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Ac­tor and play­wright Wal­lace Shawn dis­cusses his eclec­tic ca­reer, his place in the cul­tural spec­trum, and a chance sight­ing of Jerry Se­in­feld; Shawn ap­pears at the Lensic in a Lan­nan event

How you per­ceive Wal­lace Shawn prob­a­bly de­pends on how old you are. Now known as a ver­sa­tile char­ac­ter ac­tor and voiceover artist, he emerged in 1981 as the co-writer and co-star of the in­tel­lec­tual gabfest My Din­ner With An­dré , which came out a cou­ple of years af­ter his act­ing de­but in Woody Allen’s Man­hat­tan . In 1987 he had a small, piv­otal role in The Princess Bride as the kid­nap­per Vizzini, which for­ever con­nected him to the iconic film and his catch­word — “In­con­ceiv­able!” — ut­tered in a shocked lisp. Nearly three decades and dozens upon dozens of roles later, peo­ple still shout this at him in air­ports, which can make him grumpy. It’s not that he’s not de­lighted to have brought cin­e­matic joy to peo­ple’s lives as Vizzini, but it’s not as if it’s his all-time fa­vorite part.

“There are peo­ple who as­sume that if you were in a funny movie they en­joyed, you must be an en­joy­able per­son and some­how in a good mood. The thought­ful air­port vis­i­tor knows you may not be funny, you may not be an en­joy­able per­son, and you may not be in a good mood. The more sen­si­tive air­port vis­i­tor ap­proaches with fewer as­sump­tions,” he told Pasatiempo . “It’s a bit like be­ing a girl with a nice fig­ure. A more sen­si­tive man knows that she may have a range of at­ti­tudes about hav­ing a nice fig­ure. A less sen­si­tive man might as­sume that her at­ti­tude is the same as his, and he could make a crude re­mark and imag­ine she will be de­lighted by it. I sup­pose I’m a lit­tle bit the same. I can feel a lit­tle bit de­hu­man­ized, ob­jec­ti­fied, or mis­un­der­stood when peo­ple say cer­tain things to me.”

The trou­ble with only know­ing Shawn through one or two roles is that there is so much more to him. He has writ­ten plays and es­says and has re­leased a sin­gleis­sue mag­a­zine about pol­i­tics and art called Fi­nal Edi­tion that fea­tures po­ems, fic­tion, and an in­ter­view with Noam Chom­sky. If a word could be se­lected to shout at him in air­ports, it should be “Thought­ful!” Shawn spoke to Pasatiempo while trav­el­ing in Spain (where, he said, he was “pre­tend­ing to be an au­thor”), in ad­vance of his ap­pear­ance at the Lensic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Wed­nes­day, April 15, with Michael Sil­verblatt as part of the Lan­nan Foun­da­tion’s Lit­er­ary se­ries. The au­di­ence may or may not get to hear him and his long­time part­ner, writer Deb­o­rah Eisen­berg, read a sec­tion from his 1997 play, The Des­ig­nated Mourner . He wasn’t sure what he was plan­ning to present, but he promised to bring a date.

Shawn grew up in New York City. His fa­ther, Wil­liam Shawn, was the edi­tor of The New Yorker for 35 years, be­gin­ning in the early 1950s; his brother, Allen, is a com­poser, mu­si­cian, and writer. It’s not sur­pris­ing that some­one with his pedi­gree would one day write po­lit­i­cally tinged theater or act in Woody Allen films, but Shawn’s writ­ings, es­pe­cially his 2009 book Es­says, evince as much skep­ti­cism about a world with­out enough high cul­ture as they do about a world with too much, if it comes from priv­i­lege at the ex­pense

I’m the guy who makes a living do­ing the voices of an­i­mals in car­toons, who, weirdly, has a lit­tle knowl­edge of the mu­sic of Beethoven.

of a moral cen­ter and con­cern for all hu­mankind. He’s as much at home adapt­ing and star­ring in a film ver­sion of Hen­rik Ib­sen’s The Mas­ter Builder as he is do­ing voices for Fam­ily Guy video games or for the chil­dren’s tele­vi­sion se­ries Kung Fu Panda: Leg­ends of Awesomeness . (For the record, he says Hal­vard Sol­ness, Ib­sen’s suc­cess­ful ar­chi­tect, is his fa­vorite role to date.) He is aware that many of his fans don’t know he writes and that most of his friends have never watched Gos­sip Girl , Law & Or­der: Spe­cial Vic­tims Unit , or Kit Kit­tredge: An Amer­i­can Girl .

“I think it’s fair to say I’m sort of a devo­tee or hanger-on of high cul­ture, with­out be­ing a highly qual­i­fied devo­tee. I sup­pose I would count as a lover of lit­er­a­ture, but I’ve prob­a­bly read fewer books than any­one I per­son­ally hang out with, largely be­cause I read ab­nor­mally slowly, to the point that peo­ple would be shocked. Peo­ple of­ten think I’ve read more than I have be­cause I sort of act as if … I don’t mean I lie. I don’t lie. I just seem like the sort of per­son who would have read all sorts of things I haven’t read.”

Peo­ple of­ten think I’ve read more than I have be­cause I sort of act as if … I don’t mean I lie. I don’t lie. I just seem like the sort of per­son who would have read all sorts of things I haven’t read.

He doesn’t know where to place him­self, Shawn said, in terms of high and low cul­ture. In act­ing, he prefers roles that don’t have a neg­a­tive ef­fect on so­ci­ety, in movies that don’t sup­port cyn­i­cal Amer­i­can at­ti­tudes of greed, mil­i­tarism, bigotry, and mock­ery. “Those are all things I don’t be­lieve in.” But the ques­tion of where he fits in prompts some soulsearch­ing. “I mean, ob­vi­ously, com­pared with peo­ple who don’t know much about Beethoven, I come off as the great­est Beethoven ex­pert they’ve ever met. But com­pared with peo­ple who re­ally know about Beethoven, I’m the guy who makes a living do­ing the voices of an­i­mals in car­toons, who, weirdly, has a lit­tle knowl­edge of the mu­sic of Beethoven. When I’m do­ing some of the silly act­ing things I’ve done, I feel to­tally com­fort­able and at peace. I’m not wor­ried if the script isn’t as in­tel­lec­tu­ally bril­liant as the writ­ings of Wittgen­stein. Wittgen­stein him­self used to go to the movies of Betty Grable and sit in the front row. We all have dif­fer­ent sides, and maybe that’s all it comes down to. I think that there are prob­a­bly more than two kinds of art, more than high and low. Some art re­quires more in­tense con­cen­tra­tion — a com­mit­ment — and some meets you more than half­way.”

If Shawn can’t lo­cate his own place in the cul­tural spec­trum, then per­haps the spec­u­la­tion of some blog­gers and cul­tural crit­ics that My

Din­ner With An­dré might be the aes­thetic and philo­soph­i­cal in­spi­ra­tion for Se­in­feld — and there­fore the foun­da­tion for most mod­ern sit­coms on tele­vi­sion — is a place to start. In the film, which was based on sto­ries from real-life events, Shawn and An­dré Gre­gory sit in a restau­rant and talk, and noth­ing hap­pens ex­cept for the images and as­so­ci­a­tions the view­ers make in their minds. For many, My Din­ner With An­dré re­mains a cul­tural touch­stone 35 years later, em­i­nently mem­o­rable and quotable, just as Se­in­feld — a show in which peo­ple sit around and talk — con­tin­ues to be in syn­di­ca­tion and on DVD. Shawn was flat­tered, if slightly be­wil­dered, by the propo­si­tion.

“I don’t even know if Jerry Se­in­feld ever saw My Din­ner With An­dré! I was once in the same restau­rant with him, and he nod­ded at me in a friendly way, or maybe I nod­ded at him. He didn’t stop me and say, ‘Sir, your film is the foun­da­tion for my work.’ I mean,” Shawn con­tin­ued, “he nod­ded more like, ‘We’re in the same field of per­form­ing, so we’re nod­ding at each other.’”

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