Jon Anne Willow

Mark Metcalf is the Accidental Actor

By - Dec 1st, 2004 02:52 pm
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Mark Metcalf had been supporting himself as an actor for over ten years before he realized that he really was one. “All during that first decade” he says, “I kept thinking I was going back to the West Coast to get my degree in Marine Biology.”

Metcalf, a stage, film and television actor, director, film producer, and now also Mequon restaurant owner and morning radio show regular, was born in Ohio in 1946. After moving to New Jersey with his family in 1959, Metcalf returned to the Midwest to pursue a degree in Engineering at the University of Michigan. It was there he discovered acting. At his roommates’ urging, he auditioned for a theater department production. His motives weren’t entirely pure.

“I was convinced when they suggested that the girls in the theater department would be a lot, um, friendlier, than the girls in the engineering department.”

He laughs. At 58, Mark is distinguished, a veteran of both his profession and parenthood. Tallish and thin, his dark blond hair is a little long and his attire tasteful, favoring earth tones. He quickly assures me that it only took seconds for his motivations to shift entirely.

“I fell in love with acting instantly when I walked into the green room and saw all these people together, laughing and fighting and arguing one minute, and making love on the couch the next. All the vital emotions were right there out in the open. It was a world I had been craving and needing, without knowing it.”

Mark was hooked. He moved to New York in the early ’70s and performed in both classical and modern theater. He eventually moved out West to work in film. In 1978, he earned a permanent place in pop culture history as crew-cut fraternity jerk Doug Neidermeyer in National Lampoon’s Animal House. I asked him how he dealt with instant celebrity.

“I was thinking moment to moment at the time. After the movie was done, I took almost two years off to produce my own film. I know now that had I continued to act through that period when I was the “hottest,” things may have turned out differently as far as my acting career.”  That film was Chilly Scenes of Winter, also released as Head Over Heels. It was a good film, but not a big commercial success.

He’s done other directing and producing projects, and continued to act on stage, but the two other roles he’s best known for emanated from the small screen – as The Maestro on Seinfeld and The Master on Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

But Mark was unhappy as a television actor. It was a grind, he says, like any day job. Work wasn’t generally awarded on merit, and the professional challenge was, in his words, “less than zero.”

When his son was six, he and the boy’s mother, Libby, a Wisconsin native, decided to head back this way. They wanted a healthy place for him to grow up, and knew that California wasn’t it.

One of the hardest adjustments here has been his instant quasi-celebrity status. He’s appreciative, but not entirely comfortable with it.

“It is a nice feeling” he says, then takes a long pause. “But the way people deal with celebrity makes me a little nervous for the culture, because people put a lot more into the lives of people they don’t know except as representatives from one medium or another than I think is really a good thing.”

That having been said, he readily admits that “fame” has provided him with a few advantages – and some good stories.

“There was a 65-year old woman who came in (to the restaurant) and she had to sit down when she saw me because she started having these palpitations, and it was all from Animal House.” Then there was the time when five businessmen from Madison rented a limo and drove to the restaurant just to have their pictures taken with him.

During our photo shoot at the Milwaukee Public Museum, a museum worker politely asks for his autograph, then slips me his email address so I can send him a picture. I was also his guest at the November 15 performance of comedian Lewis Black at Potowotami. After the show, we all went backstage. It was then I started to connect the dots on Mark Metcalf.

Mark and Lewis have been friends since the old days in New York in the ’70s. Lewis has stayed in the fast lane, working ceaselessly as his star has risen. He’s got the air of someone who’s used to knowing that everybody wants a piece of him. He makes the rounds of the green room expertly, speaking with everyone and shaking my hand warmly, even asking me about the origins of my name. He’s dressed in black, and chain smokes Camel Lights. He puts back close to a bottle of Cabernet without ever walking to the bar, his glass magically refilling itself. Mark, on the other hand, finds a comfortable spot to stand as he quietly sips on a bottle of spring water. Eventually, Lewis makes his way to Mark and they chat about the old neighborhood, mutual friends and new projects. After 30 minutes, Mark excuses himself; he’s appearing on the Bob and Brian Show (WLZR) the next morning, and has to get some sleep. The two men share a warm hug and part ways – Mark to his Silverado in the ramp and Lewis to the casino.

It all comes down to priorities, and Mark knows exactly where his lay.

“My son is number one through three, at least. Making sure that he grows up as creative and free-thinking as he can, knowing that he’s loved and that he can love. Number four is the ability to be creative myself.”

He sees immense artistic opportunity for Milwaukee.

“I disagree with the structure that L.A. and New York are the lodestones of filmmaking,” Mark says. “A number of years ago, there was a renaissance of regional theatre, and it gave birth to places like the Guthrie in Minneapolis and the Steppenwolf in Chicago. I think we can achieve that here with film.”

Mark is also actively involved in First Stage Children’s Theatre, holding a seat on the Advisory Board for the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. And he’s starring in the First Stage production of A Christmas Story, which runs through December 26.

Mark seems to have adjusted well to life beyond “the business.” He’s recovered his spark for acting, and is starting work on a new film of his own.

“I want to write it Mike Lee style, where you get a story and a structure together, then gather a group of actors who can make it work. I haven’t gotten very far, but I know I want Jonathan West to play the rabbi.”

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