Howard Hesseman has worked in TV comedy for so long that the star of "WKRP in Cincinnati," "One Day at a Time" and "Head of the Class" seems a natural to play a TV comedian in Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," opening Tuesday at the Morris Mechanic Theatre.
His character, Max Prince, is no run-of-the-mill comedian, though. Max lords it over the team of comedy writers who supply him with material for a live weekly program of the 1950s that closely resembles Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows."
For Mr. Hesseman, the role is a chance to evoke the golden age of TV comedy, which influenced his own work in improv comedy in the 1960s.
"Sid Caesar was one of my heroes, and Jackie Gleason also was a real favorite of mine at the time," says the actor, who turns 55 tomorrow, from a tour stop in New Haven. "I was really mesmerized by Caesar. He was so big and bold compared to most of what was going on. There seemed to be a certain edge to what he was doing. He was a wild man.
"Caesar is very complicated personally, you know. Saying that is not to do him a disservice or a discredit to the play. It's just that I think he's more complicated than what's written [in the script]. Each of us is far more complicated than the characters we're called on to play."
In Mr. Hesseman's case, the complicated mix involves memorizing his scripted lines while allowing his early memories of Sid Caesar to inform his characterization.
"In order to do Max Prince I had to let whatever Caesar was to me bubble back up to the surface," he says. "There is the character on the page, but as an actor, another thing you're trying to work with is yourself. In the end it can be hard to say exactly where that voice that speaks to you comes from."
Among the actual voices speaking to him have been some pivotal comedians from that era.
"There was added fuel preparing for this role from my coming to know Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner socially over the years, but Sid Caesar I've only met a couple times." Growing up in a small Western town in the 1950s, Mr. Hesseman recalls that he found Caesar's zany routines inspiring.
"Even then, I had a notion of there being a wider world out there, wider than what I was brought up with in Silverton, Ore. I left right after high school, and I had no desire to return. Trips home were nothing I looked forward to, because I had disassociated myself from my family and life there."
By the early 1960s, he had settled in San Francisco and knew "I was where I wanted to live and wanted to become an actor." It was also where he joined the improvisational comedy troupe the Committee, which eventually led to his TV career.
Now long accustomed to movie and TV shooting schedules, Mr. Hesseman says being on a six-month tour with "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is a change of pace. "I'm accustomed to going out on a movie or a TV movie for six or eight weeks, but this is a prolonged experience of a new and exciting nature for me."
Asked how he can deliver the same lines week in and week out, yet still make Max Prince seem like a spontaneous madman, Mr. Hesseman says, "I suppose in some fashion an actor conveys the illusion that it is all happening for the first time to an audience. I'm not quite sure how I do that."
One thing this improv-schooled comic can explain more readily, however, is his ability to recover from the occasional bungled line. "As an improviser, it makes for a more facile recovery when you blow or somehow scramble a line in what [director] Jerry Zaks calls 'making a word burger.' I can hack my way out of a garbled speech and deliver a clean cue for another actor."
Of the audiences he's now encountering around the country, Mr. Hesseman observes that many audience members have personal recollections of the TV era ruled by the likes of a Max Prince. But he says there's something for younger people in that era's timeless comic routines.
"I think what was funny in the '50s is funny in the '90s," he says. "What was funny for the ancient Greeks is still funny. So even if you didn't see Sid Caesar in the '50s, it'll work if you use your imagination, have some sense of connection to the past and can be attentive to something that isn't pre-digested. If you enjoy 'Roseanne,' what's wrong with finding out what Moliere has to offer? Likewise, Shakespearean comedy must have something to offer, or it wouldn't still be around for so many centuries."
What: "Laughter on the 23rd Floor"
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre
When: Tuesday through March 19, with performances Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m.
TC Tickets: $20 to $45
$ Call: (410) 625-1400