The Surprising Versatility of Better Call Saul’s Michael McKean

Michael McKean took the Better Call Saul role for the surprise of it.

Up until just recently, when he got so caught up in work he forgot he might be crazy, Chuck McGill couldn’t leave his house on Better Call Saul. The place was sealed from anything battery-powered, lest he get infested with electromagnetic rays that make him feel like he’s being nuked in a microwave. McGill has Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity, a kind of allergy to magnetic pulses. Watching the long walk from a car trunk to a front door through the forced perception of the small screen brought it home. I saw it coming, not just that work really was therapeutic and fraught with dangers, but that Chuck McGill would implode as an unforgettable character.

McKean has been imploding onscreen since he was the one wolf (there was an L missing) Leonard “Lenny” Kosnowski on Laverne and Shirley, cracking wise with his improvisational buddy David Lander as Andrew “Squiggy” Squigman. Now he’s cracking up intelligently in Albuquerque. I think Jimmy, played by comic writer who broke bad Bob Odenkirk, is going to be a big help to his brother on the show. He’s already proven himself a genius in manipulating OCD, leaving hundreds of unfilled files in the man’s apartment. It reminded me of the scene in Malcolm in the Middle, when Hal, played by the future Walter White Bryan Cranston, gives an OCD kid a set of encyclopedias and colors in an “o” on a page, knowing the kid won’t be able to stop. It also reminded me of the scene in Breaking Bad when Jesse Pinkman started shoveling a hole, knowing a meth addict would find hours of distraction completing it. If Michael McKean, who plays Chuck McGill, was a method actor, I’m sure he’d give himself OCD for a role. He is that dedicated. He commits to the joke.

It is always a happy surprise to me when Michael McKean pops up on the credits. At home I call him Gibby, for his role as Gibby Fiske on HBO’s nineties comedy series Dream On, the first time I remember being happy to see his name hit a credit. At the time, he was still the guy from Spinal Tap whose amp went up to 11 and the closeted gay federal cop who can really take a slap in Clue. McKean never got bogged into the straitjacket of his kind-of-iconic TV debut. He transcended many career-defining roles that could have typecast him for life by creating more characters. Yet, Michael McKean is always there, impishly improvising, forever surprising, even when he was impersonating Spooky Fox Mulder on The X-Files.

McKean is an accomplished ensemble player. As part of the repertory for Christopher Guest movies Best In Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration, he is so generous it looks like he’s actually throwing his energy to the other actors. Sometimes it looks like he’s trying to get rid of it, an actor’s version of the hot potato game. Sometimes he dribbles, but he always shoots his energy off for the assist. The Guest ensemble play volleyball with their parts and they don’t even care if the audience gets the joke. His Stefan Vanderhoof is so sympathetic with Scott Donlon, played by John Michael Higgins, in the Philadelphia dog show satire, Best in Show, you could almost mistake them for twin Shih Tzus. Guest had been making mock-documentary ensemble movies since Waiting for Guffman and McKean’s improvisational method keeps the jokes fresh and forever human.

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On Better Call Saul, McKean is a tragic, almost pathetic creature. There is a comic performance under that drama that makes the character even more sympathetic while keeping his distance. McKean has been doing this for years, turning an uncomfortable comic trait into an easy looking schtick. A lot of fans winced when Lenny and Squiggy showed up on Laverne and Shirley. Even more of them sympathetically wiped their own hands when Penny Marshall got a sweaterful of grease from Lenny’s Brillcream blonde duck’s ass haircut. McKean has that way of getting his character into situations where the viewer’s ass starts to squirm before the joke finally kicks in.

It takes a special talent to make a character hard to watch while you can’t take your eyes off them. There are scenes in films, the naked fight in Borat comes to mind, but a character whose core is uncomfortable is rare. Actors don’t want people cringing when they show up on a screen. McKean’s characters flourish on the edge of likeability.

Michael McKean was born in New York City on Oct. 17, 1947. His mom, Ruth, was a librarian. His father, Gilbert McKean, was one of the founders of Decca Records, the label that turned down the Beatles. Michael was a session musician in New York in the late 1960s. He recorded a single with the Left Banke.

The first time America noticed McKean was on Laverne and Shirley, but the Lenny and Squiggy characters started while McKean and David Lander were College students in Pittsburgh. Michael was studying at Carnegie Tech, Lander was at CMU. They took their schtick to the comedy group The Credibility Gap with Harry Shearer in Los Angeles. Shearer, of course, went on to play Derek Smalls, the bassist of Spinal Tap and a billion voices on The Simpsons.

McKean and Lander joined the cast of Laverne & Shirley in 1976. McKean was originally hired as a writer. McKean directed one episode. The Lenny and Squiggy characters also appeared on the “Fonzie’s Funeral: Part 2” episode of Happy Days, the show that invented the concept of jumping the shark. McKean would step into Fox Mulder’s psyche for an X-Files episode called “Jump the Shark.” Coincidence or another unsolved mystery from Unsolved Mysteries?

Lenny and Squiggy released an album as Lenny and the Squigtones in 1979. The drummer on the cover who bills himself as “Ming the Merciless” was Kiss drummer Peter Criss without his make-up. Criss has always denied it, but McKean couldn’t keep a straight face on it. The guitarist was Christopher Guest under the name Nigel Tufnel, which he’d use again for Spinal Tap. The Lenny and the Squigtones album had an almost hit, “Foreign Legion of Love,” not a big hit, a Dr. Demento hit. Up there with “On Top of Spaghetti” and “Frosty The Dope Man.” McKean reunited with David Lander, who had a recurring role as Henry on the cartoon Oswald, as Henry’s cousin, Louie.

During the Laverne and Shirley run, McKean played Eddie Winslow in the movie Used Cars (1980), which starred Kurt Russell as a crooked used car salesman in Phoenix, Arizona, who wants to run for Senate, which sounds like a redundancy. The movie also starred Frank McRae, David L. Lander, Al Lewis, Dub Taylor and Dick Miller. Jack Warden played everyone else.

McKean left Laverne & Shirley in 1982, the year he played Dr. Simon August in the soap opera spoof Young Doctors in Love. It was also the year McKean shot his role as David Ivor St. Hubbins in the comedy This is Spinal Tap with both Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. David Ivor St. Hubbins was a play on the name of Ted Nugent’s rhythm guitarist Derek St. Holmes.

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Rob Reiner’s mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap came out in 1984. Reiner was also shedding an iconic TV role, Mike “Meathead” Stivic on Norman Mailer’s All in the Family, which changed comedy on the small screen forever. As the lead singer and rhythm guitarist of the band Spinal Tap, McKean improvised the dialogue but rehearsed his guitar lines. In the introduction to This Is Spinal Tap: The Official Guide, he calls David St. Hubbins “mostly fictional.” The mostly fictional St. Hubbins was named for the “Patron Saint of Quality Footwear.” He was born in Squatney, London, and grew up next door to future Spinal Tapper Nigel Tufnel but they didn’t meet until the Skiffle craze hit when they were about 7. He was part of the musical advocacy group Hear ‘n Aid.  His cosmically challenged life was saved by the astrological maneuverings of his wife. In A Mighty Wind from 2003, The Folksmen are played by the acoustic Spinal Tap without wigs. McKean’s wife, the actress and sometime collaborator, Annette O’Toole said that The Folksmen were booed offstage when they opened for Spinal Tap in concert.

In 1985, McKean played Mr. Green, from the State Department, in Clue, a mystery all-star comedy ensemble film based on the Hasbro (they bought Parker Brothers) board game Clue, which was based on the Waddingtons (Hasbro bought them too) game Cluedo. The movie was a spoof of a spoof, the brilliant Neil Simon murder mystery satire Murder by Death, which paired Eileen Brennan with Peter Falk doing his best Walter Matthau impression. Brennan came back for Clue, which also starred Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Martin Mull, Lesley Ann Warren with little scenes from Howard Hesseman and Jane Wieden of The Go-Gos. Clue was directed by Jonathan Lynn, who co-wrote the screenplay with Animal House director John Landis. It was a comedy all-star board game, every line a punch line, even the set ups. While it may have ostensibly starred Curry and been stolen by Kahn, who Curry said didn’t appear to be enjoying herself while making it, every character gives surprising performances. The movie was shot with three endings. Depending on where you saw it, you saw a different killer, or victim, but usually both. It got bad reviews at the time, but what did they know? It is a classic.

After Clue, McKean made Earth Girls Are Easy, based on comedian Julie Brown’s Goddess In Progress album in 1984. He had a lead in the film Short Circuit 2 in 1988. He had guest roles on TV in Murder, She Wrote, Murphy Brown, Caroline in the City, Children’s Hospital, Homeland and Happy Endings. McKean was also part of the ensemble cast of Grand on NBC. It lasted one season in 1990. In 1991, McKean and Christopher Guest co-wrote the second episode of the mock documentary series Morton & Hayes, reuniting them with Rob Reiner who created the series with Phil Mishkin. McKean also directed the final episode of the show. He played WBN band conductor Rick Rochester in the throwback screwball comedy Radioland Murders in 1994.

McKean began maneuvering the orbit of the Saturday Night Live galaxy in the late eighties. He played in the Steve Martin/John Candy road trip comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles in 1987, was slightly more visible than Chevy Chase in Memoirs of an Invisible Man in 1992 and shone his dome in Coneheads in 1993. He hosted Saturday Night Live and appeared as a musical guest with Spinal Tap. He set a record as the oldest person ever to join the Not Ready For Time Players in 1994. He’d been offered a spot as a cast member spot by Dick Ebersol in 1984 but turned it down. McKean and Billy Crystal are the only Not Ready for Prime Time Players to have hosted the show before joining and McKean was only musical guest to join the cast. Ackroyd was already in the cast when he’d appeared as Elwood Blues.

McKean joined SNL as a midseason ringer in March 1994 to bolster the new cast that included Sarah Silverman, Jay Mohr and Norm Macdonald. McKean stayed through 1995. The only recurring character I remember is the “Good Morning Brooklyn” weatherman Anthony. He inherited a lot of impressions, including Bill Clinton, from the late great Phil Hartman. McKean did about 20 impressions, including Elvis Costello, Howard Stern, Vincent Price, Jimmy Carter, Robert Evans, John Tesh from Entertainment Tonight and OJ Simpson’s lawyer Robert Shapiro.

During the mid-90s, McKean released a video follow up to Spinal Tap and played the villainous Mr. Dittmeyer in a Brady Family movie. He terrorized his minions as the acid tongued British boss of Whitestone Publishing, Gibby, in the HBO series Dream On. McKean wasn’t the star, that was Brian Benben as Martin Tupper. McKean was an irregular regular but I called the series “Gibby” at the time, as in “Gibby’s on.” He also appeared in Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Little Nicky and Mystery.

McKean met Vince Gilligan, the creator of Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, when he guest starred in a two-part episode of The X-Files called “Dreamland.” McKean’s Man In Black character, Morris Fletcher, switches bodies with Fox Mulder and almost gets down with Dana Scully, played by Gillian Anderson. Fletcher claims to have invented Saddam Hussein, who is actually an actor named John Gillnitz, that the man in black found in a Tulsa dinner theatre doing King and I. He played a great ethnic. The midlife crisis suffering Fletcher character returned in the 1999 episode “Three of a Kind,” which focused on The Lone Gunmen, whose spin-off series also featured Fletcher in 2001. McKean returned to The X-Files in its final season for the aforementioned episode “Jump the Shark,” still a mystery.

McKean made the films Mystery, Alaska (1999); Little Nicky (2000); The Guru (2002) And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003). He was band leader Adrien Van Voorhees in Primetime Glick from 2001-2003. In May 2010, McKean played himself on the Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational Tournament on Jeopardy! McKean beat Jane Curtin and Cheech Marin to win $1 million for the charity International Myeloma Foundation in honor of his friend Lee Grayson, who died of myeloma in 2004. In 2008, McKean starred in the air-drumming comedy movie Adventures of Power with Jane Lynch, who played the lesbian dog lover in For Your Consideration. McKean was the chief of staff in the pilot episode of a remake of the British series The Thick of It that was directed by frequent collaborator Christopher Guest.

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One of McKean’s must successful collaborations is with his wife Annette O’Toole. Having played both Superman’s girlfriend and Superman’s mother, O’Toole has a sense of the perverse. McKean played Perry White in the “Perry” episode of Smallville in 2003. McKean had already played White on Saturday Night Live and played the cloning expert Dr. Fabian Leek in the 1994 episode of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman called “Vatman.”  On Smalleville, O’Toole and McKean only had one scene together and they were separated by about 200 yards. McKean and O’Tool had already appeared together on a 1999 episode of Boy Meets World called “State of the Unions.” They also appeared together on an episode of Law & Order and in the 1998 Lifetime movie Final Justice.

My favorite of the couple’s collaborations, that I’ve seen, is their musical partnership. It all began, according to an interview McKean gave to Soundtrack,“On September 11, 2001, Annette found herself without an airline to carry her back down to Los Angeles from Vancouver, where she films Smallville. So she drove a rental car down. The two of us drove it back up together, and on the long drive up there, somewhere between Portland and Seattle, she told me she had a tune in her head.  She sang me this funny little tune, and I told her I didn’t think it was an existing tune – she had made it up.  So we started batting the tune around, and as a way to mnemonically preserve it, along the lines of what Sir Paul did with ‘Scrambled Eggs’ which later became ‘Yesterday,’ we came up with a mnemonic device which was ‘Potato’s in the Paddy Wagon,’ which helped us remember the rhythm of the main piece of the song.  By the time we got to Vancouver, we liked the phrase so much that we decided to keep that, discard all logic, and try to assemble a song that made sense out of the phrase, ‘potato’s in the paddy wagon.’  So that was the first tune we wrote together.  I told her that Christopher Guest was doing this folk movie, and there might be a place to use that in the film.”

A Mighty Wind director Christopher Guest “asked us to write a song to be Mitch and Mickey’s signature tune.  Something romantic and fairly straight.  So we wrote “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” more or less trying to recreate the Stephen Foster feel – a song that could have been written within the last 180 years,” McKean told Soundtrack. Annette and Michael were nominated for a Best Song Oscar for Song for A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow.” The song “A Mighty Wind,” which McKean wrote with Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, won the Grammy for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media.

McKean appeared Christopher Guest’s HBO comedy series Family Tree in early 2013. Besides reuniting with David Lander in cartoon form, McKean has also been animated for Dinosaurs, Kevin Smith’s Clerks: The Animated Series, Pinky and the Brain, Harvey Birdman – Attorney at Law, Small Soldiers, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Spongebob Squarepants. He played the rock star Virgil, on the lookout for rocks for an All-Rock Band on an episode of Sesame Street. McKean played Dalboz of Gurth, the lead role in the video game Zork Grand Inquisitor in 1997.

McKean is just as comfortable on the stage as he is on screen. He appeared in the Broadway production of Hairspray in 2004. He costarred as Hines alongside Harry Connick Jr. in a revival of The Pajama Game at the American Airlines Theatre in the first half of 2006. McKean debuted on London’s West End in Love Song by American playwright John Kolvenbach.

McKean starred in the 40th Anniversary Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, which opened in December 2007 and co-starred Ian McShane, Raul Esparza, Eve Best, and James Frain. In 2009, McKean starred in playwright Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts put on by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. In the summer of 2010, McKean took over the role of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at the Barrow Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village.

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Theater legends tell us that you should never say good luck before the start of a production. Superstitious actors prefer to be told to “break a leg,” before a performance lest it become some kind of Macbeth. In April 2012, McKean began performing on Broadway in a revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. On May 22, 2012, McKean was hit by a car, breaking his leg. His part was filled by James Lecesne. McKean got out of the hospital on June 1, 2012 and underwent physical rehabilitation.

In late February 2014, McKean supported Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston in Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way. Cranston starred as Lyndon B. Johnson and McKean played J. Edgar Hoover. McKean had worked with Vince Gilligan on The X-Files. Gilligan asked McKean to join the original Breaking Bad cast, but the actor had stage commitments. “I did this play with Bryan [Cranston] in Cambridge and then in New York. … I’m offstage with Bryan, we’re about to make an entrance. I’m all J. Edgar Hoover, he’s all LBJ and he turns to me and he goes, ‘The Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul, you’ve really got to play the brother.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he says, ‘Well, Vince is going to call you. I think he wants you to play the brother. It’d be a cool thing to do because he’s stuck in one place. You could maybe do a couple episodes at a time,” McKean said in an interview with IGN.

McKean took the part for the happy surprises he would get from Vince Gilligan, which probably best sums up the actor’s technique. As he told IGN, “I like being surprised like everybody else. I like when Vince calls me and says, ‘Are you sitting down? This is what happens here.’ ‘Oh my god! Okay, let’s do this.’ Nothing an actor loves better than someone dropping a real chore in their lap, something they’re going to have to really go for. I did King Lear four years ago, in New York, and played Gloucester. This guy gets his eyes gouged out on stage. And I’m thinking, how can I play that scene? How can I possibly be real about the pain and the horror of that moment and not make it silly, not make it a melodrama? The thing is, you get caught up in it and it happens because that’s what Mr. Shakespeare says has to happen. And it wound up playing really well, all night, every night. We love being given the impossible.”

It’s good to see McKean back on a regular basis, being watched over by his brother Jimmy even as he looks down on the ambulance chasing mouthpiece. The McGill family is obviously very close, they overlook quite a few flaws that seem obvious to the casual observer. Something is going to happen to shatter that family bond as Jimmy McGill will be forced to make the transition to Saul Goodman. But no matter how bad they break, it’s all good, man.