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He's Homer, but This Odyssey Is His Own

Comedian Dan Castellaneta, the voice of 'The Simpsons' ' daffy dad, steps into the spotlight in his one-man show.

July 06, 1999|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dan Castellaneta arrives for breakfast in West Los Angeles with a briefcase. It's a very un-chic briefcase, the sort of thing a traveling salesman might carry on his rounds, a constant companion in the passenger seat of a rental car.

Castellaneta, too, exudes workmanlike anonymity. The briefcase, he says, contains his Day-Timer, a portable phone, head shots for casting people. At 41, he is mostly bald, of medium height and build, with an unremarkable face. Shy and a little cautious around strangers, he seems perennially the guy of whom you take no particular notice.

These lunch-pail qualities served him well in 1987, when he was plucked from the famed comedy troupe Second City in Chicago to be one of the regular players on "The Tracey Ullman Show," a sketch comedy show on the then-fledgling Fox network. Ullman, a rising comedic star, needed to be surrounded by talented people, but not talented people who might steal the spotlight. Enter Castellaneta, who had earned a reputation for brilliance but came sans the star baggage. For the actor, "Tracey Ullman" would prove to be the big break before the bigger break; when "The Simpsons" began life as animated vignettes on "Tracey Ullman," Castellaneta did the voice of the father, Homer, and he's been doing it ever since.

But if "The Simpsons" has brought him riches and a quasi-celebrity, nothing about Castellaneta's career has signaled, to paraphrase "Death of a Salesman," that attention must be paid. This might not change with Castellaneta's one-man show, "Where Did Vincent Van Gogh?," running Wednesday nights through July 28 at L.A.'s Acme Theatre, but in 90-minute bursts Castellaneta is nevertheless showcasing his incredible gift for mimicry and character acting, and this time there's no one else around to upstage him. No one, that is, except the characters he plays, including a Billie Holiday impersonator, a ventriloquist's dummy, a schizophrenic Puerto Rican baseball player, a theater director devising a musical pitting cat lovers against dog lovers, and a bike messenger who likes to hang out at the local Wendy's, striking up conversations with strangers on his lunch break.

Written by Castellaneta and directed by Art Wolff, "Where Did Vincent Van Gogh?" begins with Castellaneta as the tortured Van Gogh, given to hallucinatory spells, before revealing the show's narrator: a space alien recruiting humans from a doomed planet Earth by trying on their personalities.

Such character channeling serves as a fitting premise for an actor who has long sought refuge in other voices and other people--an actor serving the work but to the exclusion of an outsized identity of his own.

"I was never able to develop a persona as an actor," Castellaneta admits, remembering that people often said the same thing about the late Phil Hartman. "Peter Sellers was like that. You didn't really know who he was. You could never really pinpoint it. . . . Even when he had to play closest to straight, like [in the film] 'I Love You Alice B. Toklas,' it was a straight role, but he was playing a Jewish American lawyer."

Friends and former colleagues from Chicago's Second City say that once you get to know Castellaneta the shyness goes away and his antic humor bursts forth. Ullman, for one, has Castellaneta fixed in her mind this way: "Inside he's this little man from Chicago in polyester pants who's a quiet genius."

"Dan always served the scene," says Richard Kind, who worked with Castellaneta in Second City and is currently a regular on the ABC sitcom "Spin City." "He never really went out there to be great for himself. Personally, my ego is too big to do that."

Born and raised in Oak Park, Ill., Castellaneta studied art at Northern Illinois University before turning seriously to acting after college. A devotee of the work of Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris and Nichols and May, Castellaneta enrolled in improv classes (meeting his wife, Deb Lacusta, along the way) and then landed a spot in Second City, where he performed as part of various companies from 1983 to '87 and developed into a multifaceted voice artist and gifted actor.

But if the ego of a comedy star dictates that he or she always has to be the funniest person in the room, then Castellaneta is the opposite of a comedy star. What is perhaps most remarkable about his career is that he's been able to take relative obscurity so far. Second City, notes Jane Morris, a former cast member who now teaches at the Improv Underground in Santa Monica, graduates comedy stars (the late John Belushi, Mike Myers, the late Chris Farley), but most of the talented players go decidedly less acknowledged, learning to serve the work before the self and then unable to sell themselves as larger-than-life personalities in the entertainment industry. In Los Angeles, hundreds of such Second City alumni earn a kind of middle-class living as second and third bananas--doing some theater, maybe some writing, and a lot of day player work, taking bit parts on movies and sitcoms.

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