- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2003

f the name Giamatti and New Haven, Conn., seem to belong together, it’s because the late A. Bartlett Giamatti was once the president of Yale University, before becoming the commissioner of Major League Baseball. His youngest son, 36-year-old Paul Giamatti, born and raised in New Haven, where he graduated from Yale with a bachelor’s degree in English, has become one of the more distinctive character actors in American movies since emerging with a comic bang in “Howard Stern’s Private Parts,” in which he played the title character’s most maddening station manager.

That character had a real-life prototype, unknown to Mr. Giamatti at the time. He came face-to-face with a prototype in a subsequent feature, “The Man in the Moon.” He was cast as the late Andy Kaufman’s crony, Bob Zmuda, who sometimes shared the alias Tony Clifton with his pal while perpetrating practical jokes. Now, Mr. Giamatti shares screen time, every so often, with the authentic Harvey Pekar while also impersonating him in a new comedy, “American Splendor,” a fond recollection of Mr. Pekar’s odd-duck emergence from Cleveland obscurity in the 1970s to become a celebrity of underground comic books and television talk shows.

“I’d never done one where the real guy was also in the movie,” Mr. Giamatti reflects during a conversation at the St. Regis Hotel. “Most of the real-life characters I’ve played have been like Harvey in one respect: They’re not widely known. I didn’t know there was a real Kenny Rushton out there when I was doing ‘Private Parts.’ I felt pretty bad about it. I wish someone had told me. I would have maybe softened it a bit, because we made the poor guy look just horrible. I later met people who had worked with him, and they told me he was fine with the movie, eventually.”

The circumstances of “The Man in the Moon,” which starred Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman, made Mr. Giamatti very much aware of Bob Zmuda. “He was one of the producers,” the actor recalls with a shrug. “Not that he wasn’t a nice guy, but it was incredibly difficult for me to have him around. He had a hard time separating from me and the character and everything connected with the story. He was constantly on my case about how he wanted me to do things. Milos Forman, our director, did what he could to mitigate the interference. He helped in a lot of ways, but it was still tough. Andy Kaufman’s family was closely involved with the production, too. Many people whose lives were deeply invested in the story were around the set. You couldn’t really ignore them. The real people think you’re watching all the time, which you are, as part of the preparation. It can be very weird, you know?”

The Harvey Pekar biopic seemed comparatively easy duty after “Man in the Moon.” A first feature by the conjugal team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, whose previous movie experience had been in documentaries, “American Splendor” was designed to accommodate a playful intermingling of prototypes with the actors playing them on locations in Cleveland, Mr. Pekar’s hometown. The encounters seemed to be finessed with a minimum of friction and awkwardness.

“I was glad to meet Harvey,” Mr. Giamatti says. “He had no trouble separating himself from what I needed to do. For all his eccentricities and insecurities, he’s strangely self-confident. He was actually a pleasure to be around, especially when we found that certain literary preferences overlapped. Melville was a particular favorite with both of us. The producers threw us together just a few days before the movie started, and Harvey took me around to some of the used-book stores he frequents. Bookstores were definitely an icebreaker.”

Paul Giamatti had been familiar enough with so-called underground comics to be aware of Harvey Pekar, who hit on the idea of entrusting his own ruminations to a satirical comic-book format when his friend Robert Crumb became famous. In fact, Mr. Crumb illustrated the earliest edition of the Pekar chronicle, updated more or less annually from 1976 to the present.

The movie harks back to the beginning of the saga, when Mr. Pekar was a lonely and obscure file clerk with a stifled need for self-expression. It depicts such milestones as the Crumb collaboration; Mr. Pekar’s whirlwind romance with a compatibly saturnine admirer named Joyce Brabner, portrayed by Hope Davis; and his argumentative tenure as a David Letterman regular in the late 1980s.

“I remembered Harvey from the Letterman program too,” Mr. Giamatti says. “I was in college at the time, so I wasn’t distracted by work all that often. I watched TV all the time, and Letterman was one of the things we watched a lot.”

Between English assignments, Mr. Giamatti also participated in numerous theater productions, although not as part of the Yale drama school. His elder brother was officially enrolled in the graduate program and later gave him a head start with agents in the New York theater.

“By the time I left [Yale], acting had begun to overtake other interests, including graphic arts,” Mr. Giamatti explains. “That came as a surprise. I had been drawing ever since I could hold a pencil. I thought I’d be some sort of illustrator and was keenly interested in animation for a while. I put together my own little portfolio, just like everyone else, and I actually knew someone who hoped to start his own animation company. It didn’t go anywhere.. . It reached a point where the theater was pushing other things aside.”

Mr. Giamatti, who resides in New York with his wife and their 2-year-old child, never did migrate to Los Angeles seeking work. He lived in Seattle for several years and flourished as a theater actor. He’s particularly fond of Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett plays.

He’s also a history buff and welcomed the expedition to Cleveland in part because it gave him an opportunity to visit the memorial to President James A. Garfield, a distinguished Ohioan who was assassinated during his first year in office. “That’s one of the episodes in American history that really fascinates me,” Mr. Giamatti says. “I once performed in a very short play about the assassin, Charles J. Guiteau. What got me interested originally was the fact that here’s this catastrophic event of 1881 that no one remembers. It was a huge media circus in its day. It was bled dry of human interest and then forgotten fast. What exactly does that tell us ?”

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