Interview conducted by A.B. Chesler, author and blogger
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Don Lake—veteran actor, writer, and producer—to discuss his expansive career. In just over three decades in Hollywood, Mr. Lake has offered his creativity to more than 100 productions! Whether it be as Stu Hopps in Zootopia, Phil Burgess in Waiting for Guffman, or as co-writer of Return to Me, Don is truly an expert in entertainment and earning laughs!
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I understand you got your start in Toronto's faction of Second City (world-famous comedy training center and theatre). What or who led you to know that you wanted a place in comedy?
Honestly, I can’t remember not wanting to do it. Watching Don Knotts’ films, Jerry Lewis, Carol Burnett. In Grade 5, I told Mr. Wilson’s class I wanted to marry her. They laughed, but I was serious. Many years later, I got a chance to meet her and I can’t tell you what a thrill that was. I guess I just always prefer to be silly, rather than serious, which can have its drawbacks as you get older and take on more responsibilities, work wise and personally.
Being a part of Second City was hugely responsible for me having a career. I love working in an ensemble and improvising, and Second City in Toronto was the ultimate. When I was a senior in high school, I’d watch Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd in that theater, hear the tremendous laughter and there was no doubt in my mind, someday, I’m going to do this—Second City, and comedy.
And, boy, did you do comedy! Over the last few decades, you've appeared in over 60 TV shows and 35 films, along with countless other projects. These include such gems as How I Met You Mother, Super Mario Brothers, The Golden Girls, Short Circuit 2, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Hot Shots, Police Academy, Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm, and way too many more to keep listing. Which cast was your favorite to be a part of and why (we'll forgive you if you have to select more than one)?
Oh, I definitely have a few to mention. I have been very fortunate to work with some wonderfully smart and generous actors, directors and writers. Really, I have.
I’ve found, the seldom times I do get a sour apple, is that they’re like that out of their own self-doubt, paranoia, or not trusting. When I figure out what they’re afraid of, help ease their mind, by being professional or patient, they come round. But like I said, I don’t work with many of those. I’ve been lucky.
Bonnie Hunt and I met at Second City in Los Angeles when they opened a company there. We hit it off right away, and have enjoyed a great friendship and many collaborative years.
Julia Louis Dreyfus was fantastic to work with, a great lady, the best.
John Candy was an idol of mine and I was lucky enough to become a friend and work with him on a few projects, including Wagons East. He is one of the best directors I ever worked for. He was, as a person too, so kind and generous, treated everyone with respect and he was so much fun to be around and improvise with.
Early on in my career, Bob Einstein (Super Dave) gave me years of work on two series he did on Showtime.
And of course, I’d be remiss not to mention the wonderful ensemble of actors in the Christopher Guest films. What a joy to work on these films with these people, all of them, who are so supportive and collaborative as improvisers, equally as eager to share their laughter as they are to create something funny.
Speaking of which, you’ve had the pleasure of having a role in several of Christopher Guests's hilarious "mockumentaries," like Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. What’s it like to participate in creating comedy that relies so heavily on onset chemistry and dynamic?
It’s terrifically exhilarating to create something on the spot with other people. Of course, the chemistry is derived from certain ingredients. We go into the movie knowing the story, the intent for each scene and we work from this treatment, like a builder would from blueprints. Every character is there with a purpose and we can add layers to their backstories and personalities.
Having the treatment or outline lays out what we’re trying to achieve. How we get there is up to us, which is ‘the gift’ you get doing these films.
Probably the most important part of creating a comedic scene in Chris’ films, and the same thing held true at Second City: you must listen. Be willing to give and take, be a leader and a follower. Improvised dialogue may take you places you never dreamed. And that’s the thrill of it! It’s like playing jazz. It’s such a high when everything clicks.
For the record, I’m not a jazz musician. Not sure why I mentioned that, other than they seem to have as good a time as we do, when you manage to catch lightning in a bottle. Never really seen construction workers or a boardroom full of executives behave in a similar fashion.
And as if your career wasn't robust enough, you’ve also earned writer's credit for The Extreme Adventures of Super Dave, Life with Bonnie, Return to Me, and more. Where does most of your motivation come from when you formulate a story? Do you have a specific process when you write?
The motivation for a story is born from a character. That’s the spark. And this person or persons goes on a journey... What’s funny about it? What is challenging about it? How do they change as a result of this journey?
So, when you start filling in the blanks, and you have this character or two that you hear "their voice," then you start getting excited.
But you have to be careful. Usually we all have great beginnings, or a spectacular ending, but the middle is cloudy. TV show or movie, you have to have every section work.
But again, you’ve got a character you love and a story you want to tell. So, you keep playing with that. Solve the problems. Create twists. Do the unpredictable, make daring choices but keep it real. It’s a Rubik's Cube and I love figuring it out and making things fit.
This is another reason Second City was so pivotal in my career. We write, through improvisation, our own material. When it gets put in a show, you fine tune it and set it as a fixed scene. You learn to craft it from a writing standpoint. And when you pitch an idea to your cast mates to get them excited about being in a scene, that scene has to have an intent and an out. Again, you’re learning a bit about structure.
So, a theme for my process of writing has been start with character and story, and then have fun with the rest of it.
By the way, I've heard your voice on repeat for months on end because my daughter LOVES the movie Zootopia. You've also offered the voice for a ton of other characters in shows such as The Wild Thornberrys and American Dad. What do you find to be most different about voice acting vs. on-screen acting? Which do you prefer?
Voice acting can put you in the most remarkable situations sometimes because of the animation aspect. These stories and characters can be crazy. I do enjoy it.
Playing with your voice specifically is fun. Really isolating that is like playing a musical instrument. Seems like, deep down, I’m a frustrated musician. But it is fun putting on the earphones and playing with every little nuance in your voice.
I still tend to get quite physical around the microphone. On Zootopia, they filmed you in the recording studio while you’re recording and performing to get your mannerisms. It was fun to see Stu Hopps be like me and it was equally great hearing from people who noticed. The folks on this film were also tremendous to work with, a very creative and generous group.
How interesting! I’ve always wondered why voice-over sessions are often filmed. Now, one last question: considering all of your success, do you have any advice for those seeking a similar success?
Success in the entertainment industry (or any industry) might be a varying target for people.
For me, I just wanted to work, whether it was film, TV, voice or writing, as long as I’m in show business. I had no idea how I was going to get from the suburbs of Toronto down to Hollywood when I was doing my homework at the dining room table, but really watching the Carol Burnett Show.
Everyone’s road is different, but what’s helped me keep my sanity, is I just do the best I can at what I can control. There are so many factors at play as to why you do or don’t get a part or a script doesn’t sell.
Trying to second-guess in hopes of doing what you "think" they will want, will drive you insane and lead, I think, to a frustrating career and life. I do the best audition I can, say thanks, and hope for the best. If you don’t get this job, there was something at play that wouldn’t allow it, but hopefully they’ll remember your good work and have you back in.
In the down times, I write. There will always be down time, unless you’re The Rock (we’re up for a lot of the same stuff, he tends to win out over me). Writing keeps my head in the game. You can spend the whole day doing it, and it doesn’t cost you anything. Then, who knows, you sell it, and the exercise suddenly becomes profitable. Win-win.
Maybe that’s the key to success in any field, optimism.
Amy Chesler is an author, content creator, blogger, and family woman from Los Angeles, California. Her most recent publications include four different contributions in six different Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, as well as her first solo children’s book, A Man and His Books. Follow her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/abchesler), Twitter (@abcauthor), or Instagram (@abc_author) for updates, giveaways, and much more!