Former 'SNL' master thespian Jon Lovitz gives voice to a new 'toon in 'The Critic'

By Benjamin Svetkey
February 11, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Jon Lovitz is, ah, having an affair with Sharon Stone. Yeah, that’s the ticket. And he’s just been cast as, ah, Heathcliff in the new Merchant Ivory production of Wuthering Heights. Sure, that’s it. And his wife, ah, Morgan Fairchild, is having his baby…

Well, ah, of course not. But the man who invented Saturday Night Live‘s Tommy Flanagan — president of Pathological Liars Anonymous — has returned to TV in The Critic, a half-hour animated comedy produced by some of the same inspired doodlers who produced The Simpsons. Lovitz is the voice of Jay Sherman, a balding, divorced Jewish intellectual New York film critic who hosts a Sneak Previews-style cable-TV show in which he reviews such faux flicks as Rabbi P.I., starring a cartoon Ah-nuld (”Hava nagila, baby”). He’s got his own snappy catchphrase (”It stinks!”), a clueless 11-year-old son, adoptive WASP parents in Connecticut, and enough Manhattan angst to give Woody’s therapist the heebie-jeebies.

”Originally the show was written as a live-action sitcom,” says Lovitz, 36, poking pensively at a Duraflame log in his hotel suite near Niagara Falls, where he’s currently filming It Happened in Paradise, a comedy with Dana Carvey and Nicolas Cage. ”I turned it down. I didn’t want to make that kind of a commitment to TV. I wanted to concentrate on making my movie career take off.”

That movie career had some problems getting off the launchpad. Lovitz, who lives in L.A., left SNL in 1990 after five seasons to make Mom and Dad Save the World, an abysmal sci-fi spoof (he played an alien blowhard named Tod Spengo) that bombed at the box office. ”I drove my friends nuts asking them if I should go back to SNL,” he says. ”But I can’t even watch the show today — it gives me an anxiety attack remembering what it was like to be under that kind of pressure.”

His film prospects improved after he played the cynical baseball scout Ernie ”Cappy” Capadino in Penny Marshall’s 1992 hit, A League of Their Own. This summer he’ll be Billy Crystal’s loser brother in City Slickers II (opening June 10), and the movie he’s making now with Carvey and Cage (planned for October) promises to offer his juiciest role yet. He plays one of three bank-robbing brothers who find themselves charmed by the small town they’ve just ripped off (”Midnight Run meets It’s a Wonderful Life,” Carvey describes it).

”We wrote The Critic with Lovitz in mind,” says Mike Reiss, who executive-produces the series along with fellow Simpsons alums Al Jean and James L. Brooks. ”We’d been watching him for years — even before he went on SNL. So when he turned down the sitcom we decided to change it to a cartoon rather than recast. We couldn’t even imagine doing it without him.”

Lovitz, though, was still reluctant. ”I didn’t want to become Mr. Magoo,” he says. ”I didn’t want audiences to only think of me as a voice in a cartoon.”

What ultimately nudged him into doing the show was the pilot’s savagely satirical script, chock-full of sly movie-industry in-jokes and cameos by Jerry Seinfeld and Al Sharpton knockoffs. But to seal the deal, Lovitz made Reiss and Jean promise that his animated character wouldn’t resemble the real Lovitz too much (the ‘toon they came up with looks more like Charlie Brown crossed with Danny DeVito). They also agreed to work around his film schedule and provide a stand-in voice for times when Lovitz wasn’t available (”Just for grunts and groans and stuff,” says Reiss. ”Jon does all the real dialogue himself”). In the end, it may have been Lovitz’s smartest career move: The critics love The Critic (although Lovitz doesn’t return the favor: ”A lot of them are just jealous of the people they’re writing about”), and ABC has enough faith in the show to run it in one of its best time slots, as the lead-in to the network’s No. 1 series, Home Improvement (the Jan. 26 premiere pulled in 27 million viewers).

Not that the show is a guaranteed hit: As with all the cleverest TV offerings, there’s the danger that The Critic may be too smart for its own good (see the late, great Ben Stiller Show). ”Oh, I don’t know,” says Lovitz. ”Sherman is a pretty normal guy. He’s divorced, adopted, has a son. And by now people outside New York know what Jews are. I think The Critic could become a very big hit.”

Perhaps even bigger than Lovitz would want? ”Frankly, my goal is to be a movie star,” he says, sounding a bit like SNL‘s Master Thes-pian. ”Any actor who tells you he doesn’t want to be famous is full of crap. I’ve been a waiter, an orderly, a messenger — and I can tell you that being a movie star is much better. No comparison.”

No lie.