New Haven Register archives: LOCAL BOY DOES SPLENDID: After a career of character roles, Elm City native Paul Giamatti has his first lead role in ‘American Splendor’

New Haven native Paul Giamatti’s first leading film role, after over a decade of character parts, is that of Harvey Pekar, a Cleveland VA hospital file clerk, who enlisted some artists to draw a comic book about his mundane life called “American Splendor.” The film of the same name, based on Pekar’s life and books, won the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year; it opens locally Friday. Photo by John Clifford.

(This story originally appeared on Page B1, the Living section cover, of the New Haven Register, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2003.)

By Fran Fried, Register Entertainment Editor

You would think this would be a film’s kiss of death.

In “American Splendor,” which opens locally Friday, Paul Giamatti plays Harvey Pekar, a longtime file clerk at the Cleveland VA Hospital who with the help of several cartoonists, including underground legend Robert Crumb, created a comic book about his mundane existence.

There’s also the real-life Pekar on camera, looking at Giamatti and rasping, “He don’t look nuttin’ like me! But whatever…”

But it’s part of the charm of Pekar — an unvarnished, pessimistic, abrasively honest, obsessive-compulsive-neurotic working-class intellectual. And it sure didn’t prevent the film from winning the grand jury award at Sundance this year.

Besides, said New Haven native Giamatti, “I actually do think I look like him.”


The 36-year-old Giamatti — Choate Rosemary Hall, Yale University and Yale School of Drama graduate — is one of the two actor sons of late baseball commissioner and Yale

The real Harvey Pekar.

President Bart Giamatti and his wife, Toni, a former actress. (Brother Marcus is six years his senior.)

Over the past decade, he has firmed his career as a character player with a vast array of roles, breaking out as the loathsome radio executive Pig Vomit in Howard Stern’s “Private Parts” in 1997.

Giamatti has also been Martin Lawrence’s partner in “Big Momma’s House”; Andy Kaufman’s partner-in-crime, Bob Zmuda, in “Man on the Moon”; a control-room producer in “The Truman Show”; Limbo, the slave-raider ape, in the “Planet of the Apes” remake; an Army sergeant in “Saving Private Ryan and an FBI technician in “Donnie Brasco.” This past spring, he was a sidekick in “Confidence,” starring Ed Burns and “Brasco’s” Al Pacino.

A 1985 copy of “American Splendor,” the issue about Pekar’s marriage to his third wife, Joyce Brabner — a story told, with a couple of changes, in the movie. The real Pekar and Brabner appear in the film.

On TV, he was seen this year as Anthony Russo in “The Pentagon Papers,” and early on had bit roles on “Homicide,” “NYPD Blue” and “King of the Hill.” On Broadway, he played Jimmy Tomorrow in the acclaimed 1999 production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” with Kevin Spacey, Tony Danza and Robert Sean Leonard.

But the triumph of “American Splendor” at Sundance has brought him a new level of attention. And few are more surprised than Giamatti.

“There was a lag time of over a year and a half” between shooting and Sundance, he said Monday from his Manhattan home. “It was a thing I’d forgotten about. It was supposed to go to TV (HBO). I went to Sundance. I thought it’s nice, but said people aren’t gonna be interested. It’s been a pleasant surprise at each successive (turn).”

Giamatti only vaguely knew about Pekar before the film: “I read a few of (the books) in college. I had a roommate who was into comics. I looked at some books, but they went over my head. I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate them. I remember him more for Letterman (Pekar’s wild, confrontational appearances on NBC’s “Late Night” in the late ’80s).”

Thanks to the Letterman footage and the books, Giamatti succeeded in capturing the Pekar in-between the frames of the comic book panels: the explosive rants, the dark clouds, the moments of everyday activity (or lack of). He also got down the physical misery of Pekar’s battle with lymphoma a decade ago and the vocal problems that plagued him in the early ’80s.

Consider that Giamatti had just two weeks to prepare before shooting — though that was nothing, he said: “I mean, Hope (Davis, who played Pekar’s wife, Joyce Brabner) had no time. She finished a movie three or four days before we started shooting.”

So how did he pull it off? “Reading the books really helped. It’s just a combination of things. I’m not really sure what I did,” he laughed.

And what could have been more nerve-wracking was having Pekar on the set and on-camera. So were Brabner, foster daughter Danielle Batone and Toby Radloff, Pekar’s nerd co-worker who became a minor MTV celebrity in the ’80s thanks to the books.

“He was really good,” Giamatti said. “There was something about him where he was able to separate himself from it. He was really relaxed about it, so I was really relaxed about it. By the end, it was like he was some guy just showing up for the free food and doughnuts.”

Robert Pulcini, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with wife Shari Springer Berman, told the Associated Press that they thought “American Splendor” would be Giamatti’s “Marty” — as in the 1955 film that won Hamden native Ernest Borgnine, a veteran character player, an Oscar for best actor.

But Giamatti isn’t thinking awards, cutting off the O-word question with a “No, no. It would be really nice if this thing won awards, but for me, no. That’s something you definitely fantasize about when you start your career, but it’s a job.”


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