When Seth MacFarlane turned 40 last October, composer Joel McNeely presented him with a melodica, a mini keyboard attached to a mouthpiece that makes a sound similar to a harmonica. Attached was a note that read: "If there's a hair on your ass, you'll be playing this on the score, so start practicing."
Tackling a new instrument at a time when he was already taking another big leap in his decidedly unconventional career -- his first major live-action film role in Universal's "A Million Ways" -- is textbook MacFarlane. Friends and colleagues say the filmmaker, who launched his first animated comedy series, Fox's "Family Guy," before his 25th birthday, is driven by an enviable mix of raw talent and restless curiosity that keeps him always looking for what's next. That explains how he managed to write a novel based on the "Million Ways" screenplay in his spare time during the film shoot last summer in New Mexico.
"The book was partially something to do on the weekends, because there's nothing to do in Santa Fe except meth, and I am too afraid to do meth," MacFarlane says. Ballantine released the 211-page book in early March, ahead of the film's May 30 opening.
"A Million Ways" will be a test of MacFarlane's ambition to expand his work as actor. For a writer-producer, he already enjoys a high profile with his core audience of young men, thanks to the renown he generated early on with "Family Guy." The toon famously was canceled only to be reborn two years later as a bigger, better and fabulously profitable property for Fox and 20th Century Fox TV.
MacFarlane hosted the Oscars in 2013 -- to mixed reviews -- and continues to channel his inner Frank Sinatra with concert performances and recordings of American standards. (His second, as-yet unnamed holiday-themed album will be released this fall.) He made a big leap in 2012 into features, with the raunchy offbeat hit "Ted," starring Mark Wahlberg and a foul-mouthed talking teddy bear voiced by MacFarlane.
All of this has made him rich -- his indulgences include having built a $1 million Imax theater in the basement of his gated Beverly Hills house -- and highly sought after. MacFarlane's unorthodox approach to comedy resonates with young males, the prized demographic for both feature films and TV viewers. His milieu is a mix of scatological sophomoric material (his Twitter profile describes him as a "dysentery enthusiast") and twisted bookish jokes. Even he struggles to define what it is about the Seth MacFarlane "brand" that propelled him so far so fast.
"I like the fact that I haven't shoehorned myself into one M.O.," he tells Variety. "I like that 'Family Guy' and 'Cosmos' exist at the same time. It makes things fun."
The level of clout he wields on the Fox lot was demonstrated this year by the company's embrace of MacFarlane's passion project "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," an update of physicist Carl Sagan's landmark 1980 PBS series "Cosmos: A Personal Journey." Only MacFarlane's enthusiasm for the project could have persuaded the 21st Century Fox conglom to devote 13 hours of prime Sunday real estate on Fox to a documentary series hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
MacFarlane's SWAT team of reps at WME and Jackoway Tyerman are in the midst of negotiating a new megabucks overall deal with 20th Century Fox TV.
On the film side, since "Ted" made him red-hot, he intends to remain a free agent. He's worked with Media Rights Capital on the R-rated comedy and its upcoming sequel, as well as on "A Million Ways," but the relationship remains on a project-by-project basis.
Friends and associates say one way that MacFarlane has built his empire is simply by inserting himself into every step of the creative process. Scott Stuber, MacFarlane's producing partner on "Ted," noted that his feverish attention to detail extended all the way from the shape of a teddy bear's nose to the lush music to getting just the right balance of high and low humor.
"He's in total creative control of what he does," says Wahlberg, who's set to reprise his role in "Ted 2." "He could be a dick about it, but he's cool. He creates a loose environment for creative people to succeed that is conducive to being able to take risks. You could let all your shit go and look fucking ridiculous because you knew you were going to be protected."
The concept for "A Million Ways" began as an inside joke between MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, his co-writers for more than a decade on "Family Guy" and "Ted." The joke expanded, and the trio found themselves riffing on the idea of how dull, depressing and dangerous it must have been to live in the Wild West. The movie revolves around MacFarlane's character, a sheep farmer in 1882 Arizona with a broken heart who manages to irritate the meanest outlaw in the land. Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris and Amanda Seyfried also star.
As is MacFarlane's tendency, he began researching the time period â¦ and stumbled upon Jeff Guinn's nonfiction novel, "The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral -- And How It Changed the American West." The book became an invaluable resource, says MacFarlane, and the basis of several ways of dying in the film.
MacFarlane is well aware of the risks at stake with "A Million Ways." Beyond the issue of whether he can carry a movie as a live-action actor, the last time a comedy Western hit big at the B.O. was "Blazing Saddles," which came out in 1974, the year after he was born.