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’s career prospects: actor/comedian Jon Lovitz ’79.
“His dad called me to ask how he’s doing,” Cohen recalls. “He said, ‘I’m Jon Lovitz’s father. Does my son have a future as an actor?’ I told him, ‘Well, he’s not a conventional actor in any sense. But if he wants to stick with acting, he has a good chance at it. There’s something about him. You can’t take your eyes off him.’”
Cohen recently related this story to Lovitz as the two relaxed in the professor’s office. The former student has gone on to become one of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ biggest celebrity alumni, having gained fame on “Saturday Night Live” with such memorable characters as pompous Shakespearean actor Master Thespian and pathological liar Tommy Flanagan, whose ridiculous tall tales were punctuated with “Yeah, that’s the ticket!”
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 – and, perhaps, the same worried parents. Over the course of his busy career, he’s made several unadvertised visits to his alma mater to chat with aspiring actors.
“I’m thrilled to be here because I was where you are,” he told the group, speaking onstage at Winifred Smith Hall. “Everything I learned here, I used. In college, it’s just about pure acting – that’s all it’s about, which is great.”
To no one’s surprise, Lovitz said he was the class clown during his undergraduate days – 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: “I’d look at whoever was in my class and ask, ‘Who’s better than me? OK, at the end of the quarter, I’ll be better than them.’”
His advice to students ranged from the profane (“You have to work your a– off!”) to the practical:
“I don’t care what you’re majoring in, I would take a business class. … You need to know just basic things about money so that when you’re working at whatever job you have, you’re not taken advantage of. You may be like, ‘No, I’m an artist. I don’t care about that stuff.’ And that’s fine. But then you’ll just be ripped off, continually.”
He also offered serious acting tips: “Use what’s unique about you and the idiosyncrasies of your personality and put that into your work. It will make the part yours.”
Lovitz talked about the fear of failure and “that whole rejection thing” actors face, confessing that he was “scared s—less” after graduating from UC Irvine with a bachelor’s degree in drama in 1979. “I was crying, I was so scared. I was down on my knees,” he said. “Then a friend told me, ‘Oh, get up. Everyone’s scared. But you just dive in, and all of a sudden, you’re not scared.’”
He did dive in, honing his skills at Tony Barr’s 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 “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” where he introduced his Tommy Flanagan character. “It’d be like going from this room,” recalled Lovitz, gesturing to Winifred Smith Hall, “to ‘The Tonight Show.’”
An agent, television and movie deals, and a chance to try out for a slot on “Saturday Night Live” quickly followed. Lovitz thought he’d muffed the audition, that his routines had fallen flat. “I just blew the biggest opportunity of my life,” he said afterward. He got the gig.
“I did my liar character [on ‘SNL’] that next year,” Lovitz told the students. “That’s the thing that hit.”
His “SNL” stint, from 1985 to 1990, led to two Emmy Award nominations and numerous parts in films and television shows. He’s 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 “Cappy” Capadino in “A League of Their Own.” Lovitz has also guest-starred on “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Married … with Children” and “The Simpsons” (voice).
With each new script, he pushes himself: “I ask myself, ‘How can I play this scene and make it different and unique?’ … That’s the great part about acting: You can always get better.”
He’s still landing projects because he continues to work at it. “I never, ever, ever walk through a job,” Lovitz said, “because as soon as you do that, people see it. And they’re like, ‘Oh, he lost it. He lost his talent.’”
His parting words to students: “The secret [to making it as an actor] is there is no secret. It’s not one thing. It’s a lot of things. What’s the difference between someone who’s working and someone who isn’t working? Nothing. They just happen to be working.
“There are no guarantees [of success], but I can guarantee if you don’t try, nothing will happen.”
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).
“Thank you for coming – I learned a lot!” one told him. It was another great performance, by a master thespian.