In his 48 years of teaching at UC Irvine, Claire Trevor Professor of Drama Robert Cohen has had only one student whose parents contacted him to check up on their child‚Äôs career prospects: actor/comedian Jon Lovitz ‚Äô79.
‚ÄúHis dad called me to ask how he‚Äôs doing,‚ÄĚ Cohen recalls. ‚ÄúHe said, ‚ÄėI‚Äôm Jon Lovitz‚Äôs father. Does my son have a future as an actor?‚Äô I told him, ‚ÄėWell, he‚Äôs not a conventional actor in any sense. But if he wants to stick with acting, he has a good chance at it. There‚Äôs something about him. You can‚Äôt take your eyes off him.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Cohen recently related this story to Lovitz as the two relaxed in the professor‚Äôs office. The former student has gone on to become one of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts‚Äô biggest celebrity alumni, having gained fame on ‚ÄúSaturday Night Live‚ÄĚ with such memorable characters as pompous Shakespearean actor Master Thespian and pathological liar Tommy Flanagan, whose ridiculous tall tales were punctuated with ‚ÄúYeah, that‚Äôs the ticket!‚ÄĚ
Lovitz returned to campus in March to give an informal talk about acting to drama students, many of whom have the same dreams of success he once did ‚Äď and, perhaps, the same worried parents. Over the course of his busy career, he‚Äôs made several unadvertised visits to his alma mater to chat with aspiring actors.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm thrilled to be here because I was where you are,‚ÄĚ he told the group, speaking onstage at Winifred Smith Hall. ‚ÄúEverything I learned here, I used. In college, it‚Äôs just about pure acting ‚Äď that‚Äôs all it‚Äôs about, which is great.‚ÄĚ
To no one‚Äôs surprise, Lovitz said he was the class clown during his undergraduate days ‚Äď and he scored big laughs from the students by imitating Marlon Brando and channeling his Master Thespian character, inspired by former UC Irvine drama professor William Needles.
Yet he had a serious competitive streak too: ‚ÄúI‚Äôd look at whoever was in my class and ask, ‚ÄėWho‚Äôs better than me? OK, at the end of the quarter, I‚Äôll be better than them.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
His advice to students ranged from the profane (‚ÄúYou have to work your a– off!‚ÄĚ) to the practical:
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt care what you‚Äôre majoring in, I would take a business class. ‚Ä¶ You need to know just basic things about money so that when you‚Äôre working at whatever job you have, you‚Äôre not taken advantage of. You may be like, ‚ÄėNo, I‚Äôm an artist. I don‚Äôt care about that stuff.‚Äô And that‚Äôs fine. But then you‚Äôll just be ripped off, continually.‚ÄĚ
He also offered serious acting tips: ‚ÄúUse what‚Äôs unique about you and the idiosyncrasies of your personality and put that into your work. It will make the part yours.‚ÄĚ
Lovitz talked about the fear of failure and ‚Äúthat whole rejection thing‚ÄĚ actors face, confessing that he was ‚Äúscared s—less‚ÄĚ after graduating from UC Irvine with a bachelor‚Äôs degree in drama in 1979. ‚ÄúI was crying, I was so scared. I was down on my knees,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúThen a friend told me, ‚ÄėOh, get up. Everyone‚Äôs scared. But you just dive in, and all of a sudden, you‚Äôre not scared.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
He did dive in, honing his skills at Tony Barr‚Äôs Film Actors Workshop before joining The Groundlings, a Los Angeles-based comedy troupe with many famous alumni, including Will Ferrell, Lisa Kudrow and the late Phil Hartman (who became friends with Lovitz).
In 1985, he appeared with The Groundlings on ‚ÄúThe Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,‚ÄĚ where he introduced his Tommy Flanagan character. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôd be like going from this room,‚ÄĚ recalled Lovitz, gesturing to Winifred Smith Hall, ‚Äúto ‚ÄėThe Tonight Show.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
An agent, television and movie deals, and a chance to try out for a slot on ‚ÄúSaturday Night Live‚ÄĚ quickly followed. Lovitz thought he‚Äôd muffed the audition, that his routines had fallen flat. ‚ÄúI just blew the biggest opportunity of my life,‚ÄĚ he said afterward. He got the gig.
‚ÄúI did my liar character [on ‚ÄėSNL‚Äô]that next year,‚ÄĚ Lovitz told the students. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs the thing that hit.‚ÄĚ
His ‚ÄúSNL‚ÄĚ stint, from 1985 to 1990, led to two Emmy Award nominations and numerous parts in films and television shows. He‚Äôs worked with top movie directors, including Woody Allen, Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall, who directed him in the critically acclaimed role of smooth-talking baseball scout Ernie ‚ÄúCappy‚ÄĚ Capadino in ‚ÄúA League of Their Own.‚ÄĚ Lovitz has also guest-starred on ‚ÄúFriends,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúSeinfeld,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúThe Larry Sanders Show,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúMarried ‚Ä¶ with Children‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúThe Simpsons‚ÄĚ (voice).
With each new script, he pushes himself: ‚ÄúI ask myself, ‚ÄėHow can I play this scene and make it different and unique?‚Äô ‚Ä¶ That‚Äôs the great part about acting: You can always get better.‚ÄĚ
He‚Äôs still landing projects because he continues to work at it. ‚ÄúI never, ever, ever walk through a job,‚ÄĚ Lovitz said, ‚Äúbecause as soon as you do that, people see it. And they‚Äôre like, ‚ÄėOh, he lost it. He lost his talent.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
His parting words to students: ‚ÄúThe secret [to making it as an actor]is there is no secret. It‚Äôs not one thing. It‚Äôs a lot of things. What‚Äôs the difference between someone who‚Äôs working and someone who isn‚Äôt working? Nothing. They just happen to be working.
‚ÄúThere are no guarantees [of success], but I can guarantee if you don‚Äôt try, nothing will happen.‚ÄĚ
After his talk, students swirled around Lovitz, posing with him for photos destined for their Facebook pages, inviting him to their future shows and even petting his dog (a rescue mutt named Jerry).
‚ÄúThank you for coming ‚Äď I learned a lot!‚ÄĚ one told him. It was another great performance, by a master thespian.