Wallace Shawn

Wallace Shawn

American character actor and playwright Wallace Shawn has one of those fun, delightfully mischievously gnomish faces made for entertaining. Though he got out of the acting starting gate rather late, he quickly excelled film and TV while managing to turn himself into comedy egghead or loser types. Woody Allen’s slightly threatened character in the movie Manhattan (1979) amusingly describes Wallace’s benign gent as “a homunculus”, which may be a pretty fair description of this predominantly bald, wan, pucker-mouthed, butterball-framed, slightly lisping gent. Shawn made his movie debut at age 36 in Allen’s heralded classic in a brief but telling scene as Diane Keaton’s ex-husband.

The 5’2″ Jewish actor was born Wallace Michael Shawn into privilege on November 12, 1943 in New York City, as the son of Cecille (Lyon) (1906-2005), a journalist, and William Shawn (1907-1992), renowned and long-time editor of The New Yorker. His brother, Allen Shawn, went on to become a composer. Wallace was educated at both Harvard University, where he studied history, and Magdalen College, Oxford. Wallace initially taught English in India on a Fulbright scholarship, and then English, Latin and drama back in New York. However, a keen interest in writing and acting soon compelled him to leave his cushy position and pursue a stage career as both playwright and actor.

During his distinguished career, Wallace churned out several plays. “Our Late Night”, the first of his works to be performed, was awarded an off-Broadway Obie in 1975. This was followed by “A Thought in Three Parts” (1976);, “The Mandrake” (1977) (which he translated from the original Italian and made his acting debut), “Marie and Bruce” (1979), “Aunt Dan and Lemon” (1985) and “The Fever,” for which he received his second Obie for “Best New Play” during the 1990-91 season.

A popular supporting player of comedy and the occasional drama, Shawn’s assorted kooks, creeps, brainiacs and schmucks possessed both endearing and unappetizing qualities. He earned his best early notices partnered with theatre director/actor Andre Gregory in the unique Louis Malle-directed film My Dinner with Andre (1981). Shawn co-wrote the improvisatory, humanistic piece with brother Allan as the composer. Shawn and Gregory would collaborate again for Malle in another superb, original-concept film Vanya on 42nd Street (1994).

Among Shawn’s offbeat films have been Bruce Paltrow’s A Little Sex (1982); James Ivory’s The Bostonians (1984); Stephen Frears’ Prick Up Your Ears (1987); Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride (1987); Alan Rudolph’s The Moderns (1988) and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994); and Paul Bartel’s Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989). He also appeared in several other Woody Allen offerings including Radio Days (1987), Shadows and Fog (1991), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), Melinda and Melinda (2004) and the title role in Rifkin’s Festival (2020).

Since the 1990s, he has lent his vocal talents to a considerable number of animated pictures including A Goofy Movie (1995), Toy Story (1995) (and its sequels), The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story (1998), The Incredibles (2004), Chicken Little (2005), Happily N’Ever After (2006), Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (2010) and Animal Crackers (2017). TV voices have included The Pink Panther (1993), The Lionhearts (1998), Family Guy (1999), Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness (2011), The Stinky & Dirty Show (2015) and The Bug Diaries (2019).

Millennium films graced with Shawn’s participation include Southland Tales (2006), Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (2008), Jack and the Beanstalk (2009), The Speed of Thought (2011) and Vamps (2012). He co-starred as Halvard Solness and wrote the screen adaptation for Ibsen’s classic play A Master Builder (2013) co-starring Julie Hagerty, and went on to appear in Don Peyote (2014), Maggie’s Plan (2015), Robo-Dog (2015), Drawing Home (2016), Another Kind of Wedding (2017), Book Club (2018) and Marriage Story (2019).

Over the decades, Shawn has scurried about effortlessly with a number of television guest appearances including “Taxi,” “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” “Ally McBeal,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Sex and the City,” “Desperate Housewives,” “The Daily Show,” “The 7D,” “Life in Pieces,” “The Good Fight,” “Mr. Robot” and “Search Party. He has also drummed up a few recurring roles for himself in the process, including The Cosby Show (1984), Murphy Brown (1988), Clueless (1996) (based on the hit film Clueless (1995), revisiting his teacher role), Murphy Brown (1988), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993), Crossing Jordan (2001), The L Word (2004), Gossip Girl (2007), The Good Wife (2009), Mozart in the Jungle (2014), and, more recently, as Dr. Sturgis in the comedy Young Sheldon (2017).

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