Actors on television are usually known best by their last series role--a blessing and a curse that Peter Scolari knows too well.
For six seasons on the CBS comedy series "Newhart," Scolari was familiar to audiences as the pretentious Michael Harris, a smarmy, yet somehow likable yuppie. For two seasons before "Newhart," Scolari was Hildegard, Tom Hanks' roommate-in-drag on ABC's cult sitcom "Bosom Buddies." Before that, he was a minor character in the short-lived ABC sitcom "Goodtime Girls."
And before that?
"I was with a decorated theater company in New York," Scolari said, referring to the seven years he spent at the prestigious Collonades Theatre Lab in the company of such actors as Danny DeVito, Rhea Pearlman and Jeff Goldblum. "We were planning on becoming the national theater."
Nine months after the hailed finale of "Newhart," Scolari is now concentrating on dramatic television roles to re-establish himself as an actor to be taken seriously.
On Sunday night, Scolari stars as an investment banker in the ABC movie "Fire! Trapped on the 37th Floor," based on the 1988 blaze in downtown Los Angeles' First Interstate bank building. Then in the Disney Channel's Easter Sunday movie "Perfect Harmony," Scolari plays a New England choirmaster in 1959 who accepts a post in South Carolina at a segregated boys academy. And in an unscheduled episode of "Lifestories," the dramatic NBC series now relegated to monthly specials, he portrays a man who fails to see that his marriage is crumbling.
Scolari, 35, believes that it's not yet too late to establish his dramatic credentials. "Absolutely not," he said, shaking his head.
Scruffy in jeans and a two-day beard, Scolari discussed his career over breakfast at a Beverly Hills deli. Although he has achieved undeniable success on television, it wasn't the kind of success he set out for after venturing from New York a dozen years ago.
"I was very concerned then that I was spending more than 10 minutes in television," Scolari said.
Needing work, however, Scolari's agent suggested he take a role on "Goodtime Girls." The salary was about $70,000--"more money than I ever thought I'd see in one year," Scolari said. When the series folded after a season, he was urged to another pilot.
Before he knew it, Scolari found himself opposite a young actor named Tom Hanks, just discovered in a talent search, on "Bosom Buddies." Because he still carried a "New York snobbery" about acting, Scolari said, "I did not love the shows. Not when we made them."
Still, Scolari was perfect for the broad physical comedy necessary to dress up as a female boarder in "Bosom Buddies." A self-taught student of vaudeville, Scolari was a professional juggler and an accomplished college athlete.
Scolari said he and Hanks were not allowed to be themselves on the sitcom, which he feels ultimately caused ABC to cancel the show, over viewer protest, after two seasons.
"We fought and fought and fought to get the drag element taken out of the show," he explained. "And we never won... The gimmick killed us.
"We did some of our best work in drag, but that's because you put two guys, who are as serious about their work as Hanks and I are, in dresses and wigs and Joan Crawford hurt-me pumps and we're going to go after it in the most aggressive way possible."
Not long after "Bosom Buddies" ended, Scolari's wife, Brooklyn attorney Lisa Kretzchmar, asked for a divorce because she was tired of bicoastal living. To prop himself up, Scolari signed on to another sitcom. He toiled for 12-hour days on "Newhart," an under-appreciated series that, although loved by the critics, captured neither large audiences nor Emmys. Meanwhile, his close friend Hanks was ascending to superstar status in feature films.
Despite Scolari's own drive to establish himself in features (he co-starred in last year's panned "Corporate Affairs"), he said that today he is bypassed for choice film roles because of his long association with television.
"In the most upper-echelon of the film industry, I'm a guy who's talked about for many roles," Scolari said, "but I don't get any of them. I don't even get to compete for them. ...I've sat for two, three months knowing that I was in first or second position for a studio film, and never once got to go in and meet the people or audition for the role.
"It is frustrating. But it's OK. I mean, I wouldn't have told you that three, four years ago. There was nothing OK about it then. I got closer to major film roles (12 years ago) when I first moved here."
More patient now, willing to wait his turn for a good film offer, Scolari continues to court television. Dramatic TV roles drop in his lap, and he is awaiting approval from Fox Television executives on a gritty sitcom he brought them called "Stout-Hearted Men," about two mismatched FBI agents.
Even his attitude toward television has mellowed. Catching episodes of "Bosom Buddies" in syndication now, Scolari finds the show very funny.
Asked if he has any regrets, Scolari pointed to one. "Only one, and it's very qualified, because I would not trade my own experiences for anything," said Scolari, happily married to costume designer Debra Steagal with two young sons.
"But as a strategist, as a player--I'm a poker player--I would have loved to have made the choices my own in my early days in Hollywood, and not my agent's. She was a good woman, a bright woman, who saw a light comic actor who was flexible and agile and athletic. And that's where he went, and that's what he did."
"Fire! Trapped on the 37th Floor" airs Monday at 9 p.m. on ABC.