“Stage actors have had this attitude forever that they’re better than the movies, but it’s just not true,” Lovitz says.

Jon Lovitz is spending the summer in New York appearing nightly onstage at the Music Box Theater in Neil Simon’s “The Dinner Party,” but his likeness meanwhile will soon be visible in multiplexes everywhere as one of six unwitting Las Vegas tourists-turned- ruthless contestants for big money in the new chase comedy “Rat Race.”

Directed by Jerry Zucker and written by former “Saturday Night Live” writer Andy Breckman, “Rat Race” is an homage to the 1960s chase movies “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” and “The Great Race” and, like them, an ensemble film. The cast includes Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr., John Cleese, Seth Green and Rowan Atkinson. The film opens nationwide Aug. 17.

For Lovitz, it marks another achievement of warmhearted arrogance, playing a character who would get no sympathy from an audience except as personified by an actor capable of such endearing contradiction.

Randy Pear, his on-screen alter ego, is a flummoxed ordinary guy willing to risk almost anything, including his family, to win $2 million in a 700-mile race engineered by Cleese’s cynical casino mogul. Unable to shake his wife and two teenage children in order to enter the competition, Pear is forced to bring them along without telling them the real reason they are suddenly hurtling down desert highways with no time to stop even for bathroom breaks. Blithely fashioning lie after lie to explain the escalating madness to his hectoring spouse (Kathy Najimy), Pear finally runs out of fabrications by the time circumstances force him to exchange the family’s minivan somewhere in Arizona for a 1930s convertible once owned by Adolf Hitler.

Lovitz has been making such larger-than-life characters real ever since getting to the big time on “SNL” in the mid-’80s. That’s when he became a household image of comedic bombast for his recurring portrayals of Tommy Flanagan, the president of Pathological Liars Anonymous, and the Bard-spouting Master Thespian – roles he had invented as a member of the Los Angeles improv group the Groundlings. He has appeared in more than two dozen movies, mostly in supporting parts, yet his uncanny combination of pomposity and desperate inner agenda has made him memorable out of proportion to his screen time.

“He usually makes his mark in one or two scenes,” says Breckman, who worked with Lovitz on “SNL.” “I spent all of ‘A League of Their Own’ waiting for him to come back into the movie.” (In that 1990 film about a World War II-era women’s professional baseball league, Lovitz played the crabby baseball scout Ernie Capadino who recruits Geena Davis in the opening reel and then disappears.) “A lot of that was based on my grandfather,” Lovitz says of the role. “He was a big influence on me.”

It is the day before Lovitz is to leave for New York and begin his Neil Simon experience, replacing Henry Winkler, and he’s come to lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills wearing jeans and a golf shirt (though he is a tennis player, not a golfer). In person, he has put away the mask of overbearing that he wears so well, and the best that he can do in the way of imperious behavior is to ask the waitress to take his lobster away, keep it warm and bring it back in five minutes.

Lovitz, 44, is more serious than you might think, but he is not one of those dark-spirited comics who is a picture of depression away from the camera. He has the happy jowls of a banker, and if his eyes sometimes droop to half-mast, you wait for the lilting high whine of his voice to pick them up.

“I wanted to be Al Jolson,” he says, “ever since seeing the movie ‘Mammy’ when I was 2.” Lovitz, in fact, can sing. His résumé includes the conspicuous detail that he appeared in a tribute to Ira Gershwin at Carnegie Hall in 1997. He has also sung the national anthem at Dodger Stadium. “I enjoy my life,” he says. He is single, never married. Beyond that, he adds only, “I date women.”

He is motioning with his hands now, trying to trace in the air of the dining room the remarkable angle of a tennis ball he once served to Pete Sampras that Sampras was unable to return. “I aced him,” Lovitz says with a straight face, but immediately summons a measure of humility. “The ball must have hit in maybe the only spot where he couldn’t get it, so I was a little lucky. But it felt pretty good!” He concedes this was the only point he scored against the former Wimbledon champion in their only meeting, a friendly game somewhere on the Westside.

Then he turns the conversation back to his profession. “There are some actors who just say, ‘What do you want me to do? I’ll do whatever you want, and that’s all they do.” Lovitz says. “I kind of go to the other extreme. I say, ‘I have an idea. Can I try something?’ That’s what they taught us at Irvine [UC Irvine, where he studied acting]. We’d do a scene and they’d say, ‘That’s good, but you could do this or you could do this.’ I said to my teacher, ‘But how do you think of those things?’ He said, ‘Just start trying, and then you’ll be able to do it.’ And he was right.”

Notes Breckman: “Jon is closer to a jazz musician than an actor. I don’t know how he’s going to do the Neil Simon play because I know he’d like to improvise every night if he could.”

When Lovitz was cast by Woody Allen in “Small Time Crooks” last year, he was pleased to discover that Allen was open to improvisation.

“Woody Allen is why I became a comedian,” he says. “I saw ‘Take the Money and Run’ when I was 13, I learned his routines in my college dorm. So I was thrilled to be working with him, and the first thing he said which was surprising was, ‘If you want to add any lines or change anything or try anything, go ahead.’ I thought, really?

Lovitz grew up in Tarzana, the son of a prominent doctor who he says really wanted to be a singer. He attended the elite Harvard School (now Harvard-Westlake), which was then all boys, graduating in 1975. Two of his most vivid memories from that time are of being teased for being Jewish and appearing in a production of “The Man Who Came to Dinner” at a nearby girls school with the pleasant result that “the prettiest girl in the school fell in love with me.” His career goal, it seemed, was set.

He enrolled at UCI and majored in drama. “I wanted to go to Berkeley, but my dad said, ‘No, you’ll turn into a hippie.’ ” He kind of turned into a hippie anyway, which is to say he was still working as a messenger in Los Angeles at the age of 28, attending auditions and holding on to a vision of becoming a working actor before it finally happened. After college, he had studied at Tony Barr’s Film Actors Workshop in Los Angeles, then gone to New York to try the theater, supporting himself as a waiter (“which I was horrible at and got fired”) and Xerox store clerk. He appeared in one play off-off-Broadway before returning to L.A. to audition for the Groundlings. He claims he was afraid of trying out for the group.

“When you grew up in the Valley back then, over the hill was another world. It’s like coming from Ohio, going to Hollywood [from Tarzana]. You might as well be from out of state.” He says this while acknowledging that his father’s patients included the Jackson family (as in Michael and Janet), and that his best friend was Lisa Kudrow’s brother, David. But he also wasn’t sure he wanted to limit himself to comedy or even that he would be successful at it.

“Tony Barr was a big influence on me,” he says, “because he said, ‘Go with your strengths’ and finally I made the decision to do that.”

And he did find a home at the Groundlings, where he took classes and understudied as a heavy in a spoof of 1940s film noir, playing opposite Phil Hartman, during the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984. He got to go on for four performances and remembers Laraine Newman bringing John Travolta to see him. Meanwhile, he was still working $6-an-hour jobs to pay the rent.

“My five best friends from childhood,” he remembers, “two were doctors, two were lawyers, one was an architect, and I was a messenger, you know what I mean? I had done two episodes of ‘The Paper Chase’ on cable, but then nothing for three years. I didn’t have an agent.”

When he learned that members of the Groundlings, including him, had been invited to appear on “The Tonight Show,” he didn’t believe it. “That was like, another world,” he says. And when, subsequently, an agent told him NBC wanted him to audition for the cast of “SNL,” once again he felt, “What, are you kidding? That to me was like, ‘Why don’t you go and live on Pluto.’ ” Which, as history shows, he soon did, in any case joining the cast the same year, 1985, as Dennis Miller and staying for five seasons.

“Jon, you were everything we weren’t looking for in one person,” “SNL” co-star and producer Al Franken reportedly told him on offering him the job.  For an actor, doing “SNL” is very close to working in the theater, and you might expect to hear Lovitz talk longingly about returning to his roots as he prepared to join Len Cariou, Penny Fuller and Larry Miller onstage in the cast of “The Dinner Party.”

But he doesn’t go there. Even given his classical training at Irvine and his stint with the Groundlings, he has come to see film acting as a superior craft.

“Stage actors have had this attitude forever that they’re better than the movies, but it’s just not true,” he says. “Stage is in a way easier because you’re not stopping and starting, you get some momentum going, you don’t have to hit an exact spot on the floor, you have more freedom. An actor’s an actor, but I think films are much harder.

“‘Like, if you’re doing a comedy in front of an audience and they’re laughing a lot, you can time your laughs off them. On a movie set, nobody’s laughing, you have to time it all in your head. In a film, I might say to you, ‘You have to look like you’re not acting at all, you’re totally natural. You have to be totally entertaining but I don’t want to be able to tell that you’re trying to be entertaining.’ And you think, ‘That’s impossible,’ but that’s what you have to do.”

Comedy itself is hard, Lovitz says, and like many with his affinity for it, he bristles a little at its lesser regard in the culture. “The thing is, it’s not ‘serious,’ ” he says, speaking to right a wrong. “What’s strange is that everyone will tell you that’s it’s harder to make comedy work than drama. But if it’s harder, how come the awards always go to drama?”

All that training to become a serious actor, however, may not have gone for naught. Jerry Zucker observes about Lovitz: “Some comic actors are hysterical but wild, but Jon is very inventive and has a lot of ideas. He wants to get the joke right. I think he’s underrated as an actor because he has the ability not just to step up into an outrageous moment, but then to step back into reality and have you believe him. When Andy and I were working on the script, it was helpful to imagine actors in certain parts, and from the beginning we always thought of Jon as Randy Pear, the devilish guy that you love.”

Lovitz lobs the compliment back to the man responsible for the satirical films “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun.” “Jerry Zucker has a great sense of humor and, surprisingly, there aren’t many comedy directors with a great sense of humor. I’ve worked with two—Penny Marshall and Rob Reiner—but they were both performers. This was one of the first times where in a comedy, a director would say, ‘Do this’ or ‘Do that’ and I’d say, ‘OK,’ because usually they don’t even know what they’re doing. They don’t. But I trusted Jerry.”

Lovitz refers to “Rat Race” as his first “studio” movie in four years, the first since “High School High,” a comedy directed by Hart Bochner, in which he starred as a beleaguered prep school history teacher who decides to change jobs and teach in a ghetto school. He’s not counting “Small Time Crooks,” technically made outside Hollywood by Allen in New York, or “Cats & Dogs,” the current Warner Bros. family film in which he is heard as the voice of a feline blunderbuss in command of the cat conspiracy to take over the world, or “3000 Miles to Graceland,” the Kevin Costner-Kurt Russell action comedy also from Warner Bros. in which he had a small part as a pawn dealer and money launderer. He also appeared in Todd Solondz’s edgy independent film “Happiness” as Jane Adams’ ex-boyfriend Andy.

All these pictures mark a fertile period for Lovitz following one of those stretches when even successful actors are reminded there is no tenure in show business.

“I was doing these Yellow Pages commercials,” he says, “mainly because I wasn’t getting any movies, and I thought if I do the commercial, I won’t get any movies. But the commercial was a funny idea and it was a lot of money. I thought, the great directors won’t hire me, but they weren’t hiring me anyway.”

Then came the call from Allen. “Working with Woody Allen was like a dream come true. I must have told him that 100 times. I almost felt like, ‘Goal achieved, it took me 29 years, I can quit now.’ And then I got this movie.”

But even if he hadn’t gotten the part in “Rat Race,” he is reminded that he has a lot to be thankful for. Looking back, Lovitz says, “I feel fortunate in my career that I had really great teachers, some of whom had gone to Yale – Robert Cohen, Ashley Carr, Stuart Duckworth and William Needles, who was an actor from Canada who had done a lot of Shakespeare. I based a lot of Master Thespian on him. But all of them said, ‘Use yourself, put your own idiosyncrasies in your work, use who you are.’ A lot of colleges don’t do that.

“I have a cousin Bob, from Chicago, an anesthesiologist now, who went to Juilliard and there they wouldn’t say that to them. They were training them like the 1940s, a lot of voice work. Kevin Kline, Kelsey Grammer, my cousin. If you heard him speak, he has the same voice as Kevin Kline. Mind you, I think those guys are great actors.”

But would they have been right for Randy Pear?

— Sean Mitchell

Copyright, 2001, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by Permission.