Showtime’s original comedy EPISODES has its first-season finale on Sunday. The series finds Matt LeBlanc playing himself as the lead in an American adaptation of a Britcom. The writers/producers of aforesaid Britcom, played by Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, find their original ideas mangled into something unrecognizable at every turn by high-handed network executive Merc Lapidus, played by stage, TV and film veteran John Pankow (MAD ABOUT YOU, THE DAYS AND NIGHTS OF MOLLY DODD, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.).
Pankow says that when he first read the pilot script by EPISODES creators David Crane and Jeffrey Klank, as much as he respected their writing, he wondered if he – or anyone – could play Merc.
ASSIGNMENT X: Now, did you do any research for this role, or by the time you got it, had you met enough of these people to do it based on those interactions?
PANKOW: Honestly, yes. The answer is the latter, but also, when I read it, my concern as an actor was – I remember so distinctly reading it and going, “This is impossible. You cannot make this character palatable. He’s so offensive and if he’s this offensive, and if the audience for some reason can’t get on board, it just can’t work.” And then it was so funny. I went in to audition for it, and sometimes in the process of auditioning, you actually find what [the character] is. And that’s exactly what happened. I went in to audition for it and as soon as I started doing the scene, it started to click for me. And I did use an image, which was helpful. Mike Nichols said about Jack Nicholson once, [which is] that Jack Nicholson actually loves being Jack Nicholson, he loves being this persona he’s created, this guy who goes to the basketball games, who goes to the Oscars. Aside of course from being a brilliant actor, he just loves being himself and I use that in this character.
They’ve talked about the character being ADD. I’m not sure if I agree with that, I’m not sure if I disagree with it. He does flip, so I understand why someone would think that, but I think he basically enjoys being who he is. And I think that’s what got me over the hump. So I didn’t concern myself so much with trying to find an image of somebody who was like him, somebody who I’d encountered, but just in trying to make the character as written on the page work in a truthful way, that’s all.
AX: Did you have any desire ever to do a British TV comedy, like the one that gets the ball rolling in EPISODES?
PANKOW: No. I have an interest in working in the theatre over there [in England]. I almost went there to do a play, when I did ICEMAN COMETH [on Broadway in 1985] with Jason Robards [starring] and Jose Quintero [directing]. Barney Hughes was playing Harry Hope and he had a television commitment and Jose didn’t want to re-rehearse the play, because it would have required that. I was playing Rocky Pioggi, the bartender. We never made it over there, and that was tough for me, because I am a theatre rat. I’ve been doing plays for thirty years, and anybody who does plays, especially if you’ve been going to England for as long as I have, [the London theatre scene] is like a kid getting let loose in a candy store. The whole culture of theatre there is so much stronger than it is here in the States, so that’s always been kind of a dream, but I don’t think I could ever get cast in a Britcom because it just doesn’t happen as much [as American actors doing British stage].
AX: Are you enjoying doing half-hour television comedy again?
PANKOW: Well, for me it’s fun, because it’s fun to do a single-camera comedy [in EPISODES], as opposed to what Matt and I did on FRIENDS and [Pankow did on] MAD ABOUT YOU, which is live audience and four-camera, multi-camera. It’s a whole different animal and I love doing something on film that’s comedy. It’s fun.
AX: What else have you been up to lately acting-wise?
PANKOW: I’ve been doing a ton of plays. I did a movie last summer with Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton, MORNING GLORY, that came out in November. I did the new Chris Durang play at the Public Theatre in New York and I did a couple of new David Mamet plays at the Atlantic and I did a new play called EQUIVOCATION, which was very interesting – I played William Shakespeare, actually – about the Gunpowder Plot, from 1605. So I’ve been working a lot in theatre and doing some other movie stuff, and just working.
AX: Is there anything that strikes you as unique about EPISODES?
PANKOW: Well, yeah. The culture wars, the fact that you have this very distinguished, dignified, enterprising young couple, this British couple, who have tasted just great success. The thing opens four seasons into their fictional show about this exclusive British boarding show and its erudite, dignified headmaster, and what happens when they get thrown into the maw of Hollywood. I think what gives it its original voice is their relationship with one another, and the push and pull, because he’s so seduced by the notion of, “Boy, if we had success in America, it is the goose that laid the golden egg,” and she’s interested in maintaining the integrity of it as opposed to going for the golden ring. I was so knocked out by the scripts when I read them. It was a treat. And these guys [series creators David Chase and Jeffrey Krank], they’re so skilled and it’s very easy to memorize their lines, because it’s like good music.
AX: Has the central dilemma for the English characters ever come up for you in your career – the conflict between keeping a politic silence and defending the integrity of your work? Or is that more of a writer’s issue?
PANKOW: Well, that’s why I love auditioning as an actor. I see it as an artistic negotiation. When I was a young actor, John [Patrick] Shanley came to me and offered me a play. He wrote this play and he offered it to John Turturro and I – this was in the Eighties. And it was the first offer I had – I was just under thirty, and it was really hard for me. Because for me, you go in and you do the audition – if they hire you, they’re buying your idea. So you skip steps. You start rehearsals or you start shooting, and you can trust the fact that they know what at least your brush-stroke idea for the character is. I was really lost doing this play, because for the first two weeks, I felt like I was auditioning. And it took me awhile to catch up, but I did, and from then on, it was fine. I mean, I had plenty of offers since that day and now I just assume that it’s meant to be and I go in and do my work, but always, when you’re doing a play, there’s always a struggle between – it’s not so much integrity versus lack thereof, but it’s a director’s idea of what it needs to be and your idea of what it needs to be, and there is that tension, and more often than not, there’s trust, you know each other’s work and there’s a dialogue and you figure out a way to compromise – and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, necessarily, but you figure out a way to fuse [the ideas]. In the best-case scenario, you’re both exactly on the same page and you don’t have to ever worry about it, but often, there is a period of real adjustment, in my experience.
AX: Back in 1988, you were in MONKEY SHINES for director George Romero …
PANKOW: George Romero, wonderful guy. Makes all these movies, DAY OF THE DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD – the gentlest, kindest, mellowest guy you could ever encounter. It’s just hilarious that that persona is the person who’s creating all that horror [laughs].