Lenny Koznowski. David St. Hubbins. Chuck McGill. Most actors are lucky to get a single role where the name of the character instantly evokes the film or show. Among the hundreds of parts he’s played over the course of his more than 50-year career in radio, television, movies, and theater, Michael McKean has had three.
Born in New York, McKean studied acting at Carnegie Mellon University and NYU (with Olympia Dukakis) and upon graduation flew out to Los Angeles. His college friend, David Lander, invited him to join The Credibility Gap, a satirical group (also featuring Harry Shearer) that made fun of the news on KRLA-AM and then KPPC-FM.
As part of the Gap shows, McKean and Lander began doing Lenny and Squiggy, two characters they’d come up with at Carnegie Mellon. Penny Marshall and her husband Rob Reiner loved them and introduced them to her brother, Garry Marshall, who brought them on to Laverne & Shirley in 1976. McKean’s first professional acting job became a seven-year run on a number-one show. Garry Marshall gave Michael his first leading movie role in 1982’s Young Doctors in Love.
Meanwhile, McKean, Shearer, and their friend Christopher Guest had spent a few years developing what is generally acknowledged as the funniest rock film ever, along with cowriter and director Rob Reiner. According to Wikipedia, 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap was deemed “‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ by the Library of Congress, and was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.”
During the last four decades, he has appeared in a multitude of films, among them Guest’s beloved Best in Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003), and For Your Consideration (2006). His 70+ movie credits also include Clue (1985); Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987); The Big Picture (1989); Jack (1996); and most recently, Jerry and Marge Go Large and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (both 2022).
McKean has been even more ubiquitous on television, with over 100 appearances including significant roles on Primetime Glick, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The X-Files, Grace and Frankie, Breeders, and Good Omens, and providing voices for dozens of animated series, among them The Simpsons, Pinky and the Brain, Spongebob Squarepants, American Dad!, and Rugrats. His most acclaimed role, for which he was nominated for an Emmy in 2019, was as Jimmy McGill’s (Saul Goodman’s) brother Chuck on Better Call Saul.
For McKean personally, though, his most significant role was in the 1998 Lifetime film Final Justice, where he met his wife of 24 years, Annette O’Toole. He and O’Toole were Oscar-nominated for co-writing the song “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” for A Mighty Wind. (McKean shared a Grammy with Guest and Eugene Levy for the film’s title tune).
Coming up for McKean is a role as the President of the United States on the Netflix series The Diplomat, which he notes involved “a lot of walking up and down helicopter steps.”
Additionally, he and O’Toole are writing a musical – Harold & Lillian: A Love Story – based on the lives of Harold and Lillian Michelson, whose behind-the-scenes contributions to the film industry made them the first non-actors to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
And of course, with the 40th anniversary of the film coming in 2024, there is surely something in the works – a new movie, perhaps? – for Spinal Tap.