Remembering 'Bosom Buddies' and 'Girls' actor Peter Scolari
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Now we're going to remember comic actor Peter Scolari, who died a week ago from cancer at the age of 66. In 1980, he played opposite Tom Hanks in the ABC sitcom "Bosom Buddies." The two played New York advertising copywriters Kip and Henry, who cross-dress to move into a subsidized and very inexpensive all-female hotel. The show launched both their careers. Here's a scene from the first season. Hanks and Scolari, whose characters are known as Buffy and Hildegard while in female dress, go out to a singles bar with other women in the hotel. But they aren't enjoying themselves.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOSOM BUDDIES")
PETER SCOLARI: (As Henry Desmond/Hildegard) see what's going on here. I get it. Men are ignoring us, and I know why. Because we're dogs (barking).
SCOLARI: (As Henry Desmond/Hildegard) That's why no one's coming to ask us to dance.
TOM HANKS: (As Kip Wilson/Buffy) Now, let me get this straight, Rin Tin Tin...
HANKS: (As Kip Wilson/Buffy) You are upset because men aren't asking us to dance?
SCOLARI: (As Henry Desmond/Hildegard) A pretty girl can get anything she wants, but if you're ugly, you buy your own drinks. You follow me?
SCOLARI: (As Henry Desmond/Hildegard) Is it too much to ask for some hunk to come over here and buy me a drink or show me a little tenderness?
HANKS: (As Kip Wilson/Buffy) Henry, the clothes are a joke. This is a gag. We're playing let's pretend, remember?
BIANCULLI: Scolari later co-starred in the CBS sitcom "Newhart," which starred Bob Newhart as the owner of a Vermont inn and host of a local TV show. Scolari played his high-powered, vain, self-absorbed producer and was nominated for three Emmys for that role. More recently, Scolari played the father of Lena Dunham's character in the HBO sitcom "Girls," for which he won an Emmy. He appeared in many other TV shows, and on stage. He worked again with Tom Hanks in the 2013 Broadway production of the Nora Ephron play "Lucky Guy." In 2014, he played baseball great Yogi Berra in the play "Bronx Bombers." Scolari excelled in sports as a young man and was a standout high school baseball player.
Terry interviewed Peter Scolari in 1988. They began with a clip from "Newhart." He played Michael, the producer of the local show "Vermont Today," which was hosted by Newhart's character. Michael is always pitching ways to jazz up the station with provocative programs. On the season premiere of the program, Michael suggests the show in which the wives of criminals would be interviewed.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NEWHART")
SCOLARI: (As Michael Harris) Picture this - a show devoted to the woman behind the accessory, the maul behind the menace. What do you think?
MARY FRANN: (As Joanna Loudon) I think you're demented.
SCOLARI: (As Michael Harris) That is just the tip of the iceberg.
SCOLARI: (As Michael Harris) We interview Joe Joe (ph) on "Vermont Today." Are you loving it? You ask the probing questions. What is it about your criminal leanings that attracts her?
BOB NEWHART: (As Dick Loudon) Michael, that is not entertainment. That is exploitation.
SCOLARI: (As Michael Harris) Tomato, tomahto, (ph) Dick.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: So do you think of yourself as using a different voice and character than the voice that you normally speak with?
SCOLARI: Yes, but you know, it's funny. You've raised an interesting point here because I come home the night before, for example, last night from what is effectively the last day of rehearsal, and I can't get the voice out of my - my own speaking voice. I think my own speaking voice is more along the lines of what we're hearing today and Michael's voice is more in here. It's just a little shift that I make. And I try not to think about it much. It's just something I've kind of lapsed into on occasion, but I'll come home from - hopefully, I've changed back to my voice now. But I'll come home from a Thursday rehearsal and my wife will say, how did it go today, honey? And I'll say it went great. I've got to tell you. I'm secure with mine - and I'll realize somewhere along the line that I haven't let it go and I can't. It's very frightening.
GROSS: You know, your character is always described as the ultimate yuppie, but I think, to me, it's as if you also went back to like old screwball comedies and watched, like, the really wealthy people, the old money people, and got some of their mannerisms.
SCOLARI: Yes. Although, you know, Michael, in point of fact, at least as I perceive him, is not really a very successful yuppie at all. Michael doesn't drive a BMW or a Mercedes. He probably didn't finish college as we understand it, and I think he attempts to affect or at least to join in with the trend of, you know, upwardly mobile, preppy-type people. But he's not really successful at it. So that's - and that's part of my link to any success at all with a character, I think, is that he's a failed yuppie.
GROSS: You know, I've been really wanting to interview you and find out more about you. But I had this, like, terrible feeling that you'd think it was your duty to prove that you were smart and sensitive unlike your character.
SCOLARI: No, I've worked through that in therapy, and now I no longer have the need to prove that on public radio.
GROSS: No, but it really - I bet that you are expected to prove that in a way, you know, that you're not the character who you play.
SCOLARI: Yes, that's true. That is true. I've been stopped and insulted and I know people think they're being very nice.
SCOLARI: But they say things that we can't say on radio and they ask me if that's what I'm really like. It's kind of a difficult question to answer. On occasions, I've managed to be able to say, yes, I am like that. No, that's me. It's not the character. And sometimes that works OK, but sometimes it leads to arrests.
GROSS: I know that you're interested in circuses and carnivals and that you've done some juggling yourself.
SCOLARI: Yes. I'm juggling right now.
GROSS: Well, how did you get interested in that?
SCOLARI: Actually, I was in a play in New York back in 1977 playing a court jester with a very beloved friend of mine, Tom Tammi. Our job was to upstage each other night after night. And somewhere along the way to about 150 performances, my friend Tom Tammi came out juggling in this one upsmanship sort of scene. And he won the the battle for the king's attention that evening. The next day, I sucked the skill out of his mind as quickly as possible and got it into my hands, and we became juggling partners. And then later I hooked up with some very talented gentlemen at the Big Apple Circus, which was just forming in New York at that time, and began, I guess, what would be a history of the circus world, circus arts being a great influence on my development as an actor.
GROSS: Yeah. How have circus arts affected your acting?
SCOLARI: Well, you know, Terry, when I was in high school and for a period in college, I could still be considered somewhat of an OK athlete. And in fact, I carried around that kind of physical life. And I found over a number of years, particularly in the mid-'70s and later '70s, after I'd learned to juggle and then I learned to ride a unicycle and walk a little tightrope, that I was able to convert my athleticism into much more of a disciplined, dare I say, aesthetic value for me.
GROSS: It's interesting for you to describe how athletic you couldn't help but look. In a role on the "Newhart" show, you seem very unauthentic, like someone who wouldn't, you know, jog or play tennis or basketball because it might muss their hair up.
GROSS: Did juggling and circus arts also help you learn how to not look athletic if you didn't need to look athletic?
SCOLARI: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I can - I could - I mean, well, hopefully Michael is kind of proof of that. But, yes, I mean, it's not that you appear - you have to suggest that you're clumsy to appear nonathletic. It's really a state of mind. And once you can kind of find the state of mind for that illusion, then the body sort of follows. In fact, they asked me a couple of years ago - in a scene, they were asking me to change a shirt and take a shirt off and then put a sweater on in a scene. And I said, I can't do this. And they said, why not? I said, well, because Michael can't possibly be as well-built as I am. We can't do this, you know? And I found a way to do it in which we could hide it. I was halfway behind a door and I had the sweater in my hand. As the shirt came off, it was - the sweater was already on. I take that kind of strange concern with me to work. Sometimes I'm a little too picky. But I really like to try and give the audience kind of the best representation and not lie to them.
GROSS: Are you recognized when you're out of character?
SCOLARI: Yes, I am consistently recognized. And what's been nice in the last year is that I don't seem to be getting recognized as the character. This was something that was happening in the last, you know, prior two or three years. But in this last year, some sort of sensibility has come into my life from the outside world where people know that I'm this actor who plays this character. What I do get is when people do recognize me, they often laugh. It's like I have something on my head that I'm not aware of and I really get a kick out of it. It's not what I might have imagined, but they do. They look and they go, oh, that's that guy. Look at him. It's kind of funny.
GROSS: Thanks so much for talking with us.
SCOLARI: Oh my pleasure, Terry. Thanks for having me.
BIANCULLI: Actor Peter Scolari speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. He died of cancer last week at age 66. After a break, John Powers reviews the new film "Passing." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BLUE ORGAN TRIO'S "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.