The best comedians can be identified by one distinctive factor they rode to pop culture fame on. For Groucho, it was being the loopy king of the wisecrack. Jackie Gleason embodied the hapless get-rich schemer, while Don Rickles distinguished himself as a bald-headed insult machine. Over five seasons of Saturday Night Live playing such inimitable characters as Master Thespian and The Pathological Liar, Jon Lovitz would become The Schlub par excellence. Painting with shades of slovenly obnoxious worthy of a nosy Picasso, Lovitz created wonderfully grating roles in such films as ¡Three Amigos!, North, A League of Their Own, Little Nicky, Rat Race, and Dickie Roberts, while also using his resonant '40s-style voice to give panache to such animated characters as TV’s The Critic, and Radio in The Brave Little Toaster.
Yet none of the schlemiels in Lovitz’s rogue gallery can compare to the real life sliminess of Adam Kidan, a disbarred lawyer and mattress salesman whose ineptness helps drag down Washington’s most powerful lobbyist in Casino Jack. If half the expected delight is seeing a star like Kevin Spacey lose his cool in character, then the raging ineptness that Lovitz conveys as Kidan makes Casino Jack into a hilarious and more-than-troubling fireworks show of political wrongdoing. The scheming begins as Jack Abramoff has the not too-bright idea of putting his longtime friend in charge of a fleet of offshore gambling boats once owned by an equally onerous Greek gambling boss, “Gus” Boulis (Daniel Kash), who won’t stay out of the picture. The mob-connected Kidan to dives headfirst into a sea of babes, drugs, and bribery without paying the bill, which sees the dejected former captain stab out an IOU on his face. In retaliation, Kidan has his pal Big Tony (Maury Chaykin, in his last performance) take out Boulis, of course using Kidan’s check for services rendered.
But beyond being surface funny as Kidan, Lovitz’s performance also gets at the corruption that stands for paycheck politics--a practice that Abramoff owned like no one else in Washington before Kidan’s antics helped bring him down. This reptilian yet curiously charming Kidan might just be the most distinguished oil slick in Lovitz’s resume. Better yet, Lovitz more than holds his own with a dramatic powerhouse like Kevin Spacey, if not nearly stealing every scene with him. Sure, murder, graft, and selling political favors are no laughing matter, but they’re entertaining as hell, with Lovitz embodying the political bottom feeder in Casino Jack.
Now basking in the glow of Casino Jack’s well-received festival openings, yet stunned by the sudden passing of filmmaker George Hickenlooper, Lovitz reflects on his early dramatic training at UC Irvine to show that his talents derive from far more than the hilarious shtick many thumb-nosing critics see him as running on.
Daniel Schweiger: What do you think convinced Casino Jack’s producers you could play this part?
Jon Lovitz: It’s really George Hickenlooper. It’s horribly sad and devastating because he died out of the blue. He was such a nice guy. George’s background was in making documentaries like Hearts of Darkness, and you see a lot of those touches in Casino Jack. I told him that I wanted to be real in the movie, and not bigger than life. I knew I could do that. Before this, I’d get on a movie, tell that them I wanted to do it real, and then have them tell me that they wanted the “big” thing that I do--that “Jon Lovitz” thing. So when people ask me why I always do the same thing, I say, “Listen, you idiot! I don’t work in a vacuum. There’s a director who wanted me for this part, and he told me the style that he wanted. And it’s my job to do that. It’s his movie.” Still, they’re always screaming and kicking saying, “Don’t do that thing you always do!” George and I joked that, for almost every part in Casino Jack, they wanted someone else--from Kevin down to me. We all just ended up being lucky that the original choices didn’t want to do the film! When I got the part, I asked George if he wanted ‘documentary film acting,’ and he said yes. That’s like watching a documentary about a guy on a farm. If you thought it was a fictional movie, you’d think that farmer was the most brilliant actor ever. What they teach you in drama school is to be completely oblivious to the camera but to still be interesting and have depth. I recently taught drama classes for a comedian friend of mine, which I’d never done before. I learned a lot from those eight months. So when I got this movie, I wanted to do everything that I told my students to do. Actors like Kevin Spacey and Maury Chaykin are so great that you have to try to rise to their level. Otherwise you’ll just get blown off the screen. I said to Kevin that he served me up like a softball! And Maury was so great that I couldn’t tell he was acting at all. It looked like he was doing nothing, which of course is what film acting is. It’s capturing intimate moments between people, because everything is projected. You just have to “normally” speak your dialogue and do “nothing.” And that’s so hard because the camera picks up everything--everything that’s true, and everything that’s false. Everything! So if you’re false in any way, the audience knows it.
DS: In a million years, do you think Adam Kidan would think that you’d be playing him?
JL: I doubt it. I don’t know the guy. George asked me if I wanted to speak to him, and I said no. Kidan is in jail for fraud. He denies having anything to do with the murder of Gus Boulis, but he hired the guys who were arrested for it. So I didn’t want anything to do with this guy. But I saw a couple of pictures of Kidan on the Internet and went with what was written in the script while adding some lines of my own. To be honest, I was surprised by how much I was in the movie, since I only had nine scenes. But it’s the director who makes the movie. I was just with George a week ago in Austin, Texas. It’s heartbreaking. You would have liked him. He was real nice and super warm. He was attracted to Casino Jack because he grew up in a political family that was very left-wing--particularly his mother. All of his family went to Yale. So when he went there, he became a Republican to rebel against his mother. George was a Republican until six years ago, when he saw how their reforms had led to greed and avarice. This is what happened with Jack Abramoff. I listened to what George was telling me and learned a lot, even if I’m not as politically astute as him.
DS: In Alex Gibney’s documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Adam Kidan seems like a straight-laced, boring guy, which is certainly not how you played him.
JL: I don’t think the documentary was out yet when I did the part. I just looked at a picture of Kidan and read about his case so I could understand it better. But at the end of the day, you have to play what’s written in the script, so that’s what I did. I don’t know what Kidan is like. I’d be shocked if you said I was similar to the guy because that would be sheer luck! I know that George said he had a slight New York accent.
DS: Jack Abramoff thought he’d be starting a new Republican revolution. Do you think his arrest reveals a bigger picture for how it all ended up as an indictment of the Republican Party?
JL: I don’t think it’s particularly the Republican Party. There are good people and there are bad people, snd when you can do whatever you want, some people get greedy and they do it. Others say “no” because they think it’s wrong. There’s a part where Jack’s wife says, “Quit trying to justify everything. It doesn’t make it right.” Kidan even calls Abramoff a “fake Jew.” Judaism is really about trying to do the right thing morally, and Jack hides behind that by building a religious school at the same time he’s overcharging the Indian tribes he’s lobbying for. If you think logically, you’re technically overcharging these people by millions. But they’re going to make billions. It’s like in business--if someone said, “Give me $80 million and I’ll make you $2 billion. Do we have a deal?” You’d say sure! It’s like Hollywood thinking, where you might think $25 million is too much to pay an actor for a movie. But if you’ll make a $200 million profit, then you’ll pay that figure. It’s all business. And Abramoff really did give a lot of money away. They even built a hospital and named it after him.
DS: Were you ever worried about people coming out of Casino Jack feeling not the best way about Jewish businessmen?
JL: That never crossed my mind. If someone watches Casino Jack and says, “See, that’s how the Jews are,” then they’re an idiot. You can say someone’s Jewish and cheap, but it’s not because they’re Jewish. It’s because they’re a cheap person. It’s the same thing when Bill O’Reilly said the Muslims attacked us on 9/11. They got really mad at him because it wasn’t like all 800 million Muslims got together and said, “Let’s get New York!’” It was people who were of the Muslim religion, and they were all from Saudi Arabia. So you could also say Saudi Arabia attacked us, but no. It was 22 people from that country. So you can’t just lump in everybody like that. It’s a perversion of the religion. In that way, I don’t think Casino Jack is a slam on Jews in any way, shape or form. But Jack Abramoff is Jewish and did the wrong thing, according to the government, even if he doesn’t think he did anything wrong.
DS: When I was a kid, someone stabbed me in the hand with a pencil. It wasn’t fun, and I still have the mark to prove it. Boulis takes that to a whole other extreme with Kidan in Casino Jack.
JL: That’s where I think the movie really turns. Everything’s been fun and everyone’s doing great to that point. And then things get really ugly. It’s a great scene whose power George really created by cutting back and forth between the government and me being attacked with the pen. It shows you the dichotomy of who Jack Abramoff was dealing with. And with the sound effects and the way they shot it, it’s just brutal. It makes me cringe.
DS: But watching yourself with the topless ladies must have been a lot cooler.
JL: I wasn’t complaining! Adam is a fun character to play.
DS: There have been so many comedians who’ve gone through Saturday Night Live. What does it take to really make a career after the show?
JL: The thing about Saturday Night Live is that you play five different characters a week for five years. But to me, that’s just acting. You have to work on the part and figure it out like it’s a puzzle. Then one day, something comes to you and you say, "Oh! That’s it!” But the first, hardest thing in show business is just getting in the door. Then the second is making your mark. And even harder is keeping your career going after that. After Saturday Night Live, I worked pretty much straight for 11 years, and then it just slowed down all of a sudden. I’d call my agent and manager and told them that, while I wasn’t broke, I was going to run out of money in five years if I didn’t keep working. And they both said, “Why don’t you sell your house?” One was building a mansion and the other was moving into one. So I thought, “That’s your answer? You want me to leave where I live instead of saying, “Yeah, let’s look and find you work?” It was that situation forced me to rely on something else, which is why I decided to start doing stand-up comedy. It was something I always wanted to do, even if it seemed overwhelmingly hard. I was petrified to get on stage, but I’ve wanted to be a comedian ever since I saw Take the Money and Run when I was 13. Then I saw Lenny when I was 16, and got all of [Lenny] Bruce’s albums. Then, 29 years later, I get to be in Small Time Crooks with Woody Allen. I was over the moon. I had a scene where it was just the two of us, and I couldn’t stop smiling. I felt so in synch with Woody and thought, “Doesn’t he see this is the new team- us?!” He was really nice and complimentary to me, so it was great.
DS: Do you see any connection between Kidan running the offshore gambling boats and you running your own comedy clubs?
JL: Kidan also built a chain of mattress stores, so he was a real businessman. I wouldn’t say I’m good at running a retail business, which is why I have Frank Kelly as a business partner. Comedy clubs are a tough business, even if they usually do well in bad economic times because people want to escape. I picked the mood for the club that I recently opened up at Universal’s Citywalk in the location where B.B. King’s club used to be. I wanted it to be different from the “brick wall” theme at my club in Irvine, so we gave this one a beautiful, Hawaiian-themed club. The stage is designed by Bruce Ryan, who’s one of the top set designers in town. For the background, I found a giant old Pan American airlines canvas poster of Waikiki Beach. The artist Robert Wyland, who does the whale murals, donated his artwork. So it’s a really comfortable club with a nice sound system. It’s like an escape.
DS: I think a lot of people are going to come out of Casino Jack not realizing you had this kind of talent. They’ll think, “This guy can act!"
JL: I really appreciate that, but it’s not just me. Most comedic actors are really good actors. I also drew on everything I was taught or had read. Ralph Levy, who produced and directed the Burns and Allen and Jack Benny shows, which I loved, told me that you do all the stuff you’ve learned in drama in a comedy scene, then you have the comedy on top of it. So you, the actor, are aware of the comedy, but the character playing it is oblivious to it, instead of you going out of your way to be “funny.” The great actor Alan Bates said, “Movies photograph thought. If you think it, you feel it.” Montgomery Clift also remarked how, "Film acting is these five or six little things that you do, and they all add up to a character.” When I worked with Tom Hanks on A League of Their Own, he told me how you could speak softly, or loudly, because the microphone was there to capture it all. So I remembered all of these things when I did my scenes for Casino Jack, which I approached as a drama. That meant at first that it didn’t seem like I was doing anything. So I was wondering, “Jeez, Is this too flat?” I started looking for the humor in the scenes and put it in subtly. The audience reads into every little thing you do, and everything is magnified on that huge screen, where your head’s 40 x 60 feet. It’s fun, but it’s hard.
DS: What has the reception of Casino Jack been like for you?
JL: The weird thing was that I started running into all these people involved with Jack Abramoff. I did a Showtime stand-up special that was produced by his brother Bob. Then I met Jack’s son at a screening of the movie. I was recently at a Chris Evert tennis benefit in Boca Raton, Florida. A guy walks up to me there and asks me if I’m in the movie, then reveals to me that he headed the second law-firm that hired and fired Jack Abramoff. Then a woman comes up to me and tells me she was friends with Gus Boulis and had an idea for the sequel to the movie! When I told her the director had passed away, she said that didn’t matter because she wanted to pitch me on her idea!
DS: If you were in a bar and Adam Kidan sat next to you, what would you say to him?
JL: I’d just say, “Well, you know I wasn’t playing you. I mean, I played what was in the script, so I hope you’re not offended…” Again, I don’t know the guy, so you gotta go with what’s in the movie. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. It’s like how George met with Jack Abramoff six times, and one time he brought Kevin. Kevin got a lot of ideas from that, but in the end, it’s just Kevin’s interpretation of the part. He’s doing a lot of the stuff the guy does, but it’s Kevin’s face and voice.
DS: If you had to play a character that no one thought you could do but you knew you could, what would that be?
JL: I know myself, even if I don’t know how people perceive me, but that’s true of any actor. People see your work and they think, “Oh, you’re that,” but they don’t really know what I’m like when I’m not performing. I can play the piano and sing opera. I’m not saying I’m a professional pianist or an opera singer, but I could fake it pretty good. A teacher once told me I could be an opera singer, but I’d have to practice opera every day like an Olympic athlete. But that’s incredibly difficult. I’d have to dedicate my life for years to accomplish that. As an actor, I’ve always wanted to play a part like Marty--not that I’m horribly ugly, but I think I’m too old to do that now. I can also do Shakespeare. When Kevin told me he was going to do Richard III, I thought that would be a fun part to play, but I couldn’t do it like he does. It would be very different. I can’t wait to see Kevin in the part. He’s so amazing, especially with how he’s now the artistic director at the Old Vic Theater in England, where actors like Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Peter O’Toole worked. The Queen wanted to knight him but couldn’t because Kevin’s an American. So they gave him a British order or something, and they call him “Commander.” That’s a real honor. It makes me remember how I first saw Kevin on the TV show Wiseguy 25 years ago, where he played a heroin addict shooting between his toes, going “The toes know!” I thought that guy was really good even then! Kevin just spoke about George before our AFI premiere. I just wish George were here to appreciate all of this, because this was his movie. And of course I’m grateful because he left all of my scenes in!
'Casino Jack' opens in Los Angeles on December 17th. Visit Jon Lovitz’s comedy clubs at Thejonlovitzcomedyclub.com.