You can't help but notice Dan Aykroyd as he enters the dining alcove of a West Hollywood hotel, even if you don't immediately recognize him. In a get-up of knee-length khaki shorts, matching jacket and athletic shoes, he looks as if he's been on safari. Actually he's just done a fast four-mile trek down Laurel Canyon. A trickle of sweat dots his forehead.
The 44-year-old actor-writer-director-comedian and House of Blues entrepreneur, with the kind of well-formed but indistinct features that can suit a host of roles, has come to talk about his prime-time series acting debut on the sitcom "Soul Man"--a four-episode (so far) midseason replacement on ABC. His get-up there is a clerical collar.
Aykroyd plays Mike Weber, a widowed Episcopal minister with four rambunctious children and a rather wild past in a motorcycle gang. Weber, who lives in suburban Detroit, must also cope with a rigid, authoritarian bishop (Dakin Matthews), who questions the minister's often irreverent way of doing things, and a growing attraction to an outspoken--and, of course, comely--reporter (Melinda McGraw) with strong views about the lack of female influence in the church.
Aykroyd confesses that he was "very nervous going into it. Well, 'Can I pull this off?' "
This, despite a career that's lasted nearly a quarter-century, from his fame-making stint on "Saturday Night Live"--where he imitated such icons as Richard Nixon, Julia Child and Rod Serling--to more than 35 movies, with roles encompassing a Ghostbuster, a Conehead, a widowed father in "My Girl" and the son in "Driving Miss Daisy," for which he got an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor.
"I hadn't worked in front of a live audience since doing 'Saturday Night Live' awhile back," Aykroyd explains, puffing a cigarette, "and I wasn't sure whether [my work] would be well-received by the audience . . . But I find it's a lot like doing workshops or plays. You rehearse a lot and trade things back and forth, and you've got to really connect with the other actors."
"Soul Man' was created by Matt Williams, David McFadzean and Carmen Finestra, the creators of "Home Improvement," which airs right after the new series and which is also set in the Detroit area. In the premiere, Weber's church, in need of electrical repair, gets a visit from "Home Improvement's" Tim Taylor (Tim Allen). "We're hoping for it to be a family show like 'Home Improvement,' " says Finestra.
On "Soul Man"--taken from the name of the '60s song written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter and later recorded by the Blues Brothers (Aykroyd and the late John Belushi)--Aykroyd shares executive producer credits with the creating trio and Elliot Shoenman.
Indeed, for comic potential and a certain familiarity, the minister's past membership in the Blacktop Vampires was Aykroyd's idea. "I brought my love of motorcycles," he notes, "and the concept that this is a guy who used to be a sinner who's gone straight."
Anything autobiographical in that? He wasn't quite in a motorcycle gang but, "I had all of these experiences," Aykroyd notes elliptically, "but never extensively, never to where I actually got caught." He smiles wanly: "I think every Canadian kid broke into a cottage once in a while."
What steered Aykroyd to a better path? "I guess just getting [acting] work, and also the concept of what's right and what's wrong."
The product of an upper-middle-class family--his grandfather was a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman; his father, a transportation official in the administration of Pierre Trudeau--Aykroyd studied in a Catholic seminary in his early teens. Coincidentally, Finestra also had seminary training.
While Williams, McFadzean and Finestra toyed with doing a comedy about a minister's family a few years ago, the concept got jump-started late last summer when David A. Neuman, president of Walt Disney Television, told the producers about growing up as a divorced rabbi's son in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His father, Isaac Neuman, who previously headed a congregation in Dothan, Ala., marched in Selma.
Aykroyd, who is married and has two young daughters, came to "Soul Man" late in the game. In February, after the pilot was written, the big guns at Disney--studio chairman Joe Roth; Dean Valentine, president of Walt Disney Television and Walt Disney Television Animation, and Neuman, along with the series creators--approached him. "I was kind of mad at them," he jokes. "It's not like I don't have enough to do."
He's writing a treatment for "Ghostbusters 3," doing a polish on the script of "House of Blues 2000," hosting the syndicated show "Psi Factor" and helping publicize "Grosse Pointe Blank," a new movie in which he has a supporting role.
Several factors persuaded him to take the TV plunge. "The old rule that if you're in a television show or a sitcom, the movie career is frozen--that doesn't apply anymore," Aykroyd says. "You see people like Helen Hunt, coming from 'Mad About You,' doing films. Tim Allen now has a terrific film career. George Clooney. . . . Now maybe I'll broaden my audience a little [with] the younger generation."
In addition, he says, "I don't think I would have taken this if [the character] was just a guy at an ad agency or a guy running a gas station. I really like this platform, the concept that the overriding part of this character's life is his commitment to his flock."
Aykroyd's own commitments are many. Next stop on his walk across town is a script session in Century City.
\o7 "Soul Man" premieres Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.\f7