- The Washington Times - Friday, August 2, 2002

Dana Carvey is thinking out loud about the modest pretenses and prospects of "The Master of Disguise." It is his first starring vehicle after an extended hiatus, prompted in part by a decision to favor family life at the expense of a film career, and Mr. Carvey believes today's opening date might be smartly timed.

At least, he is willing to trust the judgment of Columbia Pictures, the distributor, and his immediate production brain trust, the Adam Sandler apparatus.

"It's such a low-budget film," Mr. Carvey, 47, observes during a phone conversation from New York City. "It's funny, in a way, that it was put out for the summer, because it was also done quickly and lends itself so easily to being overshadowed.

"They want kids for the matinees," Mr. Carvey explains. "It was never thought of as a blockbuster. The budget was under $20 million, which in today's world is really cheap. I don't know what the marketing budget is, but I was told we had run out of money before I realized any had been spent. I know we couldn't afford billboards, but everyone's encouraged by the fact that kids seem to like it, and kids may not pay attention to a lot of things that would normally seem useful for promotion. It may be enough to catch their attention on Nickelodeon."

Mr. Carvey joins a growing list of former "Saturday Night Live" headliners whose film projects have been encouraged by Mr. Sandler, whose success as a star of movie farce during the late 1990s dwarfed his modest renown as part of the SNL ensemble in the early part of the decade.

Mr. Carvey says "The Master of Disguise" was one of several completed scripts he had written with one collaborator or another. It began as a parody of "Mission: Impossible." In that incarnation, Mr. Carvey would have played a comic espionage agent named Master Disguisey.

"They were ready to do another movie with another comedian," Mr. Carvey says, "but it fell through. Mine was just kind of there and suddenly got a fresh lease on life.

"I did a rewrite where I got to rescue the Partridge Family, which was forced to reunite in order to form a global TV network. Finally, we settled on the approach you see, where I'm this sweet-natured Italian named Pistachio Disguisey who discovers a family heritage of magic and deception that allows him to rescue his parents from an international criminal."

•••

Born in Missoula, Mont., Mr. Carvey and a brother named Brad grew up for the most part in the San Francisco Bay Area. Their father was a high school typing teacher. One of the family possessions was a reel-to-reel tape recorder. From age 8 or so, young Dana monopolized it to tape and then imitate personalities seen on television.

His favorite comedian of the period was Jonathan Winters, and he began to accumulate a considerable repertoire of impressions, extending from the Beatles to Presidents Johnson and Nixon. "All that is still packed away in boxes somewhere," Mr. Carvey muses.

He had plenty of practice with residents of the White House before he became the definitive teaser of the first President Bush's syntax at the end of the 1980s.

Mr. Carvey began to appear at comedy clubs in San Francisco while still an undergraduate at San Francisco State University in 1972 through '75.

"The scene was just crazy," he recalls. "I was in the right place at the right time to learn and to attract attention. Robin Williams was always around, even after he got famous. George Carlin was always very helpful. I would bring the whole dorm down whenever I played a club in order to have a trusty support system."

Mr. Carvey graduated with a degree in communication arts, which he finds "amazing," given his absorption in an aspiring stand-up career. Has the degree proved useful? "A complete waste of time," he replies, "but at least I got it." Ever return to the campus? "Naw."

By the time Mr. Carvey appeared on "Saturday Night Live" in 1986, he was an instant perfect fit. He did his indignant Church Lady and clicked from the outset.

"Without a doubt, that was my big break," he reflects. He remained with the show for seven seasons and won an Emmy.

He played his first movie lead, also as something of an impostor, in the negligible but pleasant "Opportunity Knocks" in 1990. His only brush with huge box-office returns was, of course, the movie version of "Wayne's World," which paired him with Mike Myers in a reprise of their SNL routine about aspiring rockers who stage a primitive, self-promoting variety show on access TV.

•••

Mr. Carvey and his wife, Paula, are the parents of two sons, Dex and Thomas, born fairly close together in the early 1990s. He found it impossible to sustain an up-tempo professional career and protect his family life.

"I realized I could not maintain that pace," Mr. Carvey says. "I would have ended up divorced. I never saw my kids. Juggling a heavy workload and family responsibilities just wasn't practical for me personally. My wife and I found out we were no good at having tons of nannies and other helpers around. It wasn't our nature. Some people adjust to it very well. We couldn't.

"Around the time I was struggling with all that, I had the health problem and had to resolve a legal conflict with a doctor who botched an operation and insisted he hadn't. Everything's perfect now. Clean as a whistle. I haven't had a recurrence for five years." (Mr. Carvey had an unsuccessful heart bypass operation and later underwent surgery again with a different doctor.)

Mr. Carvey has many scripts on the back burner and recently completed one called "The Happy Idiot." As far as he's concerned, all remain ready to go. Plus, the boys are older and seem much less vulnerable to the demands of a movie production schedule.

"I thought it was about the right time to get back in harness," Mr. Carvey says. "If the existing scripts are greenlighted, I'll be as busy as I want to be for the next five or six years."

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