousy] movies I made, I had much more like a director director.

“I was there on the sinking ship, thinking ‘This really sucks,’ while everybody was high-fiving. So when those movies came out and they did really suck, it made me believe in my instincts.”

Carvey speaks about his new film and career with the beatitude of someone who has been to the mountaintop and decided it’s less windy down in the valley. He plans to spend August traveling the outback of his home state of Montana with his family, blissfully disconnected from box office grosses, TV and newspapers.

Like many of his fellow “SNL” alumni, he says, he doesn’t have to worry about money. “We’re all comfortable financially at this point and just trying to have fun. I’m not as rich as those guys,” he says, meaning Sandler, for starters, “but I have such middle-class tastes. I have a $10 watch I’d never give up. I got a Suburban because I’m terrified to drive anything else. I feel bad about the [emissions], but I rationalized it because I hate to fly, so I’m on the I-5 a lot and it’s just me and the trucks.”

He points to an acoustic Taylor guitar leaning against a nearby couch. “That’s as good a guitar as there is in the world and that’s about $2,500. It’s nice to be able to have that, but after that I don’t need anything else. I don’t want any more things.”

With or without the factor of his show business wealth, Carvey considers himself “a kind of normal baby boomer dad who’s trying to balance it all. You’ve gotta earn a living and how do you do that and be a responsible parent and keep the marriage going? It’s a big challenge. It defeats a lot of people.”

Everyone wants to know if he and Myers are still friends or if they even speak to one another after sharing the huge pop-culture moment of “Wayne’s World.” “I haven’t talked to him in awhile,” Carvey says, “but I hope we’re friends. I feel like he’s a friend. I mean he’s in rarefied air right now, you know? I guess Spielberg’s his friend or something, I don’t know. Once you have kids, you tend to hang out with other people who have kids, and Mike doesn’t have kids. He’s in his 30s and going 1,000 rpm.”

Relieved, he says, that “Master of Disguise,” made for the modest Hollywood sum of less than $20 million, does not bring with it the box-office expectations of “Spider-Man,” he muses on the difficulty of staying at the top of the heap.

“I got way more famous than I ever imagined. I was just a player on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and within a 30-month stretch, suddenly ‘Wayne’s World’ came out and I was doing the president and went to the White House and was on the cover of Rolling Stone. Boom! It wasn’t my master plan. I don’t have to be a celebrity.

“I can live comfortably without it and just do stand-up. It’s an unhappy road if you give it too much power. In Hollywood, even well-meaning people are always asking you, ‘You gotta show? You gotta movie? Whaddya doin?’ You can go a little crazy you know?”

He reaches for the guitar he keeps handy for therapy and pleasant distraction. Behind him, the French doors are open to a terrace, and behind that the neatly manicured gardens of the hotel. “We are so spoiled, we have so much,” he says. “So many perks. Look where they put me up.”

He says this as someone who has tried not to let money rule his life. Not that it’s easy. “When you’re really hot, you’re being offered movies all the time and you’re turning down millions of dollars every day, then, finally, you think, maybe I can learn from this one.

“Money buys you time, but the stuff I like to do is either free or near free: a matinee and dinner with my wife--and I don’t have to go to the fanciest restaurant; a hike in the hills; a hot shower; playing with the kids. All the rest of it’s kind of a waste.”

And the same for fame. “Fame is really just good for having sex with different women, that’s what it’s good for. So if you’re married, it’s kind of like a drag. But that’s what it’s good for, period. George Clooney, he’s living the life that all men want to live.”

Coming from the mouth of Dana Carvey in the voice of Ross Perot, this would surely be a laugh line. Coming as it does in Carvey’s own voice, it’s that thing most surprising when delivered by a comedian: an unadorned statement of fact.

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Sean Mitchell is a regular contributor to Calendar.


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