Michael O’Donoghue: Is America Ready for Mr. Mike?
Does he have any philosophical thoughts about comedy?
“I always think about anything that gets a rise out of me,” he says with a wink. “I look at comedy with, not a jaundiced eye, but rather a cancerous eye. I once wrote an ad for Saturday Night — which did not get on the air — for a wonderful new product, Spray-on Laetrile. The ad started with a girl telling her boyfriend, ‘Gee, Jim, I’d love to go to the dance with you tonight, but I can’t. I have cancer.’ And he says, ‘Aww, come on honey! Haven’t you heard about Spray-on Laetrile? One little pssst! and you can kiss cancer goodbye!’
“I never wrote or pandered to a market. I never made the stupid mistake of saying, ‘I’m the New York sophisticate and I like this joke, but the pig masses in Crib Death, Iowa, will never understand it because they are such filth.’ So I never did a Carol Burnett and wrote down to anyone.”
The voice is overly calm, modulated to simulate a gracious, albeit tentative, benevolence. He sounds like a mellow late-night FM disc jockey who slits little girls’ throats each evening before he reports to work.
“Excuse me,” says O’Donoghue, abruptly rising for more brandy. “I think I forgot the question. Kitty Carlisle, do you want to field this one?”
LIFE IS NOT FOR EVERYBODY,” O’Donoghue rules, and he admits he needs some extra encouragement to face the task. Over the years he’s experienced a number of severe “emotional reversals,” as he calls them, ranging from a brief ill-fated marital fling to a glut of career disappointments. “So I got myself some dark glasses,” he says. “And then once inside them, I felt a lot better in the hidy hole and didn’t want to come out for a long time. Tried to come out a couple of times while I was working for Saturday Night, but I didn’t make it. I couldn’t stand the fluorescent lights in the NBC offices.” But somehow the glare of Hollywood seemed less harsh.
In the summer of 1978, Woody Allen asked O’Donoghue, sans his seaweed shades, to play a small part in his forthcoming motion picture, Manhattan. Things were looking ever upward for Michael, who had just left Saturday Night Live to create three late-night specials in association with SNL producer Lorne Michaels. Working with a staff of young writers that included Mitchell Glazer, Eve Babitz, Dirk Wittenborn and National Lampoon alumnus Emily Prager, O’Donoghue concocted a teleplay based on the lives of fashion models, a sci-fi horror epic about rampaging roaches entitled The War of the Insect Gods and Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video, a comedy takeoff on the sleazy early Sixties oddities-of-the-world film documentaries.
O’Donoghue assures me he was genuinely thrilled to get the chance to present his comic vision en masse and (hopefully) unadulterated to the nation’s TV viewers. But, hey, it’s not as if everybody gets invited to appear in one of Woody’s films, and the man did win a shitload of Oscars for Annie Hall, so we shouldn’t mind if Michael puts on a few airs and rhapsodizes just a trifle too much about his “crucial” role in Woody’s current cinematic masterwork, eh?
“I play Diane Keaton’s old boyfriend, Dennis, who’s this asshole film director that Woody destroys to get to her. You know, there’s always a paper tiger in these urban love affairs.
“I play the macho lead and — get this — I’m the male sex symbol. It’s an interesting role because I’ve never been in a movie before and there was a heat inversion in New York the week we shot my scenes. I got terrible migraine headaches, so I had to take massive doses of Percodan. Consequently, I could barely remember the lines, the shooting, anything, because it was all one narco haze.
“I was really outclassed on the set, I really got nervous. In a Chinese restaurant scene I finally conceded to myself that I was dying on camera, so I began eating as I spoke; a cheap device — yet it works!”
On the day Manhattan opens in New York, I purchase a copy of Time with Woody Allen on the cover and read it while I stand in line for two hours to see Michael O’Donoghue’s screen debut. Fifteen minutes into the picture he pops up during a big cocktail-party scene in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art. Bella Abzug is concluding some sort of fundraising spiel when Isaac Davis (Woody) strolls up to speak with writer Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton) and her creepy, spectral date, Dennis (Michael!).