Still, Kline allows that he prefers to work. He makes comedies, he says, because they make him happy: "You check your self-consciousness at the door. Sometimes, you need to remind yourself not to get too unself-conscious. But I'm not easily embarrassed, and being silly means a whole lot of laughing. We ruined so many takes on 'A Fish Called Wanda' because someone would ad-lib and John Cleese would crack up."
Then there is the inevitable pull back to the dark side. "I called my agent one day and said, 'I'd like to do something bleak and depressing,' and he called back and said, 'I've found it! It's the bleakest, darkest script I've ever read,' and that was 'The Ice Storm,'" the Ang Lee-directed tale of suburban moral malaise in the early '70s.
The one constant in Kline's career is his sense of perfectionism. "This isn't a man who goes to his trailer," Winkler says. "On 'De-Lovely,' he would play Porter on the piano between scenes. On 'Life as a House,'" in which Kline played an architect, "he built models." Adds "Extra Man's" Berman: "We were doing a scene where Kevin is carried up the steps because his back has gone out after a day at the beach and, of course, we shot out of sequence. There we were, with the bondsman making us sweat, and Kevin said, 'I can't do this scene without sand in my shoes! I've just come from the beach!' So someone had to go to Central Park and get some sand from a playground. But it's always about the movie and his role, and never about his personal ego or needs. And, somehow, he's always right."
Still, there have been missteps. It may not be a coincidence that Kline wasn't reading scripts he loved immediately after "Wild Wild West," which was critically drubbed (The Times' Kenneth Turan called it "clumsy" and "disappointing"), but the actor insists he's comfortable with his lack of power in determining the outcome of a film after he's done his job: "If you want more than that, you have to be a director." Of 2002's "The Emperor's Club," in which he played an idealistic classics teacher at a prep school, he says, "It was based on Ethan Canin's book, which had a great title, 'The Palace Thief,'" Kline remembers. "But the studio said, 'Oh, no, you can't use that as a title. There's no palace and there's no thief.' But 'The Emperor's Club'?" Kline rolls his eyes. "I chortled when that turned out to be the name of the escort service that Eliot Spitzer used. It's a good name for an escort service. It's not so good for a movie."
He's been pleased with his recent choices, which cater to both his silly and serious sides. He recently filmed a cameo in a new comedy by Ivan Reitman, with whom he worked on 1993's "Dave." "I like working with people I have a history with," the actor says. "I've done five films with Lawrence Kasdan ['French Kiss,' 'I Love You to Death,' 'Grand Canyon,' 'Silverado,' 'The Big Chill'], three with Michael Hoffman ['The Emperor's Club,' 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' 'Soapdish'], two with Dickie Attenborough ['Chaplin,' 'Cry Freedom'] and two with Alan Pakula ['Consenting Adults,' 'Sophie's Choice']."
He's also had a critically acclaimed turn on Broadway with the lead in "Cyrano de Bergerac" opposite Jennifer Garner and stars next in the upcoming Robert Redford period picture "The Conspirator," in which he plays Edwin Stanton, Abraham Lincoln's secretary of war.
Indeed, despite Winkler's concerns, Kline is sounding like a downright "yes" man these days. "There is so much I still have to learn, so many things I have to get better at," Kline says. "And, yes, there are still so many things I want to do."