How he’s tapped the market — from The Simpsons to Nixon

INTERVIEW / HARRY SHEARER / An audience with the multi-faceted performer, who is starring in a London play

By John Nathan, July 11, 2013
Harry Shearer in rehearsals for Daytona with co-star Maureen Lipman

Harry Shearer in rehearsals for Daytona with co-star Maureen Lipman

When actor, satirist, musician, artist, broadcaster and mock-rocker Harry Shearer joins Maureen Lipman on stage at London’s newest theatre, the experience will be a tad different from the time Shearer and the rest of spoof rock band Spinal Tap performed to tens of thousands on Glastonbury’s main stage in 2009. The Park Theatre audience is around 180. But he will still be nervous.

“I get nervous doing everything,” says Shearer, seated as languid as you like on a sofa in the post-hippy cool of Julie’s restaurant in Holland Park. Dressed in linen jacket and raffish fedora, he hardly conveys anxiety. “Well you don’t have to be all fluttery,” he explains. “In my experience, and I’ve been doing this for a while, you always get nervous. That’s where the adrenaline comes from.”

Comparisons between the small-scale stage production, Daytona, and the mega gig at Glastonbury will have to end there. Except, perhaps, that after the run at the Park, Oliver Cotton’s new play — in which Lipman and Shearer play the Zimmermans, a 70-something Jewish couple bound by a common history (the camps) and a mutual interest (dancing) — goes on tour, just like a rock band. Mind you, the venues (which include Kingston and Watford) are somewhat less than rock ‘n’ roll.

The contrasts in Shearer’s working life are part of a deliberate plan. His first taste of showbiz was as a seven-year-old on The Jack Benny Show. His most successful gig — at least financially — is as the most sought after animation actor since Looney Tunes’s Mel “That’s All Folks” Blanc, who in a weirdly prescient way, Shearer met working on Benny’s show. For Shearer created the voice for a host of characters in The Simpsons, including evil industrialist Mr Burns, his assistant Waylon Smithers and the annoyingly good-hearted neighbour Ned Flanders.

It’s hard to think of anyone who is as comfortable in so many art forms. Possibly Steve Van Zandt — the actor who played one of Tony Soprano’s trusted lieutenants and the musician who is Bruce Springsteen’s long-time guitarist? “Little Stevie,” Shearer responds. “It occurred to me that being a moving target is a good way to be in the business a long time.

“The people at the top love to pigeon-hole you and once they do that, they get maximum value and then dispose of you. And so to be unpigeonholeable is a way of survival.” Being a serious actor then is all part of this comedian’s plan to keep moving. Previous incarnations include being one of the Saturday Night Live crew, as both performer, writer and video installation artist. And in between the gigging, acting and art, Shearer has a weekly radio show in which he launches satirical sideswipes at whatever or whoever has got his goat.

An only child, politics was a dinner table topic with his parents. His father Mack was trained as an opera singer in Vienna. His mother was Polish and she too made it to America as a refugee from the Nazis. But unlike politics, the Holocaust was rarely discussed. “That was such a closed cabinet for both of them. And I think I understand why. They were the only members of their family to survive.” You get the impression this is not a subject Shearer wants to dwell on.

I suggest his father must have felt bitter at ending up running a Los Angeles petrol station after being trained for opera. And for the first time Shearer’s sonorous tones harden.

It’s possible he finds the question offensive on his father’s behalf, though it was never meant that way. But he answers it straight enough, although it’s loaded with ironic role play, the kind he slips in and out of during his broadcasts.

Harry Shearer (centre) as Richard Nixon in the series which will be shown here on Sky Arts

Harry Shearer (centre) as Richard Nixon in the series which will be shown here on Sky Arts

“Oh yeah, sure,” he says, as if it was his parents speaking. “I’m alive but I’m not having my chosen career.” And then back as himself, he adds: “It would have seemed to them unseemly, inappropriate, self-indulgent. They were not those kind of people.”

He is equally candid, and perhaps a tad more chilly, when asked about the money he makes on The Simpsons. Eighteen months ago there was a pay dispute between the show’s bosses at 20th Century Fox and the voice cast, of whom Shearer was the most vocal when it came to criticising Fox executives. He still is. “Isn’t it vulgar to ask about money?” he responds somewhat wearily.

The story goes that the actors’ rate went from about $25,000 per episode at the beginning of the series in 1989 and peaked at over $400,000 per episode before protracted ill-tempered negotiations between Fox and the cast ended with a pay cut, to around $300,000 (£200,000). He takes a sip of his tea sweetened with honey before putting the case.

“There are various figures that have been in the public domain. But yes, I’ll say the general arc is what you’ve described. On the one hand we are spectacularly overpaid. But in the rarefied universe of a hit television series, overpaid would not be my description.

“As far as the studio bosses are concerned, their attitude has always been, privately and publicly, that we are hired hands and we can be disposed of at any time. And the head of Fox said during the first contract negotiations that they can get kids from any high school in the country to do our voices. They’ve been unrelenting in that position ever since. And my response is: ‘And we can get kids from any high school to run the Fox network?’ I think we have.”

Shearer’s latest TV series is Nixon’s The One, to be broadcast by Sky Arts, in which he plays the title role of the former president, as well as being co-writer. It is, he says, his most fulfilling project since Spinal Tap. “I think the show is exactly the thing I set out to do. That’s where fulfilment comes from. Lots of stuff gets watered down in some way but if you end up with the thing you set out to do, you can’t ask for more than that.”

He doesn’t like violence and theatrical gun-play is not his style. He’d rather have a more positive effect on the world.

He recalls with pride that “the worst thing anyone has done emulating me in a movie” was a pastiche of a scene from Spinal Tap where his character, bass player Derek Smalls, is revealed by airport security to have a package wrapped in foil pushed down his trousers. Smalls was concealing a courgette. The copycat had marijuana.

Last updated: 2:53pm, August 28 2014