Lisa Schwarzbaum
March 15, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

”I wake up in the middle of the night screaming ‘Hakuna Matata,”’ swears Nathan Lane. It’s lunchtime in lower Manhattan, a week before the opening of The Birdcage, and the man who stars, opposite Robin Williams, as Albert — querulous, reigning drag queen by night; devoted, high-strung homemaker by day — in Mike Nichols’ remake of the 1978 French farce La Cage aux Folles is staring fame and a dish of risotto in the face. ”I’m joking,” he assures, punching up his delivery with a deadpan drop of the jaw, a nasalized push of the voice, a supplicating rise of the eyebrows.

He says joking with acidic tones that project neurotic, pan-ethnic, urbanized exasperation; it is the specialite of the 40-year-old, New Jersey-born Lane, and he has won many admirers for his troubles. This is what joking looks like to the actor who, after winning raves and assorted theater awards over the past half dozen years for his New York stage roles (among them Guys and Dolls, Love! Valour! Compassion!, and Laughter on the 23rd Floor), and after appearing in nearly a dozen films (including Frankie and Johnny and He Said, She Said) and one much-noticed TV commercial (for NyQuil), is still best known as the voice behind the small, voluble, high-energy meerkat Timon in Disney’s large animated movie The Lion King.

In that enterprise, Lane, working with Ernie Sabella as the voice of Timon’s corpulent, flatulent warthog buddy, Pumbaa, says at one point, ”What do you want me to do, dress in drag and dance the hula?” And now here he is in his first big, leading diva movie role, dressed, variously, in chiffon scarves, brocade caftans, a bustier, and a Barbara Bush wig. ”It’s a plum role in a very classy project,” Lane says proudly, and he’s happy to have it. Originally, Steve Martin was slated to play the more sedate ”husband” part of Armand and Williams would have been Albert, the ”wife.” ”Then Steve wasn’t available, and time was passing. Somehow my name came up, and Mike decided that I was the right person for the job.” A big movie production at last! ”In a lot of people’s perception, you haven’t made it unless you’ve made it in film.” He forks some rice. ”You know, theater, in L.A., on the entertainment food chain, falls somewhere between accordion playing and folk dancing.”

Oy. ”Be careful what you wish for!” he moans, then falls silent and stares at his plate.

”Nathan? Oh, he can be very quiet off stage,” says Sabella. The two, who worked together on Guys and Dolls before goofing and ad-libbing their way into major roles in The Lion King, are currently rehearsing for the Broadway revival of the classic Stephen Sondheim/Larry Gelbart/Burt Shevelove musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Lane plays the role originated by Zero Mostel in 1962. ”He doesn’t say much, but when he does…,” adds Sabella. ”He’s thoughtful. He’s a perfectionist.” Some prime examples of Lane’s comic musical talents were snipped during the making of Birdcage, including an all-out production of Sondheim’s naughty song ”Can That Boy Fox Trot,” supposedly to pick up the pace of the story. (Any bootleg copies of the performance could become treasured collectors’ items.) And Lane says he and Williams pushed, at first, to make Armand and Albert a little hipper — ”more knowing and with a little more of an edge” — than Elaine May’s script and Nichols’ original conception of two guys running a drag club in Miami’s trendy South Beach. But mostly Lane and his costar had a fine time swanning around together and comparing notes on doing voices for Disney. ”He got a Picasso,” Lane kvetches, referring to the gift the studio sent to Williams for his low-cost work on Aladdin after that movie made a trillion dollars, ”and I got that painting with the six dogs playing poker.”

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