When it comes to playing Santa, luminaries like Edmund Gwenn, Sebastian Cabot and Sir Richard Attenborough come to mind as the jolly old elf. And of course, there was Ed Asner in the jolly old “Elf” — the 2003 film. Now add to the annals George Wendt — Norm Peterson from “Cheers” — who essayed St. Nick in the 2010-11 Broadway musical adaptation “Elf” and who returns to the role in the touring production “Elf: The Musical,” playing the Theater at Madison Square Garden from Wednesday, Dec. 13, to Dec. 29.
It’s one of several theater roles the 69-year-old has taken on in the past few years, most recently including that of Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” in Waterloo, Ontario, and J. Edgar Hoover immediately before that in “Rock and Roll Man: The Alan Freed Story” at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
And for all his prolific TV career and six Emmy nominations, theater, after all, is where Wendt got his start, as part of Chicago’s storied improv troupe The Second City. He’s even been on Broadway, in the musical “Hairspray” and the comedy-dramas “Art” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” So, yes, theater — that’s where George went.
Regional and touring theater is a lot of work. TV and film is much easier. Why put yourself through it at this, shall we say, stage of your life?
Well, it’s a lot more fun, for starters. The worst days for theater are what we call tech rehearsals, which are usually 12-hour days and a lot of really boring technical stuff gets done. And one of my castmates reminded me that if you’re doing a movie or a TV show, every day is tech. So when the [stage] show is up and running, it’s pretty easy, really. The travel can be a bit hectic, but home life can be hectic, too.
What’s your Santa like in “Elf: The Musical”? I know it’s wrong of me, but I keep picturing him sitting on a corner stool in the North Pole, having a beer and making resigned comments about life.
Santa is not like Norm. This Santa is more like a grumpy Walter Matthau.
In between Broadway’s “Elf” and this touring production, you played Santa opposite your old “Cheers” co-star Shelley Long as Mrs. Claus in the TV-movie “Merry In-Laws” (2012). Was that a different kind of Santa? Was he less grumpy opposite her?
Yeah . . . yeah. You know, everyone would be less grumpy opposite Shelley.
What got you into comedy?
You know, after I got kicked out of Notre Dame, I wound up at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Missouri, and one of my courses there was in the philosophy department; my teacher went on and on about Karl Marx’s theory of alienation, and it just stuck with me that I didn’t want to be alienated — I wanted to do something that I wouldn’t hate. It took me [some period of time after college] vagabonding around in Europe to really discover what I wouldn’t hate, and it was Second City. Thankfully, I was born and raised in Chicago, so I lived with my parents. I just went down and signed up for classes and it worked out.
Yeah, but why comedy?
My mom was very funny, very witty. But she was a housewife — she never got to realize anything like having a career being witty and funny. And me and all my friends revered Second City and [improv and sketch-comedy groups] The Committee, Kentucky Fried Theater, Ace Trucking Company. It was really something I admired and if I could do something like that I was pretty sure I wouldn’t hate it.
Lastly, maybe clear up something. IMDb says you got your start on-screen with uncredited parts in Robert Altman’s “A Wedding” (1978) and Clint Eastwood’s “Bronco Billy” (1980). True?
I don’t remember “Bronco Billy,” but there was one summer they shot “A Wedding” in Chicago and they were looking for extras to play caterers, waiters and waitresses and the like. So all these guys from [Chicago’s famed theater company] Steppenwolf were waiters: Me and Dennis Franz, John Malkovich, Alan Wilder, Tim Evans — lots of people. And we had fun; it was a bonding summer with the Steppenwolf guys. We’d turn up at dawn every morning and just hang out and wait around in our outfits. Except for Malkovich — we were in this big old mansion in [the Chicago suburb of] Lake Forest and he would find a bedroom way out of the way and just sleep there all day. He didn’t care about being in the background of any of the shots. As a matter of fact, I don’t even know if anything I shot is in the movie.