Michael Lerner:
Godzilla's Oscar-Nominated Mayor

by Michelle Erica Green

About the only thing that Michael Lerner can say about Godzilla is that he plays the mayor. "We're not supposed to talk about it, they're trying to surprise people," whispers the veteran of over seventy films. "I can't even confirm that Godzilla appears in the movie." Asked about rumors that his character is named Ebert after the famous film reviewer, Lerner quickly demands, "Where did you hear that? I have no idea! I'm sworn to secrecy!"

A working actor for over thirty years who's best known for his Oscar-nominated role in Barton Fink, Lerner "thought it would be a hoot" to take part in the new monster movie. Though he's appeared in science fiction before, including Strange Invaders and a terrifying episode of Tales from the Crypt called "People Who Live in Brass Hearses," he'd never been in "one of these huge, big blockbusters."

An admirer of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin from Independence Day and Stargate, the Brooklyn-reared actor thought it would be fun to play the mayor of New York. Though he wasn't particularly a Godzilla fan, he believed the new production "would be done in a classy way, where the budget would be right and the sets would be terrific." Though the actor himself hadn't seen the finished product as of the end of April, he caught some glimpses while looping dialogue which made him excited about the movie's potential: "Let me tell you, it was spectacular. I saw some of it in animation and some of it finished, but it was extraordinary because [while making] the movie, most of the time when I'm looking up at the monster...ain't nothing there!"

Ah, so there is a monster in Godzilla! "I think so - most of the time when I see the monster, it's in a long shot," he admits. "The first time is when I'm doing a re-election campaign speech in downtown Manhattan, and I think that's the first time we know Godzilla is in New York - thousands of people are just staring at it." Did all the effects require a lot of blue screen work? "Probably for Matthew and some of the other people, but not for me. It was great fun, I loved working on it."

As for the Mayor's name, Lerner's still not saying a word. But Roger Ebert commented some months ago on his web site that he had learned he was being "immortalized" by Devlin and Emmerich as a just reward for having given Independence Day an unfavorable review. The real Ebert joked that the monster would probably squash him. When asked whether he had to perform any difficult stunts, Lerner admits that he was "almost" stomped on by Godzilla, but he won't elaborate on his character's fate. "There's some funny stuff that goes on, I can't even say that it's a parody of Roger Ebert. But let me tell you something, I think that Roger should be flattered."

Godzilla isn't the first time Lerner has had to contend with script secrecy: he's in Woody Allen's upcoming fall film, reportedly named Celebrity (another detail no one's willing to confirm), and as is typical of Allen's actors, he was only given dialogue for his own scenes. "I was working in Amsterdam, and I got a fax of just the pages that I'm in. I hear that when somebody wants to read the script, if you're the star of the movie, you come into the office and you read the script there."

These plum roles are gratifying for the "kid from Brooklyn" who graduated from Lafayette High School, the alma mater of Paul Sorvino and Larry King - and Sandy Koufax, points out Lerner, who grew up a Dodgers fan and was sports editor of the school newspaper. "I majored in English at Brooklyn College, then I went to graduate school at Berkeley to study English and drama - I was supposed to be an English professor," he recalls. He performed in plays at both schools and realized that acting was his calling, so he left Berkeley and went on a Fulbright Scholarship to London to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. In 1968 he joined ACT, the prestigious San Francisco repertory theater, then moved to Los Angeles in 1969 when an agent saw him in a play and recommended that he relocate.

With all that training, does he mind being overshadowed by giant monsters onscreen? Not particularly. "Godzilla is quite demanding for an actor, especially the part I play in it. I'm a kind of a serious character in the movie, but I'm also funny, and that's a delicate line to traverse," he elaborates. "What I like very much about Roland, his directing style, [is that] he's very loose with his actors - he allows his actors flexibility, and almost a kind of improvisational feel. So we invented dialogue, plus Roland gave us some dialogue at the moment, very fresh, spontaneous kind of stuff. There are some very good actors in this movie."

Lerner and co-star Matthew Broderick both appeared in The Road to Wellville, but the two never had any scenes together. In Godzilla, Lerner had several scenes with him, as well as with Hank Azaria and Jean Reno, "who are pretty terrific." He feels a particular connection with the actor who appeared in the Godzilla trailer which appeared before Men In Black last year, however. "The one in the Natural History Museum - that's my brother Ken Lerner who is the teacher." The younger Lerner, an actor and acting teacher, is an old friend of writer/producer Devlin.

"When I saw the trailer in New York about eight months ago, the audience went crazy," Lerner recalls. "I have a feeling the effects are going to be tremendous, and yet there's going to be a genuinely good comedic vein the movie. I think it's going to be scary and I think the comedy level is going to be good. From what I saw in the looping session, people are going to be blown away. It's very impressive." The actor praises Emmerich's confidence in working with props and effects, and his flexibility in letting the actors make their own choices.

"I loved movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon when I was a kid," he adds. "The one that scared me the most was War of the Worlds. For some reason, War of the Worlds had this kind of whoop-whoop-whoop sound that really freaked me, I remember having nightmares about it. And the other one I remember was Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the original one, I thought that was a terrific film."

Lerner has been on something of a roll with genre films. He has a cameo as Elizabeth Hurley's father in My Favorite Martian - "How do you like that for casting?" The Martian is played by Christopher Lloyd, with whom Lerner worked in the acclaimed baseball movie Eight Men Out when he portrayed greedy team owner Arnold Rothstein. Two of Lerner's favorite roles were also based on historical figures: Jack Ruby in the television feature Ruby and Oswald, and fictional producer Jack Lipnick in Barton Fink whom Lerner patterned on Louis B. Mayer.

"I liked doing the historical research," he says of the latter role, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor and the recognition which goes along with it. "It's very funny, because I'd been a working character actor for about twenty years, and then all of a sudden I got nominated and my money went up! I looked at a lot of documentary footage on Louis B. Mayer, I selected a pair of eyeglasses that were exactly the kind he wore, and I picked up on some mannerisms that he had. It's fun for an actor to do that. I like working hard when I'm working.

Because the nomination brought him to the attention of several directors of independent films, Lerner has enjoyed a thriving career recently. He appears in the comedy Safe Men, coming out in June from October Films, For Richer or Poorer with Tim Allen and Kirstie Alley, and Talos the Mummy, directed by Highlanders Russell Mulcahy.

"Talos the Mummy I think is going to be pretty terrific," the actor says. "Russell shot this film in Luxembourg with Jason Scott Lee, and I get to kill Shelley Duvall, which is kind of fun! They flew in the mummy the day before I had to leave to do the Woody Allen film, so we had to do all my mummy scenes in one day, where the mummy possesses me - I'm a Jewish-German archaeologist, a father figure, an academic, then the mummy possesses my mind, and I wind up murdering Shelley Duvall, and then somebody else kills me! It was fun."

Despite his glee, Lerner describes the film as scary rather than funny, pointing out that Christopher Lee and Honor Blackman have cameo roles in it, "which is nice, because it's like the history of these kind of movies. There's a lot of arcane Egyptiana in the movie, too - somebody did some very good research."

Lerner, who made his onscreen debut in The Candidate with Robert Redford, appeared in the Starsky and Hutch pilot and a plethora of television movies. He has increasingly chosen to do independent films because he prefers the roles he's offered. "The big films, the parts are OK - I would love to get better roles, but it's really tough when everybody is Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. Tom Cruise is over the hill now." He has a list of directors he'd like to work with, including Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese, but also a number of newer talents.

"These independent movies, I'm working with some young directors who I think are incredibly talented - this kid John Hamburg [of Safe Men], I met him at the Peninsula Hotel in L.A. and thought he was the busboy. He's 25, he looks about 17. I start working on projects, I'm 56, and all of a sudden I realize I'm the senior member of the company. It's very weird."

Though he has enjoyed the travel and working with talented people, Lerner admits that the Oscar nomination has been a real highlight of his career. "Everybody really wants the symbol," he confesses. "Since the Academy is mainly composed of actors and actresses, there are something like 6,000 members but 3,000 of them are actors and actresses, so the amazing thing when you get nominated is that you realize people like Shirley Maclaine and Gene Hackman, people that you admire very much, wrote your name on the ballot. That's pretty tremendous, because all actors respect and love other actors." Some of Lerner's favorite performers - Charles Durning, Richard Dreyfuss, Jason Alexander - are also members of his regular poker game.

"There's a great respect talented actors have for other talented actors, and that part's rewarding," he says, noting that he enjoyed working with Broderick and Azaria on Godzilla a great deal. His most recent project, a film about Hollywood called Desperation Boulevard, sounds cynical about his profession, but Lerner sounds like he's loving it.

Even when he gets squashed by monsters he can't talk about.

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