Published in KPBS On Air Magazine December 2002

For a comic actor, he’s a pretty serious guy. Lewis J. Stadlen is naturally funny — who else could play that madman/mischief-maker, Max Bialystock, centerpiece of “The Producers”? — but he loves to talk about books and theater, success and acting. It didn’t intimidate him to step into the huge shoes of the ever-manic Zero Mostel, who played Max onscreen in 1968, or Nathan Lane, equally beloved when he starred in the musical version on Broadway (2001). Stadlen didn’t fear emulating his predecessors; he gleefully stole from them.

“People like Nathan and myself,” said the thoughtful, well-spoken actor, “are amalgams of actors we admire. We steal from them the things they did that made us laugh.” Stadlen’s heroes are Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny.

“Very few people know how to play this style of comedy any more,” explains the 55 year-old who got his start in the national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof,” at age 19.

“In those days, the comic was the butt of the joke. He was always doing foolish things. In the 1990s, a new type of comedy emerged, the Dennis Miller, ‘Saturday Night Live’ type. They’re less vulnerable. It’s: ‘There’s nothing wrong with me; society is dopey.’ The old guys were fools and became heroes. I see Max as a heroic fool, an unapologetic coward.”

Max Bialystock is a larger-than-life, down-on-his luck theatrical producer, who cons the mousy accountant Leo Bloom into helping him hatch the ultimate scam: find a sure-fire flop, raise more money than they need, mount the musical disaster on Broadway, and pocket the extra cash. Their unforgettable fiasco is “Springtime for Hitler.” The maniacal genius behind the zany movie and musical is that ‘old-style’ comic wild-man, Mel Brooks.

“I’ve known Mel for 20 years,” says Stadlen. “His whole idea is, if you want something, you should do anything to get it. He’s Max. Max will do anything to get what he wants. He loves the hustle, the con. He’s a man completely without guilt. Oh, to be a person without guilt! But when I leave myself in the wings and go out there as Max Bialystock, I’m free.”

Stadlen famously told his long-time buddy, Nathan Lane, not to do the musical. “I was such a fan of the movie; so was Nathan,” Stadlen says. “I thought the film was such a classic, how could they improve on it?’ But they did. This show is even better.”

Fortunately for everyone concerned, Nathan ignored his friend, and when Stadlen saw the show, he says, “I prostrated myself in Nathan’s dressing room and admitted to being wrong.” “The Producers” went on to break all Broadway records, winning an astonishing 12 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, score, actor, director, choreography, set, costume and lighting design.

Then, when the high-octane artistic team — writer/composer Brooks (who co-wrote the book with Thomas Meehan) and director/choreographer/5-time Tony winner Susan Stroman — was casting the first national tour, Stadlen snagged the much-coveted role.

He’s no stranger to Broadway or the road. He followed Nathan Lane’s Tony-winning success in “Guys and Dolls” in the national tour, and garnered Tony nominations for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (starring Nathan Lane), and the lead role in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.”

“A tour is like living in a greenhouse,” says the native New Yorker. “No distractions; your only responsibility is to do the show every night. You get different cities, recurrent opening night excitement and a different communal response every night. That keeps it fresh. The cast becomes your extended family. The other day, a fellow cast-member said, ‘In my experience, by this point, there’s always one asshole in the group. In this group, there isn’t one. I’m beginning to worry it’s me.”

Stadlen’s ecstatic with his co-star, Don Stephenson, who plays Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder in the movie; Matthew Broderick on Broadway). “In my estimation,” says Stadlen, “Don’s the best person who’s ever played the role.” Creator Mel Brooks seems to agree. He recently said, “These guys are more talented than the original cast. They’ve come up with great new stuff. Lewis is amazing.”

Stadlen was thrilled that Brooks and Stroman spent so much time getting the touring company on its feet. Usually, a stage manager or assistant director mounts a road show. “Susan Stroman choreographs every word,” Stadlen explains. “But we were also given latitude, to allow our personalities to inform the roles. It’s not a Xerox of the Broadway production. This musical role came out of the kishkas of Nathan Lane. But Nathan stole from Zero, I steal from Zero and Nathan, and maybe the next person will steal from Zero and Nathan and Stadlen.”

As for mad Max, Stadlen says, “I just love him. The role is enormous, exhausting, liberating, exhilarating. It utilizes every part of my talent. Don recently asked me, “What do you think is the best gig you’ve ever had?’ This is it. It’s the best of all possible worlds.”

[Get your tickets EARLY — the show is sure to sell out. January 1-12 at the Civic Theatre. Call Broadway/San Diego, 619-570-1100.

©2002 Patté Productions Inc.