I just wrapped up an interview with comedian Lewis Black, who'll be proclaimed the American Visionary Art Museum's 2011 "Grand Visionary" at the annual museum gala on Saturday, June 4. We briefly talked about his meatiest movie role so far, in Barry Levinson's 2006 comedy-drama, "Man of the Year."
"It was great," Black said. "And Barry was terrific." The movie was marketed as Jon Stewart or Bill Maher Goes to Washington, since Robin Williams played a topical comic who runs for president. But it really was a pertinent and piquant comedy-drama without a prefab element in it. It brought out Williams' warm, reflective qualities -- as well as a surprising romantic streak. That was partly a tribute to Laura Linney, his superb co-star, who played Eleanor Green, an honest analyst of the malfunctioning voting machine software that ends up winning the hero the election.
Some reviewers assumed that Levinson let comics like Williams and Black, who played his writer, improvise all other the place.
"Some of the scenes were improvised," Black told me last week, "but it was mostly, by far, Barry's work. The tragedy was that the studio chose to run an ad campaign that was completely stupid. They tried to sell it as a wacky Robin Williams comedy. It wasn't. Look at the cast we had: Christopher Walken, Robin, Laura Linney, Jeff Goldblum -- an extraordinary cast. I felt lucky to be in it. The first day I had to do an improv with Christopher Walken. The first time I did it my brain was just screaming 'Christopher Walken -- it's Christopher [expletive] Walken.' Then I told my brain to shut up and just did it. Barry was a joy to be around. Acting stuff like that doesn't come around too often. It's like there's some lottery system I don't know about."
Levinson, for his part, said, "I liked working with him and I liked him as a guy. He's so bright. And I liked that he was such an unlikely guy to be a comedian -- it looked like he was never young! I was aware of him for a long time. And around the time of 'Man of the Year' I thought, here's a role that could work, because he is a writer and an observer. He could be credible and funny. And that was my thing."
Read more of my interviews with Black and Levinson -- and quotes from AVAM founder Rebecca Hoffberger and a previous Grand Visionary, Julian Bond -- in this Sunday's A& E section. And have a happy Memorial Day Weekend!