Until this month, one of the funniest men in show business could walk down the street without getting a second look. Take his experience before the 1994 Academy awards, for example. He and his wife were leaving the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills on their way to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. "We fell into this group of movie stars," he recalls. "We went through the revolving door, and the press was all outside. Every time somebody would come out, they'd lift all their cameras and flip on the lights and the flashbulbs. Morgan Freeman was ahead of us, and right away the flashbulbs came out and the screaming began: 'Morgan! Morgan!' Dianne Wiest came out and they yelled, 'Dianne!' Screaming, screaming, screaming. Then my wife and I came out and they all got excited, lifted up their cameras, and threw on the lights—and it was like there was a blackout! Every light suddenly turned off! It was like coming onto a moonscape of lights, and then you've stepped off the moon and fallen into a black hole."
Welcome to the world of Douglas McGrath, a 43-year-old filmmaker, actor, and writer whose deadpan, somewhat prim sense of humor seems almost radical in an era when off-color humor rules the Hollywood roost. After a few minor writing and acting gigs, the Midland native co-wrote Bullets Over Broadway with Woody Allen in 1994 and adapted and directed the movie Emma for Miramax two years later. For Bullets, he created such memorable exchanges as this one, between a theatrical producer and a dim-witted actress:
"Do you like the play?" the producer asks.
"It's sad," she says.
"It's a tragedy."
McGrath has stayed behind the scenes for the past ten years, acquiring a fan club of distinguished peers. "Doug is arguably the nicest, most generous, calmest director I have ever worked with, period, end of sentence," says Donna Gigliotti, who was an executive producer at Miramax during the nineties. Says Woody Allen: "He's literate. And I like that. He's literate and he's witty." But this month McGrath takes center stage, starring in Company Man, a movie he wrote that also features Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, and Woody Allen. Now, perhaps, the public will begin to praise him as much as his colleagues do.
In person, McGrath's humor is often aimed at himself. "Woody always has these great fears that he's going to die before he has done all his ideas," he says over lunch at New York's Trattoria Dell'Arte. "Let's just say that's never a fear that crosses my mind before I shut my eyes at night. No, that'll never happen to me. Tonight, I could go to bed and go, 'Well'"—he slaps his hands together as if he's finished a project—"'everything's done!'"
His self-deprecating humor and playfulness are reasons his peers want to work with him. "For about two and a half hours one night, while working on a script, we talked like [lisping character actor] Eric Blore," recalls Stephen Banks, who co-wrote a television pilot for Showtime with McGrath in the early nineties. In conversation, McGrath frequently lapses into imitations of Truman Capote, Jack Benny, Woody Allen, or Victor Borge. (During lunch, he did his Capote while pretending to write on a small notepad: "When did you f iiind the people killed in the b aaasement?") The eldest of three children, he discovered his gift for mimicry while growing up in Midland, where his father, a Connecticut native, was in the oil business. "It wasn't something he came to late in life," says his brother, Sandy. "He was always interested in theater. He was an early and avid fan of the I Love Lucy show. At an early age, he would organize kids in little playacting skits."
"My first memory of the theater—meaning a movie theater—was seeing Mary Poppins, " McGrath says. "And a terrible thing to say about myself is that I remember having no critical judgment about any movie I saw until I saw Midnight Express in college, and I remember thinking, 'You know? I think they're being a little extreme with the Turkish guards here.' Up until then, I liked everything that came. The worst response from me was that I would see it only once."
He didn't know how he would do it, but he figured he was going to be in show business some day, so he took the only path available, joining the local community theater group, the Pickwick Players, in the seventh grade. He spent his high school years at prestigious Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, where he wrote and acted in several plays, and as an English major at Princeton, he joined the Triangle Club, the esteemed musical comedy troupe whose alumni include F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Stewart.
Up to this point, McGrath had followed the standard aspiring actor's route. But just before he graduated from Princeton, he made an unusual career decision: He would do nothing. No job searches. Nada. "I remember very consciously thinking to myself, 'I'm not going to do anything about this,'" he says. "And the miracle of it is: It worked! I've tried it again and it never worked again, but the day before I graduated [fellow Midlander] Liz Tirrell, who was a talent scout at Saturday Night Live, called and said, 'Hey, they're hiring new writers on Saturday Night ; would you like to send in some material?' And I thought, 'My God, it's paying off! I can't believe it!'"
In 1980 McGrath signed on with SNL, where his style surfaced; he says he was "going for cheap, low, and funny." One skit he wrote that he particularly likes, he says, "was about a guard at the Louvre who was having an affair with the Mona Lisa, but they were going to break up because he found somebody in sculpture: Venus de Milo."
But it turned out there was a catch to getting a writing job at SNL in 1980: Lorne Michaels