George Wendt – Chicago Magazine – Chicagomag.com – Chicagomag.com

My friend Pat Finn always reminds me what the audition was for Cheers: I needed to look like a guy who wanted to have another beer.

Norm is just me with better writing. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of actors who could have delivered on the absolute gems that I was handed on a silver platter every Wednesday morning.

I prided myself on going out and not worrying about being recognized. I thought, If Jack Nicholson can do it, we can all do it. I remember I was at an Oakland A’s—White Sox game. We were sitting on the right field line, and around the seventh inning I had to pee. I had to walk up about 20 rows to get to the restrooms. People were like, “Oh my God!” and cheering and clapping. After the game, I went to say hi to one of the players, Steve Lyons, and he said, “Did you see that fight in the right field stands?” I said, “No, I didn’t.” He said there were cops and a whole bunch of people rushing over. On the train back, I went, Oh, fuck, that was me.

I was only too happy to be one of the faces of beer. I used to run into Ed McMahon now and then. He was the Anheuser-Busch guy for probably 30 years. I said, “Dude, I’m a heartbeat away from your contract.”

When I was home from school the summer of 1966, I needed a job. So my mom made a few calls, and I got hired at the Daily News. I started in the wire room. It was an eventful summer with Martin Luther King Jr. here, the Cicero march, the Richard Speck murders. My shift was from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., and I was a jack-of-all-trades. I’d run out to the Billy Goat to get the most god-awful lunches for everybody. When the proofreading ladies went to lunch, I’d sit where they sat and do the proofreading. And before Royko got in each day, around noon, I had to clear out all the coffee cups and cigarette butts from his office. The next June, I met with Sun-Times editor Emmett Dedmon. He looked at me with scorn and said, “Why should I hire you?” I thought and thought and thought and said, “Because my grandfather used to work here?” And he goes, “Get out of here!” I spent that summer on a Pepsi truck.

The night before my Second City audition, I got beat up in a bar near Sox Park. We had parked at 33rd and Princeton and, after the game, thought, Let’s get a drink and let traffic die down. We were sitting there when this one guy punched a friend of mine and knocked him off the barstool. We all stood up like, What the hell? We didn’t know there were a bunch of other guys lurking. I was lucky to get away without serious injury. I had a swollen face and a cut on my head that bled quite a bit. It wasn’t a good look for my audition.

When my pals and I got into Second City, it was right when Saturday Night Live hit. We cruised into this sweet spot where we didn’t have to build an audience. The place was packed with 330 people eight shows a week. When I got demoted after a year, I was crushed, but it made me reexamine myself. It was my first “What? They don’t like me?” Which made me think, Well, I guess I’m an actor. Because that had never really occurred to me.

Playing Edna Turnblad in Hairspray on Broadway was a blast. It was one of my two favorite roles, apart from Norm. Absolute utter joy and entirely different from anything in my world. Old friends from college would come see it and go, “Jesus Christ,” because I had seven song-and-dance numbers. Mind you, my dances were choreographed for an obese middle-aged man, but it was plenty. Everyone says, “How’d you dance in those high heels?” They were the best shoes I’ve ever had. I had like four fittings with a little old Italian cobbler. My back never felt better than when I wore them.