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Funny Thing, Success

Family man Dana Carvey returns to movies with a healthier view of ambition

July 28, 2002|SEAN MITCHELL

Dana Carvey is back. That might not qualify as the show business headline of the week except that for many Americans familiar with Carvey's personal comic cavalcade--the Church Lady, Garth Algar and spot-on impersonations of a squeaky-voiced Ross Perot and a goofball George Bush Sr.-- the last thing they may remember about Carvey is that four years ago, he nearly went away for good as a result of botched open-heart surgery at the post-"Saturday Night Live" age of 43.

A Bay Area surgeon mistakenly bypassed the wrong artery during an operation on Carvey in March 1998, leaving him vulnerable to a heart attack until another operation (with a different surgeon) corrected the mistake. When the original doctor wouldn't admit his error, Carvey sued for malpractice in the full glare of media sympathy. He settled out of court and donated the proceeds to charity.

"If he had called me and apologized," Carvey says, "I wouldn't have had the moral authority to sue him because I didn't need the money and didn't need the publicity. But he was literally denying that he made the error, so I had to go through with it, knowing it would lead to a lot of misinformation about me and my health."

Today people frequently ask him how he feels, which he understands but still must endure with private irony, especially when the question comes, he says, from "giant guys smoking cigarettes." He demonstrates: " 'You awright, Mr. Cahvey?' "

He wants to tell them, "I never had a heart attack or heart damage, so I'm completely whole and functional and very lucky. I don't feel any effects, I feel great." And has for some time. Nevertheless, while his "Wayne's World" pal and partner in mock suburban slackerhood, Mike Myers, was busy inventing Austin Powers and building another blockbuster Hollywood comedy franchise, Carvey retreated to his Marin County home and became a stay-at-home dad to his two young sons, Tom and Dex.

He says the furious ambition that propelled him through his years on "Saturday Night Live" (1986-93) deserted him after he and his wife, Paula, had kids. "My career just didn't mean as much to me. I thought I would just kind of fade away."

"Dude!" Mike Myers surely would interject at this point. "No way!"

"Way," Carvey might respond in a somewhat more earnest version of Garth's geeky timidity.

Yet today he's in Beverly Hills beating the drum (or at least strumming the guitar) for his first project since the angioplasties. It's a PG film called "Master of Disguise," in which he stars as a nerdy Italian waiter named Pistachio who must discover his hidden powers of impersonation to rescue his parents from an evildoer who has kidnapped them.

Co-starring James Brolin as his father and Jennifer Esposito as his farcical spy-world "assistant," the Columbia film opening Friday was written by Carvey and Harris Goldberg and directed by first-timer Perry Andelin Blake. It's a tame comedy, and Carvey is nothing if not humble about it.

"It's a movie that I made for my kids," he says, sipping bottled water in his room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he is dressed for an afternoon at the mall in baggy shorts, a polo shirt and off-road running shoes. A former high school runner (his dad was track coach), Carvey looks to be in wiry good shape without flaunting it. When pressed, he admits, "I ran 45 minutes on the treadmill today and did a half-hour of StairMaster. I may go lift weights and do a half-hour bike after this. I work out a lot, but basically no one could be the lead in a movie that has you in makeup 17 hours a day if they had any kind of health issue.

"There are some real eccentric things in it," he continues, speaking of "Master of Disguise." "I'm always trying to get the audience to laugh at stuff that can become indelible because it makes no sense, that is so abstract and silly. But sometimes the audience goes, 'What?' "Indeed, Carvey's "SNL" signature came from the small details of his characters and impersonations, in contrast to the larger-than-life spoofers like John Belushi, Adam Sandler and Chris Farley, whose comic personas leaped off that stage and into the movies.

Tailored to Carvey's talent for mimicry, "Master of Disguise" lifts off from the premise that Carvey's character is a descendant of famous Italian impostors named the Disguiseys, who have a mythical status in the Mediterranean, equivalent to Zorro. Relocated to America, the Disguiseys have tried to go legit, but are forced to don masks and prosthetic disguises when a villain (Brent Spiner) schemes to borrow their powers to steal precious American artifacts for sale on the black market.

Meek and clueless, Pistachio Disguisey must save his parents by suddenly learning the impersonation trade, which he does, clumsily, under the tutelage of his grandfather (Harold Gould), who shows him how to harness the magical force of "energico."

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