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Pretty Big Break : One Toadying Role Makes Larry Miller a Big-Time Jerk

December 06, 1990|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

One of the small joys of "Pretty Woman," that improbable box office skyrocket about a leggy hooker turned Cinderella, was the appearance of Larry Miller as the toadying manager of a snobby Rodeo Drive clothes store.

Miller wasn't on the screen long, but his knack for turning a "yes, sir!" into a kowtow of the lowest order plucked the scene away from the movie's big stars, Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Reaction to Miller's performance was fast and a little surprising. The comic who had done his time in the many nightclubs across the country, received some notice during several stints on "The Tonight Show," "Late Night With David Letterman" and the ill-fated CBS "Morning Program," and had even acted on stage, now found himself a genuine celebrity (albeit a small one).

"I'd been working hard and a lot before, but (the film) did have a big impact," said Miller, who performs his stand-up act tonight at the Improv in Irvine, where he'll continue through Sunday.

"You reach a point where you've been putting bricks in the wall with each gig, and then 'Pretty Woman' comes along. It's gotten me noticed, that's for sure. It's like suddenly someone turns around and says, 'Was that house there before, a whole house? Wasn't that just an empty lot?' "

The attention has brought big career steps, in both features and television. Miller has roles in "The Favor" (starring Elizabeth McGovern and Ken Wahl) and "Suburban Commando" (a Hulk Hogan vehicle), both coming out around April. He's also signed a deal to star in a sitcom pilot for the Fox Network scheduled for a March premiere.

"In the films I play jerks, just like in 'Pretty Woman,' " Miller said during a phone interview from his parents' Valley Stream house on Long Island, N.Y. (he used to live there but now makes Los Angeles his home). "I play the head of an architectural firm, a real jerk, in 'Suburban Commando' and a huge jerk of a university professor in 'The Favor.'

"The series is a little vaguer, but it won't be the usual high concept thing . . . you know, in the night we're cops but in the day we wear dresses. We'll try to distill what's funny about me and the situations."

In the many good reviews that Miller's publicist sent over, what's apparently funny about the 37-year-old comedian is his dry storytelling based on a relatively ordinary life. Ordinary, but not unexamined.

He likes to dig into things, which results in a style that "is whimsical, an affectionate smile at the darker sides of living."

Like when his family gets together for Thanksgiving dinner in Valley Stream. "Everything starts out great, with the kids in polo shirts chasing puppy dogs through piles of leaves," but then things get iffy. "On his 10th beer, my father leans over to Uncle Lou and says, 'You know, I never liked you!' "

Miller goes on, "Outside, it's 'Father Knows Best,' but inside, 'Nightmare on Elm Street.' "

Then, giving a new slant to Einstein's Theory of Relativity, he adds: "Time seems to go more slowly with your relatives."

This anecdotal approach has prompted some reviewers to liken Miller to Bill Cosby, a comparison Miller welcomes. Cosby is his hero, not only for his down-home ability to tuck an audience into his back pocket, but for the encouragement he gave Miller at an early stage in his career.

"He was playing in Las Vegas and Jerry (Seinfeld, a good friend of Miller) went up to talk to him before the show, just a couple of knuckleheaded, young comedians. He spent three hours with us, talking about jokes, timing, all that. He was the most nurturing kind of teacher, and that meant a lot to both of us."

Who: Larry Miller.

When: Thursday, Dec. 6, at 8:30 p.m.; Friday, Dec. 7, at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 8, at 8 and 10:30 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 9, at 8:30 p.m.

Where: The Improv, 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine.

Whereabouts: In the Irvine Marketplace shopping center, across Campus Drive from UC Irvine.

Wherewithal: $7 to $10.

Where to call: (714) 854-5455.

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