Milton Berle, a figure who for many years epitomized show business, was never a big movie star. You may recall his nickname: Mr. Television. It’s a laudatory sobriquet. There is no shame in it. And some performers would do well to remember this when charting their career paths. Take, for the most striking examples in years, the movie disasters of several ex-members of the Saturday Night Live cast.
You can blame the whole problem on early SNL expatriates — namely, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Eddie Murphy — who achieved early big-screen success. Unlike most of Lorne Michaels’ crew, however, they came to Hollywood bearing distinct personae, not just talents for concocting a variety of them. And, you may have noticed, the vogue for even those personae is not what it used to be.
If Chase and company were the exceptions, then the rule is best embodied by Joe Piscopo. Remember 1988’s Dead Heat? (Rotting zombie cop and criminals. Shows up on cable a lot. Really bites.) His failure on film is a shame, because he was a genuinely inspired mimic during his SNL tenure. That Sinatra bit he did for the ”Gumby’s Christmas Special” sketch was hysterical. But that just isn’t the stuff movie stars are made of.
In much the same way, Martin Short’s ability to inhabit characters of grotesque venality or pathetic geekiness is only a hair short of genius, and he’s funny as himself, too — on talk shows, he projects an amiability that belies a chillingly acerbic wit. The trouble is, that sort of thing is too brainy for Hollywood to recognize, let alone exploit, and Short’s career as a movie lead mostly consists of him playing clumsy Milquetoasts and doing the kind of shtick he used to hammer mercilessly when he imitated Jerry Lewis on both SNL and SCTV.
In short, character actors should play character parts. Jon Lovitz seems to have grasped this: As the heavy-lidded, couldn’t-care-less recruiter in 1992’s A League of Their Own he got the biggest laughs with his butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth delivery of some pretty routine wisecracks. Other SNL vets have had a harder time finding even such limited movie roles. Forever cursed should be the individual who suggested to the delightful Laraine Newman that her prominent proboscis rendered her too New Yawk (or too Jewish) even for a supporting-player career. Although she got most of that nose lopped off, she wound up as a third banana in the grossly mistitled 1985 health club flick Perfect.
Then there’s Dana Carvey. You could hardly say his screen career has bombed: After all, he costarred with SNL pal Michael Myers in Wayne’s World (1992), which did quite well, thank you, and in WW 2 (1993), which didn’t do as well but was decent nonetheless. But the Wayne’s World movies were based on audience-tested SNL sketches and, more to the point, featured Carvey and Myers in character roles that happened to be the leads. In dramatic contrast, Clean Slate, Carvey’s first real shot at leading-man status (his role in 1990’s regrettable Opportunity Knocks was a mishmash) is not bad by a long shot. In fact, it’s funny in parts; it’s just awfully slight.
Carvey plays a detective with a rare form of amnesia: He loses his memory every time he goes to sleep. The writing is moderately clever, and while Carvey doesn’t get to use his uncanny talent for mimicry and accents all that much, he manages to amuse, mostly in reaction to the unnerving situations he constantly steps into. But without any masks to put on, he can also be pretty bland. His character is sleeping with his best friend’s fiancee, but looking at Carvey’s unfailingly pleasant albeit blank mug, you’d never believe he’d be such a dog. True leading men need to convey a lot more than mere likability. When Carvey did James Stewart on SNL he was hysterical. It’s quite another thing to try to be James Stewart.