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Oscars 2017
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Nathan Lane's animated meerkat sidekick

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Ironically, Disney heroes and heroines aren’t the easiest characters to love. Maybe it’s because they’re so damn good. It’s always the imperfect, overeager second bananas who steal our hearts: the seven dwarves, the calypso-singing crab, the big blue genie — all cute, cuddly, and plush-toy ready.

But Lion King audiences are falling for a most unlikely critter: Timon, a nervous little meerkat, adept at standing on his hind legs and digging with his claws. Not the kind of thing you’d expect to adopt at Toys ”R” Us, except that this meerkat has the manic rhythms, mannerisms, and eyebrows of Nathan Lane — the New York stage actor adept at delivering one-liners, projecting a put-upon lovableness, and, in this case, lending a crucial element of goofy levity to an often dark and scary film.

When Lane landed the role in 1992, he brought the Runyonesque cadences he was already using as Nathan Detroit in Broadway’s Guys and Dolls. But there was one problem: He wasn’t sure what a meerkat was. ”I don’t get out much,” he explains. ”A friend of mine gave me a National Geographic documentary about meerkats, and they’re really kind of hilarious. Rarely do people know what they are, but there have been people who’ve gone, ‘A meerkat?’ and gotten very excited. So they have a small cult following in the animal kingdom.”

Over an 18-month period, animators videotaped Lane and his Guys and Dolls costar Ernie Sabella (the voice of Timon’s warthog buddy, Pumbaa) while the pair recorded their lavishly ad-libbed vocal tracks. The artists later gave Timon many of Lane’s own idiosyncrasies. ”Timon does something that I do all the time. I just bury my head in my hands like this,” says Lane, demonstrating. ”And the animal does it. That’s really scary [to watch].”

Outside of theater circles, Lane, 38, is best known as Michelle Pfeiffer’s endearing gay neighbor in 1991’s Frankie & Johnny and as the beleaguered insomniac of NyQuil ads. He left Guys and Dolls in 1993, and is now starring on Broadway in Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor as a Sid Caesar-esque ’50s TV personality. Like that legendarily benumbed performer, Lane has also cleaned up his act off stage: He stopped drinking and says he’s been sober for about a year. (His father, an alcoholic, died when Lane was 11, and Lane’s mother, a secretary, raised him and his two siblings in Jersey City, N.J.)

But the teetotaling Lane is in no danger of becoming a bland, goody-goody Disney hero. He’ll soon star in the film version of Paul Rudnick’s Off Broadway play Jeffrey, playing a wildly gay Catholic priest who thinks Tommy Tune should be Pope. And don’t look for Lane to make a career out of The Lion King’s spin-offs. ”You think I’m gonna get in a meerkat suit and be dancing at the New Amsterdam [Disney’s Broadway theater] in the stage version of The Lion King?” says Lane, wrinkling his eyes. ”I don’t think so.”

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