Newman, Dennis Nedry, the chicken-suit guy from Toy Story 2, the sweaty cop who saw up Sharon Stone’s skirt in Basic Instinct … Wayne Knight has brought them all to life, carving out a particular niche for himself with characters that are off-putting at best to those onscreen and irresistible to viewers.
His latest gig is playing Haskell Lutz on TV Land’s sitcom The Exes, about three divorced men who become roommates as they try to rebuild their lives. The gig reunites him with his 3rd Rock From the Sun costar Kristen Johnston, who plays the trio’s divorce lawyer who sets them up in the apartment and also lives across the hall.
Knight visited Comic-Con in San Diego earlier this month as part of TV Land’s Legends of Comedy panel along with William Shatner and Roseanne Barr, and the funnyman took some time to — very thoroughly — answer our “7 Questions.”
1. You’re at a magazine rack and can only pick three titles. Which ones do you choose?
Car & Driver, Entertainment Weekly and whatever news magazine is left, because they’re dying. Time.
2. Your DVR can only carry three shows. Besides The Exes, of course, which ones would you want?
That’s a hard one. Meet the Press would be one of them. I’m a political news junkie. The truth of the matter is I have a 3-year-old, and I’m spending a lot of time watching Thomas the Tank Engine and Dora the Explorer. When he goes to sleep finally, I pass out.
3. What has been your strangest fan encounter?
It was not with me, but I was shooting JFK in New Orleans and I was in a scene with Kevin Costner. We’re in a second-floor window in the French Quarter and he has to walk by the window. There’s nobody in the street, but he walks by the window and somebody sees him and within, I don’t know, four minutes the street is filled with people. They’re looking up at him, and there’s a man holding up a sign that reads “Dances With Wolves” and he’s yelling, “Dances With Wolves! Dances With Wolves! Dances With Wolves!” I’m thinking, “What is it that you expect him to do?” It wasn’t really my fan encounter, but just observing how big it could be.
For me personally, I did a photo safari in Alaska one time. I’m driving from Anchorage up to Denali State Park at the end of the grid, past electricity, past everything, beneath what we call Mount McKinley. I’m at a some place which is like a big cross between a Walmart and a grocery store and people started chasing after me in the aisle, like they’d seen a moose. You don’t see anybody from television in that part of Alaska. So if you see one, grab him!
4. Tell me about a time when you were starstruck.
I’ve been starstruck several times. I was doing this picture Dead Again with Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, and Derek Jacobi comes in and I’ve got to do a scene with Derek Jacobi, and I’m thinking, “I’m doing a scene with Derek Jacobi!” It’s like, “What?” It just seemed so odd to be so out of context. I did Shakespeare readings, one with Bill Shatner for the L.A. Shakespeare Company, and people like Tom Hanks and different folks are all doing it. You just realize you’re part of a group of people that are considered to be peers in that context. In general, I think that you try to pretend that you belong, and you do such a good job of pretending that you get starstruck later after you stop seeing them. I think Muhammad Ali … when we did Jurassic Park we opened it in Washington and Ali came and he was handing out cards about the Muslim religion and doing magic tricks. He was pretty impressive.
5. What are three things you must have in your fridge or pantry?
I’m a fan of fake crab meat. False crab. Not the actual crab, but surimi. The boiled pollock of Alaska with crab flavoring and red color on it. I love that. There’s a reason for it. I was doing this sketch comedy show called Assaulted Nuts in Britain, and they let us go into the commissary — we’re in the former MGM studios, Thorn EMI, where they had done Star Wars — and they come to the table, “Would you like a starter?” “Yes, of course.” “Crab legs?” “Yes, crab legs.” It was fake crab. I mean, I didn’t know. What do I know? From that moment on, I’m like, “I love this fake crab. It means I’m important.” What else do I have to have? An egg. There’s a reason for that, too. When I was a kid, there was this painter who came to our house and every day he would eat a scrambled egg sandwich. I was 4 years old. I said, “Scrambled eggs, on white bread. What an idea! The scrambled egg sandwich.” When I discovered it I had to eat a scrambled egg sandwich every day for the next year. So the egg is in there, too. And then perhaps something margarine or butter-like to cook the egg in.
6. How is it working with your 3rd Rock From the Sun costar Kristen Johnston on The Exes?
It’s been such a blessing, really. My character on 3rd Rock was only supposed to be temporary but then they saw the comic possibilities of Don and Sally, and extended it. So it was great to work with her, but we really didn’t know each other well back then. And I’m very proud of Kristen, who I think has just been wonderful and upfront talking about her addiction, so to get the chance to know her now has been really just splendid.
7. How many times a day do you approximate that you get “Hello, Newman”?
I do get it every day and sometimes depending on where I am, multiple times a day. But it just kind of goes by me now. But my wife, it tends to register on her. She grabs people, wrestles them to the ground. I’m like, “Honey, it’s OK.”
The Exes airs Wednesdays at 10:30pm on TV Land.
Photo: Courtesy of TV Land