Thanks to his stint as garrulous barfly Norm Peterson on Cheers, you can turn on the television virtually anywhere in the world and find George Wendt sitting on a barstool. It's a comforting thought, actually, somewhat like having a girl in every port, but, you know, beerier. There was, however, life before Cheers for Wendt, who came up as part of Chicago's famed Second City improv group at the same time Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon was originating the equally fine and also Chicago-based Organic Theater with friends Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz, among others. It has been nearly 30 years since, but the two are finally back together again, this time with an explosive adaptation of Brit author Charlie Higson's darkly humorous novel King of the Ants. We spoke to Wendt by phone from his home in Los Angeles on the eve of King of the Ants' Austin premiere.
Austin Chronicle: So you knew Stuart Gordon from back in Chicago, right?
George Wendt: Right. I met him back in '73. Stuart was already the enfant terrible of Chicago theatre, after having been kicked out of Madison for the nude Peter Pan. He was doing an adaptation of Rashomon at the Court Theatre, and I went to audition. I didn't even have a head shot, just this little Polaroid. But I had been a big fan of Organic's, going to see Bloody Bess and, of course, Sexual Perversity, which just rocked my world. I was quite star-struck with Stuart and the whole group. We had Stuart as the guest director on Second City's version of Three Little Pigs, which meant there was completely gratuitous nudity and lingerie and just bloody entrails everywhere. And that's where I really met him.
AC: How did you end up reteaming for King of the Ants?
GW: I had read Charlie Higson's novel -- he's a bona fide star in the UK thanks to his work on The Fast Show, which is comedy sketch work -- and I thought, man, that's great. And then I thought, wow, somebody ought to make a movie of this. I ended up calling Charlie and asking if he'd even considered it, and he told me that lots of people had said the same thing, but nothing had ever come of it. It's such a dark novel. I ended up sending it to Stuart, and he just got his teeth into it like a bulldog, despite the fact that everyone we shopped it around to just couldn't see doing it. I think the best comment I got was from my wife, who, after I gave it to her to read, said, "I don't know who you are anymore." And then everyone said, "Well, there's your pitch!" And then it just took the requisite number of years before we could get it off the ground.
King of the Ants opens at 7pm, Saturday, Dec. 13, at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown (409 Colorado, 476-1320). Stuart Gordon and George Wendt will be in attendance, as they will be the following night, 7pm.
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