ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 14, 1996
By Steve Newton
NEW YORK—Most people may not know actor Wayne Knight by name, but they know the portly Newman character from TV’s Seinfeld. Knight’s increasingly regular appearances as Jerry’s neurotic nemesis have helped develop a cult following for the pathetic mailman he portrays—a following that threatens to overtake even that of Seinfeld’s other one-named nutcase, Kramer. When Knight walks into a suite at Manhattan’s Drake Hotel to do an interview for his latest film, Space Jam—opening in Vancouver on Friday (November 15)—the first question he fields concerns how often people yell “Hey, Newman!” at him on the street.
“It depends on the street,” quips the fast-rising funnyman. “In Prague it seldom happens. Nah—I get it quite a bit, especially more in New York. But in a lot of other cities they go the full ‘Hellooo, Newman,’ while in New York I get people just kind of rapidly passing by and going ‘Newman.’ It’s when they call ‘Wayne!’ that I jump.”
Considering the spiteful tone that Seinfeld employs whenever he grudgingly acknowledges Newman’s presence on the show, not everybody would feel comfortable ribbing big guy Knight with the well-known greeting. But he doesn’t seem to mind it much.
“I understand how, when you’re portraying aspects of a character that you wouldn’t like to be identified with yourself, that you might want to say ‘I’m not that person.’ But I can only look at it as good fortune at this point, and I can’t be resentful of it. You’re on something that people can see and enjoy in massive numbers—how the hell can that upset you?”
The way Knight’s character has caught on with Seinfeld’s vast audience isn’t something the series’s makers envisioned. In an episode preceding Knight’s actual appearance on the show, Newman is just a voice on the phone, a friend of Kramer’s who’s about to commit suicide until he’s talked into going to the movies instead.
“They decided to cast somebody for the part,” explains Knight, “and they brought me in and they saw Michael [Richards] and I standing next to each other, and it was just one of those Mack Sennett moments—you just look at the pairing—so they gradually kept bringing me back. Newman just got stranger and darker and broader and did more and different things, and this year I’m on half of the episodes.”
Apart from his role on Seinfeld, Knight is probably best known for playing a greedily ambitious computer genius who gets his comeuppance from a poison-spitting dinosaur in Jurassic Park. He plays the equally hapless—but more positive-minded—baseball publicist Stan Podolak in Space Jam, a feature film based on Nike’s Hare Jordan series of TV commercials.
Helmed by Joe Pytka—who also directed the ads—Space Jam is similar to Robert Zemeckis’s 1988 hit Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in that it seamlessly mixes live action with high-end animation. The big-budget (more than $80 million) project sees NBA star Michael Jordan in action with Bugs Bunny and all the other Looney Tunes characters as they play a basketball game against a gang of space creatures dispatched by the ruthless Swackhammer (voice by Danny DeVito) to kidnap them.
Much of the footage required Jordan—and Knight as well—to perform to thin air, against green screens, with actors dressed in green suits talking like Bugs, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, et al. When asked how well he endured the atypical acting experience, Knight surreptitiously draws our attention to the Warner Brothers rep seated in the back of the interview suite before blurting out “It was hell! It was hell!” in a Newmanesque blather.
“I was standin’ out there in the middle of space! On this big green stage! With these people in ninja outfits on their knees, and Joe [director Pytka] standing in the back, holding up a Sasquatch, going ‘Rawrr!’ You’re basically out there alone, so it is a very different experience from anything else you ever do, because usually you’re so dependent on other actors to keep your reality in check. So when you have none of that, you just go back to when you’re a child, and it’s a big, wild world of make-believe. But I think that’s why we got into this business anyway.”
Knight wasn’t the only comic who had to revert to childhood during his gig on Space Jam. Cameo star Bill Murray is another of the few live actors pictured on-screen amid the scurrying of Foghorn Leghorn, Taz, Tweety Bird, and the other Looney Tunes characters. Being in the presence of two respected leaders in the fields of sports and comedy was slightly daunting for Knight.
“I’m sittin’ there, and it’s like ‘Okay, I can accept this is Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player to live.’ And then Murray walks in and you’ve got this greatest basketball player and one of the funniest people. So you go, ‘Well, I’ll be over here, in the back.’ ”
Although the makers of Jurassic Park, Seinfeld, and now Space Jam have taken advantage of Knight’s physical appearance to typecast him as something of a sorry case, he has portrayed serious characters—as in a small part in the 1991 Kathleen Turner vehicle V.I. Warshawski—and would be happy to try more.
“What I would like to do would be to be able to play serious parts that were not dependent on the image that came from television,” he contends. “But to get people to pen you, they want to know the commodity that they’re getting. So that will require doing some kind of independent stuff, and things that are not necessarily for the dough, in order to be able to do that.”
A native of Georgia, Knight can still vividly recall the experience that set him on the entertainment road. At a kindergarten pageant, he had to deliver a poem that started with the lines, “52 smiles is a lot of smiles, and they can go for miles and miles.”
“I was supposed to go on in the beginning of the thing,” he recalls, “but this Mary Lou who ran the place forgot about me. Then in the middle of the thing I still didn’t go on. Finally, I’m like, ‘When am I gonna say my poem!’ so she put me on last.” He did his poem, and when he’d finished the audience cheered wildly. “I didn’t realize it was the end of the show, so I’m like, ‘I’m killin’ ’em, I’m killin’ ’em, I tell ya.’ There I was standing in front of this audience of people, and they were terribly accepting of me. That was what got me goin’.
“But growing up in this town in Georgia, you didn’t tell anybody ‘I want to be an actor.’ You could get beaten. And then around high school I saw that at the community theatre there were women sitting on men’s laps that they weren’t married to, and this seemed like the life for me.”
Before his acting career started to catch fire, nonslacker Knight kept busy at other jobs, one being a five-year stint as a private investigator in New York. But you can forget about any comical cloak-and-dagger TV series (Newman, P.I.?) ever being inspired by his investigative experiences, since the job mostly involved doing background checks on people. There wasn’t a lot of surveillance. And no, he didn’t carry a gun.
“There were only two or three of the guys in the agency that carried guns,” he recalls, “and I think only one of them knew where his was. So it was not like that [in the movies]. But it was good to have that to talk about when you were in a casting office and you hadn’t done anything in the last several months. ‘So what are you up to?’ ‘Um… I work as a private eye—did I tell you that?’ So you’ve got a good 20 minutes of material there, and then you audition and you leave. And they’re goin’ ‘That’s the PI guy.’ ”
Knight’s acting experience includes stints on the British TV series Assaulted Nuts and the short-lived FOX-TV sketch-comedy show The Edge, which also helped launch the career of Friends star Jennifer Aniston. He spent time as a member of a New York improvisational-comedy group, but unlike Seinfeld’s star, he didn’t do any stand-up work while climbing his way up the comedy ladder.
“When I first came to New York I would go down to the Improv and sit down too close and laugh too loud, and the comics would go ‘Are you a comic?’ I think that having the shield of character is something I couldn’t do without, but I really admire somebody who’s willing to stand naked before people and make them laugh. Well…I’ve done that, but I’m talkin’ about onstage.”