Performing Arts

From ‘Bosom Buddies’ to ‘Girls’ to New Theatre sergeant, this star keeps pushing

In “Biloxi Blues” at New Theatre Restaurant, Sgt. Toomey (Peter Scolari, left) makes life miserable for this soldier (Jack Fellows) and the rest of the platoon.
In “Biloxi Blues” at New Theatre Restaurant, Sgt. Toomey (Peter Scolari, left) makes life miserable for this soldier (Jack Fellows) and the rest of the platoon.

Positioned between Army-green foot lockers and identical bunks, five young men do push-ups while Peter Scolari berates them.

The punishing workout intensifies at the New Theatre Restaurant rehearsal space near downtown as the crew looks on.

“Is it your intention … to humiliate and ridicule me?” says Scolari, aiming his sarcastic ire at one of the “new recruits” who can’t quite handle the exhausting task.

Clearly, that’s not the intention, as proven when the cast members burst into laughter during a break from running the scene.

Veteran actor Scolari has already spent several weeks in Kansas City rehearsing for a two-month engagement of Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues,” which starts Wednesday. The Tony Award-winning play follows the conflict between privates drafted into the military and their merciless platoon leader, Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey (portrayed by Scolari).

How is being an actor like being a soldier?

“We have to accept the world as it is, not as we’d have it to be,” says the 63-year-old star, looking muscular and fit in a T-shirt.

“I’ve been in ‘this man’s Army’ – show business – for 45 years. I’ve seen careers come to a screeching halt. I need a tremendous amount of discipline, as do military guys, to manage the damage. If I took everything as personally as I possibly could, I wouldn’t survive.”

bosom buddies
TV’s “Bosom Buddies” starred (clockwise from top left) Tom Hanks, Donna Dixon, Peter Scolari and Wendie Jo Sperber. File photo

Scolari’s career has gone through ups and downs similar to push-ups, from TV sitcom stardom to borderline obscurity to a recent Emmy win.

“When people say, ‘I know you. What have I seen you in?’ I respond, ‘Well, it depends on how old you are,’” he says.

For the elder crowd, Scolari became a household name thanks to the sitcom “Bosom Buddies” (1980-82). His co-star was a then-unknown comedian named Tom Hanks, and together they played struggling ad men who disguised themselves as women in order to live in an affordable, female-only apartment building.

On “Newhart,” starring Bob Newhart (center), Peter Scolari (second from left) played Michael, a producer. File photo

His subsequent fanbase encountered him on “Newhart” (1982-90). He played a yuppie TV producer and earned three consecutive Emmy nominations. The next generation discovered him as the lead in the TV adaptation of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (1997-2000).

Contemporary primetime gigs included a corrupt police commissioner on the superhero-themed “Gotham” (2014-19). But it’s his turn on the HBO series “Girls” (2012-17) that really defined his career. He played Tad Horvath, the father of creator Lena Dunham’s character, who came out as gay during the show’s run.

Scolari became a late replacement Emmy nominee after Peter MacNicol of “Veep” was disqualified in the guest actor in a comedy series category for appearing in too many episodes. The award went to Scolari, who earned the first-ever Emmy for a replacement.

In a wave of synchronicity, one of the fellow nominees he bested was Bob Newhart.

While he already supported gay rights, portraying Tad did grant him “a different perspective on cultural and societal values,” he says.

Peter Scolari won an Emmy for his role as the father of Lena Dunham’s character on “Girls.” HBO

There is one particular credit among his 100-plus on IMDB that he’d most like to forget.

“I’ve done ‘The Love Boat’ twice. I had a great time, but my ego rails against it,” he says. “They paid me very well, and I worked with (actress/dancer) Leslie Caron, so it wasn’t exactly terrible.”

Despite amassing 41 years worth of credits, Scolari rarely gets through a conversation (or an interview) without someone bringing up Hanks.

“Tom’s my friend, otherwise I would probably react to it a little differently if we’d only done a sitcom once and never spoken since then,” Scolari says. “But we’ve been close for 35 years.”

He has continued to collaborate with his bosom buddy in movies such as “That Thing You Do!” and “The Polar Express.”

Scolari explains, “I think he misses me.”

Aside from a highway jaunt through Kansas City around the time of his breakout TV gig, the New Theatre stint represents his first real exposure to the area. He’s done very little exploring of the city yet, as he’s rehearsing all day and “in the book” at night. (He has managed to enjoy some pulled pork at Danny Edwards Blvd BBQ.)

Earlier this month, Scolari said the “Biloxi Blues” production was way ahead of where he assumed it would be at that point in the schedule. He’s also quick to note how “fantastic” the cast is, which is made up of local hires and a few fellow New Yorkers.

“He’s a very smart actor,” says Dennis D. Hennessy, director of the show. “He’s able to define the character he’s playing from his ‘life experiences.’ His knowledge of history, of cultures and of people — as well as his recall of life events — help him form a real-life character onstage.”

Hennessy adds, “Also, he’s a very nice person and brings a sense of joy and optimism to rehearsal.”

Scolari wasn’t always optimistic toward his craft. He confesses a career lull at age 40 led to struggles with depression and other issues. At one juncture, he seriously considered giving up acting.

“I was working a venue when I felt the joy had gone out of me. And I didn’t see it coming; it had snuck up on me,” says Scolari, who sports tattoos of a butterfly and a Chinese symbol from “The I Ching.”

“I’d taken the job for the money. I was away from my family. But then a lightbulb went off, and I realized, ‘This is on you. Don’t let this turn into a thing you do because of “whatever.” You have gifts, so buck up. Get to work. Lift this production.’ It was like Scrooge the day after. I was convinced I needed to bottom out that way.”

His 2016 Emmy win has made things more comfortable for the actor these days. He’s currently shooting a miniseries for FX called “Fosse/Verdon,” starring Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams as the legendary choreographer/dancer team. He’s also in talks to direct his first feature: a Christmas movie.

“A measure of my success is how high-end the rejections are that I face,” Scolari says. “If I lose a role to a movie star at this time in my career, then I’m doing OK. Because now I’m in the running.”

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”

On stage

“Biloxi Blues” comes to the New Theatre Restaurant in Overland Park from Feb. 20 to April 21. See or call 913-649-7469.