Jordan Gelber Wayne Knight
NEW YORK — A visit backstage at “Elf” finds Santa in a festive mood — he’s decorating a Christmas tree.
To be more specific, Wayne Knight, who has donned the red suit in the Broadway musical, is hanging every ornament he can find to hide the plastic tree’s strange hue.
“It’s a salmon-colored tree so I’m trying to do whatever I can to obfuscate the tree itself,” says the former “Seinfeld” mailman Newman. “We don’t know what era it’s from. It’s like 1963 through ’65.”
The tree was last owned by George Wendt, the former “Cheers” dude-at-the-bar Norm Peterson, who played Santa when the show debuted on Broadway in 2010. Knight, in the same dressing room at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, has somehow adopted the strange thing.
Wendt and Knight are friends, and “Elf” marks the second time Knight has followed Wendt in a role, having replaced him in “Art” on Broadway in 1999. “It was one of the best experiences of my life, so I tell George wherever he goes, I’ll be more than happy to follow him.”
In “Elf,” Knight plays a rather blue-collar jolly old St. Nick in the musical based on the Will Ferrell film about Buddy the elf’s search for his human parents.
The 57-year-old is loving his return to New York, where his career started in the late 1970s when he replaced Jonathan Hadary opposite Danny Aiello in the Broadway play “Gemini.” He had no agent and lots of guts when he asked for the part.
“I went backstage with a resume that was padded with falsity — at the bottom of the resume it said, ‘Unafraid to consume new products.’ I had nothing,” says Knight, laughing. “I knocked on the stage door, handed it to the stage manager and six months later they called me in.”
The part he landed was of an overweight, pimply teenager, a role that required him to wear a fat suit. “Now I’m in a Santa suit with a full beard. It’s full circle, you know what I mean?” he says.
Since then, Knight has amassed an impressive list of credits as a character actor, from TV parts in “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to the films “Jurassic Park,” “Basic Instinct,” “JFK” and “Dirty Dancing.” His latest TV show, “The Exes” with Kristen Johnston, was just picked up for a second season on TV Land.
As Knight hung ornaments on his strange tree, he answered questions about the legacy of “Seinfeld,” why everyone thinks it’s funny to scream “Newman!” at him, and playing Santa.
AP: Have you ever played Santa before?
Knight: No! I’ve avoided it like the plague. It’s like, ‘You’re a fat guy. You should be Santa!’
AP: What’s this show like?
Knight: To me, the tone of it is like ‘The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show’ — the whole family can watch it and it’s hitting each person at a different place and you’re getting jokes in different ways. You can be tender without being saccharine.
AP: What have you learned over the years about what it takes to succeed in show business?
Knight: I think unreasonable hope is what it takes to be an actor. When you’re young, you have unreasonable hope. You believe that you will succeed and you don’t know why. Then when you reach a certain age, you believe you will fail and you don’t know why. What I’m trying to do is force myself to keep doing theater so that I can rekindle the unreasonableness of the hope that’s required to go to higher places.
AP: When people recognize you on the street, what do they do?
Knight: They do the ‘Newman!’ or ‘Hello, Newman!’ or think that they’re the first person to ever say that. Or yell at you in passing from a great distance — ‘NEWMAN!’
AP: Is that hard for you?
Knight: I think it’s harder for my wife than it is for me. I’ve gotten used to it. I accept the fact that I’ve been part of something that people like. That’s not a terrible thing.
AP: Looking back, how do you view “Seinfeld”?
Knight: It was like a Broadway opening every time you sat down at the table. It was one of the funniest things you’ve ever had a chance to do and you’re among the most talented people. As long as you don’t screw it up, you know it’s going to be funny. So the challenge of raising your game while doing it was high. But I don’t think I had any idea what it would mean in the aftermath.
AP: Your 2-1/2-year-old son, Liam, has seen the musical “Elf.” Is he confused about daddy also being Santa?
Knight: I think everyone should have therapy. I’m guaranteeing that he will.
AP: But, then again, isn’t it every kid’s dream to have your dad be Santa?
Knight: Yeah, and this way, when he finds out later that I am, it won’t be traumatic. I can say, ‘I told you I was Santa! I never lied.’ AP