George Wendt in Auburn stage production
05:00 AM, Sep 16, 2013
Actor George Wendt, famous for his role as Norm Peterson on Cheers, takes a light approach to life.
The 64-year-old, who will be part of Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival’s season closer Hank Williams: Lost Highway, has lived enough and had enough success to take his mistakes in stride.
Wendt who grew up the second oldest in a family of seven children on the south side of Chicago fully understands why he got kicked out of college at University of Notre Dame. He didn’t take advantage of the privilege.
“It was my first semester of junior year, and I moved off campus and didn’t have a car,” he says. “So I didn’t really go to classes or take any exams, and I got a 0.00 grade point average for the semester.”
This situation upset Wendt’s dad himself a Fighting Irish alum but the younger Wendt rallied, transferred to Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Mo., and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics.
While home on summer vacations from college, Wendt and older sister Kathy spent Saturday nights at Chicago’s famed Second City, an improvisational comedy club. After graduating from Rockhurst in 1971and bumming around Europe and North Africa for a few years, Wendt returned to Second City to apply for a job.
He was handed a broom and was told, “Welcome to the theater, kid.”
Wendt took the job, then participated in the club’s comedy workshops, eventually being selected as a member of its touring production and resident company.
“It was a ball,” says Wendt, who says he was “clueless and quiet” as a child. “I had no acting experience in my background, but something just clicked.”
From Second City, Wendt headed to Los Angeles, where he landed minor roles in television shows such as Soap, Taxi and Alice. On M*A*S*H* he played a Marine with a pool ball stuck in his mouth).
Then Wendt got his big break as Norm on Cheers. It was the role of a lifetime, he says.
“It was my favorite role, the one I’ll always be remembered for,” says Peterson, who along with Ted Danson and Rhea Perlman was on each of the show’s 273 episodes.
Since Cheers signed off in 1993, Wendt has worked steadily, in films such as Fletch and Gung Ho and on television shows including Spin City, Tales From The Crypt and Saturday Night Live. He also has performed on Broadway as bartender Joe Bell in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray.
Outside of work, Wendt enjoys family life and hanging with his friends. He and his wife, Bernadette Birkett, have been married for 35 years. She also is an actor; the pair met at Second City, and she served as the off-camera voice of “Vera,” Peterson’s wife on Cheers. Wendt and Birkett have five children and one grandchild.
Wendt had a quick recovery from double bypass surgery in November 2012 and was rehearsing soon after at Manhattan’s Court Theatre for the March 2013 opening of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Recently, he performed alongside Perlman in an episode of fellow Cheers alum Kirstie Alley’s new TVLand sitcom, due to launch in December.
“I’m a happy guy,” says Wendt, who loves watching sports on T.V., hopes to play Falstaff some day and expressed interest in familiarizing himself with Auburn’s inventory of watering holes during his stay. “Work is really, really fun. I don’t ever plan to retire.”
In Hank Williams: Lost Highway, a musical biography, Wendt plays the role of Fred Rose/Pap, founder and chief executive officer of a Nashville music publishing company who served as a father figure to Williams, a country music artist.
Wendt is excited about the show.
“It’ll be a concert every night,” he said in a phone interview. “Mine is a non-singing role, but maybe I can weasel my way into a couple of musical numbers.”
If you go
If you go
What: Hank Williams: Lost Highway.
When: Wednesday through Oct. 5.
Where: Merry-Go-Round Theatre, Emerson Park, Auburn.
Cost: $42 ($39 for seniors, $22 for those 22 years and younger).
For tickets: FingerLakesMTF.com.