It didn’t take Dana Carvey long to learn a tough Hollywood lesson. At the very beginning of his career, he’d landed a role in Halloween II (1981), the sequel to John Carpenter’s slasher classic with Jamie Lee Curtis. So he invited all his friends to an opening weekend screening in San Francisco, where his parents had relocated the family from Missoula, Montana — and where they all discovered that almost all of Carvey’s role as a TV news crewman was cut. As he tells it, only his elbow made it on screen (you actually do briefly see his profile).
Carvey wrangled a few more minutes of screen time in his second movie, and this was a big deal: It was the mockumentary classic This Is Spinal Tap (1984), in which he played a mime waiter who gets an earful from Billy Crystal. A few years later, Carvey landed the TV gig that would make him a star, as a featured player on Saturday Night Live. The master of impressions soon introduced the world to Church Lady, Hans (of Hans and Franz), and, of course, Garth Algar (of “Wayne’s World”).
Carvey’s relationship with film has always been a little bit uneasy. His success on SNL spawned lead roles in films like Opportunity Knocks (1990) and Wayne’s World (1992), but after his critically maligned star vehicle Master of Disguise (2002), Carvey peeled away from motion pictures to spend more time with his family in the Bay Area. Carvey, now 61, has slowly edged back into movies in recent years, and his new voice role as Pops in The Secret Life of Pets marks his biggest box office hit to date. To celebrate the occasion, we walked through Carvey’s film work in our new episode of Role Recall, which you can watch above, elbows and all. Some highlights:
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Carvey said he initially auditioned to play “the drummer who explodes” in this beloved, barely scripted mockumentary directed by Rob Reiner. But he ended up taking orders from Billy Crystal’s wisecracking New York mime waiter boss: “He was already on Mount Rushmore to me,” Carvey said of Crystal. “I was just young and new and to me he was a star.”
Opportunity Knocks (1990)
This comedy starring Carvey as a con man who poses as a wealthy Wall Streeter has plenty of fans that grew up in the ‘80s and '90s, but its face-of-the-film seemed to damn it with faint praise. “It was okay,” Carvey said. “It’s hard to make a good movie. I think at the end of the day it was a little too confining for me… People tell me they like it so that was good enough for me.”
Wayne’s World (1992)
There were some major new challenges involved in adapting the beloved SNL sketch about Aurora, Illinois’s top cable-access hosts Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) and Garth Algar (Carvey) into a big-screen comedy. “The first day of shooting we get out of the AMC Pacer and we walk over to the donut shop,” Carvey remembered. “But I remember [thinking], 'How do these guys walk? We had never walked before.”
The Secret Life of Pets is now in theaters. Watch the trailer: