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Chris Hicks: McKean shines in folksy spoof 'Mighty Wind'

Michael McKean
Michael McKean

You may not know the name Michael McKean right off, but you'd probably know his face. He's been a recognizable character actor in films and television for nearly 30 years.

And he's earned a genuine cult following — along with Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer — for a 19-year-old mock-documentary rock 'n' roll satire, "This Is Spinal Tap."

"The film didn't snowball into cult status until video," McKean said by telephone from a New York hotel. "Around that time, video rentals and sales really became something that people paid attention to. It came out in 1984 theatrically, and a year later it went to video. And it always did very well, always rented and sold well, because it doesn't really age that much. It's got a pretty good shelf life."

So does McKean.

He's been a familiar sidekick, neighbor, friend, enemy . . . you name it . . . in movies and TV shows since his days as Lenny (as in Lenny & Squiggy) on the hit sitcom "Laverne & Shirley" (1976-83).

At the moment, he's doing interviews in support of the DVD release of "A Mighty Wind" (Warner, PG-13, $27.95), the latest mock documentary from director Christopher Guest, who also gave us "Best in Show" and "Waiting for Guffman."

"A Mighty Wind" spoofs the world of folk music and is as dead-on as "Spinal Tap" was to the world of rock. The story follows several disparate 1960s folkies who gather with their various groups for a public-television reunion concert.

One bonus on the DVD is the complete reunion concert, which was filmed in its entirety as if it really were a PBS show (PBN, here). But in the movie, of course, only excerpts are shown.

That concert demonstrates the range of musical as well as comic talent possessed by this ensemble, led by McKean, Guest and Shearer as The Folksmen. Guest co-wrote the script with Eugene Levy, and they do a dry, often amusing audio commentary over the film. (Levy is paired in the film with Catherine O'Hara as the folk duo Mitch and Mickey).

Another plus on the DVD is the inclusion of no less than 30 minutes of deleted scenes. On most DVDs, deleted scenes should have stayed deleted. But here, they are often as hilarious as the film itself.

Cast members wrote songs for the film, and McKean collaborated on quite a few. He also wrote three songs with his wife, actress Annette O'Toole (TV's "Smallville").

McKean said he and Guest have been friends since the late 1960s, when they met in college. "Chris Guest and I started writing songs in our late teens together."

Their first professional songwriting gig came in 1979, when they came up with "Rock and Roll Nightmare" for a Rob Reiner TV special, "and that became the first 'Spinal Tap' song." (Five years later, "This Is Spinal Tap" marked Reiner's feature-directing debut.)

McKean attributes his longevity as an actor in a very fickle industry to being "a little bit smart and a whole lot lucky." During and after "Laverne & Shirley," he was offered a lot of "wacky neighbor" roles, but he went for diversity instead, to prove he could play a variety of characters. Years later, he continues to wage that battle against stereotyping:

"When I did 'The Brady Bunch Movie.' I got a flurry of offers to do that same kind of thing (sardonic nasty neighbor). They offer you the same kind of role because it works.

"But most of those scripts were not very good. It got to the point where I'd read the first 20 pages, then look to the last few pages to see what my character was covered in, from an exploding sewer pipe or something."


E-MAIL: hicks@desnews.com