- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

It’s possible that Will Ferrell, the Tall Guy fixture of “Saturday Night Live,” will emerge with a radically altered fan base after the current movie season. As the star of “Elf,” an inspirational Christmas farce, Mr. Ferrell seems poised to endear himself to youngsters.

As the blissfully naive Buddy, an orphaned human raised as an elf at the North Pole after crawling into Santa’s toy sack in toddlerhood, Mr. Ferrell brings an oversized frame and slapstick dexterity to a character whose behavior is conspicuously, forgivably childish.

Buddy’s adopted papa, played by Bob Newhart, must explain to Buddy that he’s “different” for blameless reasons. One prodigious hiker, Buddy walks from the Pole to Manhattan in search of his biological father, a coldhearted book publisher, a role that seems to stir more resistance than humor in James Caan. Nevertheless, Buddy’s friendliness proves irresistible to most of the New Yorkers he encounters.

“It’s an opportunity to appeal to a different audience than I have in the past,” Mr. Ferrell acknowledged during a recent phone conversation. “The initial attraction for me was the concept rather than the script, which needed some work comedically. There was a question about the director. Jon Favreau solved that, in part by being interested in material people wouldn’t imagine he’d be interested in.”

Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, Mr. Ferrell was recruited for “Saturday Night Live” from the improvisatory comedy group The Groundlings, a launching platform for numerous successful comedians over the past generation. Mr. Ferrell, 36, remembers attending a performance during his senior year at the University of Southern California, where he was a sports information major.

“Lisa Kudrow was in the group at that time,” he recalls. “I was pulled up on stage for a skit that involved audience members. I was so petrified I don’t think I got a word out. At the same time, I kept thinking, ‘It would be fun to try this.’”

A fast study, Mr. Ferrell moved up the Groundlings ladder within a matter of months. “The company votes on who they want to bring in and then vote up to the main group,” he explains. “It’s actors judging actors. Depending on the group that’s there, the selection process can be very judicious or very catty. I got through it pretty smoothly.”

Mr. Ferrell joined the “SNL” cast in the fall of 1995. “I wasn’t one of the people who had to audition time and time again,” he recalls. “The season before I was hired was the last season for several people: Adam Sandler, Chris Farley and that crew. The producers were on a sort of nationwide talent search. Nine new people were hired the year I started. Since that time it’s been piecemeal replacement.”

Mr. Ferrell became the resident impressionist of Janet Reno, Alex Trebek, Neil Diamond, Harry Caray and President George W. Bush. He invented a number of popular recurring characters: a cheerleader named Craig, a music teacher named Marty and a frenzied TV host named Tom. The producers of “Saturday Night Live” have an ongoing film production deal with Paramount, so Mr. Ferrell has partnered with several colleagues in feature farces that never quite electrified the public: “A Night at the Roxbury” with Chris Kattan, “The Ladies’ Man” with Tim Meadows and “Superstar” with Molly Shannon.

While at “Saturday Night Live,” Mr. Ferrell also formed an enduring partnership with a staff writer named Adam McKay. They are actively collaborating on movie scripts. Their first completed project, “Anchorman,” which showcases Mr. Ferrell as an intensely insecure newscaster of the 1970s, will be released next summer.

“We’ll be into that competitive melee,” Mr. Ferrell reflects. “I’m in a fortunate situation, because I have writer friends who call a lot with ideas, and I work regularly with my buddy Adam. He was head writer for three of the seasons we were at ‘SNL.’ We established a good working relationship, and we’ve been able to get one of our screenplays made already. Things have fallen into place very quickly since I left the show: ‘Old School’ and ‘Elf’ and ‘Anchorman.’ It remains to be seen if they’ll add up to a winning streak.”

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