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December 17, 2010

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Laid-back dude plays Santa on Broadway

THE Christmas season usually means a visit to see Santa. On Broadway this year, that means a trip to the Al Hirschfeld Theater to see George Wendt.

The former "Cheers" dude-at-the-bar Norm Peterson is playing Mr Claus in the musical "Elf," a role in which he has become somewhat of a specialist, having played jolly old St Nick four times in the past few years.

"I think it just proves that if you stay fat enough and get old enough, the offers start rolling in," says the 62-year-old actor in his dressing room after a recent performance. His Santa suit was hung with care in a closet.

Wendt has donned that red outfit in the TV movies "Santa Baby" with Jenny McCarthy in 2006, and last year's doggie Disney video "Santa Buddies." He also has played Father Christmas for TV specials by Larry the Cable Guy and Stephen Colbert.

This time, Wendt combines the characters played in the movie "Elf" by Bob Newhart and Ed Asner. As Santa, he appears in only a few scenes and sets an easy tone right at the opening of Act 1, sitting in an easy chair with a pitcher of eggnog and a bowl of Doritos, watching college football on TV.

"This Santa was kind of perfect," he says. "Much of my life is trying to create a little space in front of the television to watch a football game and eat a cheeseburger. It seems that's all Santa really wants to do."

Later, Wendt keeps the comedy rolling. At one point, he helps Buddy the elf, played by Sebastian Arcelus, leave Christmas Town:

"Just keep heading due south until you find yourself in a big, smelly, industrial wasteland," Wendt says

"And that's New York?" asks Buddy.

"No, that's New Jersey," deadpans Santa.

Wendt is no stranger to the stage: He slipped on Edna Turnblad's housecoat in Broadway's "Hairspray" beginning in 2007, and was in the Tony Award-winning play "Art" in New York and London; he starred in the national tour of "12 Angry Men;" he appeared in a production of David Mamet's "Lakeboat." But this time, he gets to originate a role for the first time on Broadway, a regular-guy Santa.

"People can just associate with him going through the trials and tribulations of life and making them comedic. He brings the same qualities as Santa, and makes Santa a human being," says Warner Brothers Theater Ventures Executive Vice President Gregg Maday. "Plus he has the girth."

Wendt, who spent six years in Chicago's renowned Second City improv troupe, joins a long list of former "Cheers" alums on Broadway, including Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth and Rhea Perlman.

"I think comedy is my long suit, for sure. My approach to comedy is usually not full-bore clownish," he says. "If you're trying to showboat or step outside, it doesn't always work. There are certain performers who almost specialize in doing that, and they do it really well. But that's not my approach."

He says he is open to the idea of reprising his Santa role if "Elf" ever returns to New York or tours the nation next Christmas. He admits it's a pretty good gig for a guy not known for his high kicking or vocal ability.

"It's like all of a sudden musical theater is my life. But I don't sing and I don't dance," he says. "I do, however, do what I'm told. So if they ask me to sing it reasonably, I do so and if they ask me to move in a way that somehow approximates dance, I do so."

And with that, Wendt is off. To a bar, of all places - an Irish pub downtown to see nieces. And for the record, Santa did not take a sleigh. He got into a limo.


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