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Michael McKean has evolved from his comedic early days at CMU

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Joan Marcus
Michael McKean as Ben Hubbard in Lillian Hellman's 'The Little Foxes' on Broadway

Though he played his early career for laughs — most notably as the tall half of Lenny and Squiggy — Michael McKean has graduated to some serious roles over the years, including his current two jobs on AMC’s “Better Call Saul” and in Broadway’s revival of “The Little Foxes.”

Not bad for an actor who got his first break at Carnegie Mellon University, where he spent a year in 1966, and famously formed a dynamic duo with fellow student David Lander to create two comic characters that would become Lenny and Squiggy on the long-running TV comedy “Laverne & Shirley” (1976-83).

“All we were trying to do was make people laugh,” remembers McKean, 69, of his year spent at CMU.

Starting in high school, McKean knew he wanted to be an actor. “Bruce Mooney, my acting teacher, showed me how, as an actor, you can perform a function that touches people,” he says.

Post-graduation, he had his heart set on the highly competitive program at CMU, where he found an opportunity to be center stage. But not for long. While McKean enjoyed his time at CMU and in Pittsburgh, “After a year I bailed, or maybe CMU bailed me,” he says. “I couldn’t get up so early for classes.”

He left and headed for what is now the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., “where I made my professional stage debut for $70 a week … My first professional gig.”

We can assume he gets paid a whole lot more for his role as Chuck McGill, older brother of the main character, Jimmy McGill in “Better Call Saul.” The prequel to the much-honored “Breaking Bad” just began its third season. Jimmy, later to be known as Saul, “is a pain in the (butt) to his brother but remains the center of Chuck’s life,” McKean says.

In the Lillian Hellman classic “The Little Foxes,” McKean finds himself in “another sibling drama.” He portrays Ben Hubbard, part of an uber-dysfunctional Southern family, who has a grudging alliance with his sister, Regina, in a battle for the family fortune. The play, headlined by Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternating lead roles, opened last week at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater in New York.

“I’m in another sibling drama,” laughs McKean. “It’s great to be portraying such troubled brothers.”

“Ben’s desire to be the richest man in the county,” he says of his “Little Foxes” character, “is not what motivates me. I’m not about that. Whatever Ben is, there’s not a lot of warmth in it.”

These two serious roles come after dozens of films and TV series and acclaimed work on “Saturday Night Live” (1994-95), in which he proved an original when it came to mimicry But McKean really tapped into a musical gold mine when he joined Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer as myopic members of the ultimate out-of-it English rock band in the mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984), directed by Rob Reiner.

The quartet also is credited with writing the send-up of the music industry.

“Spinal Tap” really put the actor on the map, with a number of fans reportedly thinking the band was for real.

What was real were McKean’s roots in the record industry. “I grew up in the music business,” since his father worked for a number of record companies, but “I didn’t love my father’s music,” he says of jazz and classical.

He was into rock and, as he grew older, he was into making fun of the people in the music business. “ ‘Spinal Tap’ was meant to portray those who were into the excesses, who were so self-important,” he says.

He rejoined with Shearer and Guest for two more mockumentaries — “Best in Show,” set at a prestigious dog show, and “A Mighty Wind,” about the reunion of 1960s folk trio the Folksmen. McKean co-wrote the Grammy Award-winning title song for “A Mighty Wind” and was Oscar-nominated for the number, “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” which he co-wrote with his wife, actress Annette O’Toole, to whom he’s been married since 1999.

Michael Elkin is a Tribune-Review contributing writer and a playwright and author of the novel, “I, 95.”

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