- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2003

NEW YORK CITY — “You’re always looking for a funny idea for a movie,” David Spade reflects during the press junket for his latest comedy, “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star.” The genesis for this film evidently began with a phone call from Fred Wolf, a look-alike alter ego who began teaming with Mr. Spade on sketches for “Saturday Night Live.” According to Mr. Spade, the call was prompted by the Leif Garrett VH1 special “Behind the Music.” He and Mr. Wolf agreed that it left much to be desired.

“We started talking about the way everyone seems to have a stadium concert at some point,” Mr. Spade recalls. “From that we got to the idea of used child stars. It sounded like an idea that would work for me: I’m mid-30s, a has-been, angry…former child star equals crazy.”

To fill out the show-business setting occupied by Dickie Roberts, who experienced meteoric fame on a network sitcom of the 1970s, the movie casts a number of once-prominent performers, many playing themselves. Leif Garrett, as it happens, is one of the first to appear. Mr. Spade reveals that numerous candidates declined to participate.

“There’s a pride there,” he comments. “An ego. We put out a lot of feelers. There were people who didn’t respond and people who turned us down. We got who we got because they had a sense of humor. They could joke about career setbacks and disappointments. Of course, a few of them were just excited to ride in a Town Car again. A lot of former actors have gone into other businesses; they adjust and land on their feet. As a rule, you never hear about that.”

Mr. Spade readily admits to having indulged in a little malicious fun at the expense of former child stars. He cites a pair of bit players in the “Dickie Roberts” ensemble, Corey Haim and Corey Feldman. “I used to joke about them,” he says. “Who didn’t? The Two Coreys. What could be funnier? You just write them off. But you get a little acquainted during the movie and start to appreciate that things happen that you can’t always control. Any career can go really high and sink pretty low.”

The movie concludes with a song number, played over the end credits, in which about two dozen former TV actors join in a choral lament about faded celebrity. A late-blooming conversation piece, it took shape while Mr. Spade, Mr. Wolf and executive producer Adam Sandler — whose production company has generated comedies with former “SNL” colleagues Spade and Rob Schneider — were trying to think of alternatives to outtakes at the end of the movie.

“By then the hearsay had become so positive that quite a few people were still asking to be in the film,” Mr. Spade says. “The idea of doing a takeoff on the ‘We Are the World’ number came up because there was this pool of late applicants. We thought it might be fun to wrangle them into a finale. So Fred got together with Robert Smigel, who also wrote for ‘Saturday Night Live’ and is really good at this kind of stuff. If you think what we have is a little outrageous, you should have heard the first version. It was a lot rougher. Far, far from PG country.”

Dickie Roberts can count on a loyal, if less than influential, agent played by Jon Lovitz. The most wistful presence at the junket, Mr. Lovitz admits to succumbing to an acute case of the blues after his “Saturday Night Live” colleague Phil Hartman was killed by his wife.

“He was like a brother,” Mr. Lovitz reflects. “Every association from the show got painful when he passed away. I miss him. I was down for about five years. Not that I was completely inactive. I was still doing things, but a part of me was just on hold. What made it harder, I think, was the fact that we were getting to be more like equals at the time Phil died. Before that, he’d been very much the big brother. The last thing he did was a pilot of mine.”

Mr. Lovitz believes that he and David Spade share a sense of loss. “In his case, it was Chris Farley; with me it was Phil,” Mr. Lovitz says. “You get really close to those guys. The show is your whole life, and you feel that it really belongs to you. I’m still great friends with Dana Carvey, and I still see Dennis Miller once in a while. You go through something together. It’s really nice that David and Adam Sandler have put me in their movies.”

Mr. Lovitz recalls memorizing Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce routines when he was an undergraduate at the University of California at Irvine. There was even an annex to the Comedy Store near campus, and he once dropped in to inquire about a performing apprenticeship. But straight stand-up comedy remained outside his repertoire until recently, when he joined three other “SNL” alums — Kevin Nealon, Victoria Jackson and Norm MacDonald — on a tour that obliged him to sustain a solo act for at least a half-hour.

“The guy who was managing the club near campus insisted that comedians weren’t being hired for sitcoms,” Mr. Lovitz explains. “This was probably 1979 or so. I believed it and thought, well, I guess I can skip this step. I’ll just train to be an actor. So that’s what I did. Years later I figured out that he was exaggerating. He wasn’t getting hired. Which wasn’t quite the same thing.

“Anyway, I had never done a longer bit than five minutes or so. Now I’ve found out that stand-up can make you a good living, and it allows you to perform frequently. I still have to get consistently good at it. I want everyone laughing all the time. But it’s a very clean business proposition. You do a half-hour and get paid. If they’re happy, you’re invited back.”

Mr. Lovitz reveals that he failed to appreciate the simplicity of it all years ago when he was entrusted with a secret of success by Jay Leno.

“Jay is not in the least neurotic,” Mr. Lovitz says. “That’s one of the reasons he’s been so successful. He once told me, ‘Here it is: Write joke, tell joke, get check.’ I’ve been slow to catch on, but that formula is a thing of beauty.”

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