While having coffee with Mark Metcalf at Break Espresso on a recent afternoon, I glanced around at the table-dwellers peering at their laptops and wondered if anyone had taken notice of him. Metcalf has a charming presence and star-studded credits, but it's not like he's on the same celebrity tier as Brad Pitt. Still, for film geeks like me, he's something even better: He's a character actor.
He's the guy you see and say, "Hey, it's that guy." He's the underrated actor you vaguely recognize from episodes of "Star Trek: Voyager," "Ally McBeal," "Party of Five" and "JAG." And, though he's not as prolific as, say, Harry Dean Stanton or Alan Rickman, Metcalf has some distinctly iconic roles under his belt. He played "the maestro" in "Seinfeld" and the grotesque vampire known as "The Master" in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." ("Hopefully I'm not recognizable in that one," he says, laughing.) He's particularly famous for being the ROTC cadet bully Doug Niedermeyer in the 1978 classic Animal House, though it was perhaps his reprisal of the character in Twisted Sister's 1984 music video, "We're Not Gonna Take It," that really elevated his profile. That was when MTV was still good and people cared about music videos having a storyline. The video launched Twisted Sister's career arguably because people loved Metcalf as the spitting-mad father yelling to his son, "What do you want to do with your life?" The kid's answer was, of course, "I wanna rock!" which resonated with all kids, then and now.
"We shot the video in two days," Metcalf says at Break Espresso. "I got on a plane and flew back to New York and I didn't think anything more of it until people started stopping me on the street asking me to say the line. I'd say it and they'd say, 'No, no, no! You've got to spit on me when you say it!'"
That was 30 years ago, but still it comes as a surprise to find Metcalf living in Missoula and gearing up to play Scrooge in the University of Montana School of Theater and Dance's A Christmas Carol. He neither appears to miss the long-ago celebrity nor seems annoyed rehashing it. In the mid-1990s he traded in television and film for working in off-Broadway productions, though he'd just gotten rave reviews from "Seinfeld" episodes as the conductor who insists on being called "maestro," even on dates.
"I got bored with television," he says. "I was doing good, smart TV—and some dumb TV—but I was just not satisfied. The theater is so much more satisfying because it's live."
Metcalf didn't give himself much chance to gain a stage presence in New York or LA. In the late 1990s he and his then-wife moved to Milwaukee to start a restaurant, and Metcalf decided it would be fine to scrap acting all together. But not long after he moved to the city, the director for First Stage Children's Theater in Milwaukee tracked him down at the restaurant bar and asked if he would be in a play. At first, Metcalf balked. "I told him that I don't want to do children's theater—all ghosts and goblins and stuff like that—no, thank you."
But then he read the script, Einstein, Hero of the Mind, which followed Albert Einstein from the time he was a stammering 7-year-old, through the Holocaust, to the time of the atom bomb, when he would sit in a rowboat on a lake at Princeton trying to understand his culpability for the killing of 300,000 people in an instant.
"It was one actor, me, and a 14-year-old girl and 47 puppets that were operated by six actors," Metcalf says. "It was a wonderful story, so I went and did it. They ended up being some of the best actors that I've ever worked with [because] they showed up on time, they knew their lines, they listened and they understood the craft."
Character actors zero in on craft because the only way to stand out in a supporting role or bit scene is to perfect the little details. Metcalf's first play was in a University of Michigan production of Shakespeare's Henry VI. He was an engineering student at the time, following in the footsteps of his father who was one of the world's foremost experts on tunnels. Metcalf's roommate encouraged him to try out for the play. "He said the girls are really friendly in the theater program," Metcalf says. "And since there barely were any girls in the engineering school, I said, okay." He didn't get a big part, but he did get cast in 15 roles.
"Some of them had lines and some of them were standing around holding a spear," he says. "I did false noses for all of the characters—I'd push it up and make it a pointed nose, push it down and make it broken to the right, or make it a big Roman nose. I got really into it and haven't been able to get out of it since."
Metcalf moved to Missoula a year and a half ago to follow his son, who is pursuing a wildlife biology degree at UM. As with his move to Milwaukee, the actor came here without any expectations for acting opportunities. But when the Montana Repertory Theater's artistic director, Greg Johnson, asked him to play Scrooge for the university production, he couldn't resist.
"It's hard to say no to Scrooge," Metcalf says. "It's such a great, great part. You get to go from the crankiest guy in the world to the happiest and most generous guy in the world."
Even as Metcalf pursues new roles, his past still follows him. He just recently started getting modest royalty checks for the Twisted Sister video, due to new rules created by the Screen Actors Guild. As a board member for the Montana Natural History Center, he has twice auctioned off a high-priced "item" that consists of him personally coming to the bidder's home to watch Animal House and discuss the movie. "All the elements are there to make it a really good movie," he says, "but as an actor you don't think, 'Oh, I'll be talking about this 37 years from now and people will be paying lots of money for me to come to their houses and watch it with them.' I suspect that love for the movie will continue going on long after my dust settles."
All those iconic roles might live forever in other people's minds, but Metcalf seems to live in the present. And theater, even in small place like Missoula, is where he's most happy.
"Coming from this family of engineers where everything was rather dry and mathematical, to a world filled with mad, crazy, lovely theater people, I felt like Miranda in The Tempest when she comes out of the cave and says, 'Oh brave new world! How many goodly creatures are there here!' It's a great gift."
Mark Metcalf stars in UM's A Christmas Carol opening Tue., Nov. 25, at 7:30 PM and again Nov. 29–30 and Dec. 2–6. $20/$16 students and seniors/$10 children 12 and under. Visit umt.edu/theatredance for full details.