Sam Pancake: Hollywood's Go-To Gay Guy

Busy character actor Sam Pancake retraces his rocky road to recognition and revisits his most memorable roles.

BY Brandon Voss

February 09 2010 1:45 PM ET

You might not know his name — though it’s a pretty hard one to forget — but you’re definitely familiar with Sam Pancake’s face and talent. A fixture of Los Angeles’s sketch comedy scene and “Real Live” stage spoofs, Pancake has spent the past two decades playing gay and stealing scenes in beloved sitcoms like Friends, Will & Grace, Arrested Development, and Curb Your Enthusiasm plus underrated gems like Lovespring International and Kitchen Confidential. In Pretty, a mockumentary Web series on PrettyTheSeries.com and FunnyOrDie.com, Pancake now stars as a dim-witted pageant dad to a precocious 5-year-old daughter (played by adult actress Stacy McQueen). Next seen on the big screen as a strip club DJ in Barry Munday, Pancake retraces his rocky road to recognition and revisits his most memorable roles. Rip Taylor, be warned!

Advocate.com: How did Pretty come about for you?
Sam Pancake: I had fallen down a flight of stairs and gotten a concussion, so I was laid up in bed for about a week. Steve Silverman, the writer-director-producer, e-mailed me the script during that time. I read it and I was like, “This is funniest thing ever! I’d love to do it!” A few days later, I was like, “Wait a minute. Was that just my concussion talking?” So I read it again, and it was still really funny.

Tell me about Michael Champagne, the pageant dad you play in Pretty. We know from the first episode that he loves everything Disney — including Zac Efron.
He really loves sparkle, glitter, and glitz, but according to Steve — and I don’t know how this will play with your gay magazine — Michael is supposedly straight. We find out later that he and his wife do have sex, even though she’s cheating on him with his brother. If he is gay, he’s in deep denial or doesn’t have the self-awareness to understand that he’s gay. He’s a Christian, he’s a little bit racist, and he’s not very smart. In the second episode he says, “I’m a doer; I try not to think,” which I think sums up everything about him. We’ve chosen to make him from southern West Virginia, as am I. He moved to L.A. to make it as an actor, but that didn’t work out. Now he’s delighted to be entering his daughter in pageants because, you know, it’s what she really wants.

What was your experience growing up gay in Romney, W.Va.?
I knew fairly young that it was Burt Reynolds for me and not Suzanne Somers. I also knew everyone around me would not be cool with it, so I tried to keep that under wraps as much as possible, but I just couldn’t. I was a pretty theatrical, high-strung little boy, so anyone with half a mind could figure out why I loved the show tunes and wasn’t so great at basketball. My mom was always trying to butch me up, telling me not to say certain words, but my stage debut was ironically in the Romney Women’s Club Minstrel Show, where I had to dress up as Minnie Pearl and do numbers from Hee Haw. Like Michael Champagne, I wanted to be around sparkly things like Hollywood. 

Can you pinpoint the moment in your career that you consciously decided to be out in your professional life?
I never had the energy or the time to stay in the closet. I’m not Gerard Butler — well, maybe that’s not the best choice — but I’m a funny character guy like Tom Hanks. My mother used to say to me, “You know you’ll never be a matinee idol,” but I knew I could get away with being the third gay banana from the left. Then they started writing parts for that, thank God — the gay assistant, the gay waiter — so I started doing a lot of that. If there was a moment, I guess it would be when I did Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2001. That was my first big show that everyone in Hollywood watched, and I played a guy who was married to a woman but in the closet. Larry calls him a “cunt” during a poker game and then he comes out of the closet, so in a way that was my national coming out too. After that I kept getting a lot of parts where I was the gay guy married to a lady, trying to make it work.

Has being openly gay ever cost you a role?
Definitely back in the early ’90s, when I first got to L.A., I would audition for lots of things but wouldn’t get them. The feedback I’d get from agents and managers would be like, “You’re just too high-energy,” “You’re just too youthful,” or, “You’re too light in the loafers for that role!” I’m not like — well, I’m not going to say any names because I respect these guys, but I’m not super-effeminate or bouncing off the walls, so I always thought I could pull it off. Julie Halston, this great actress in New York, once told me, “You should have a career like Nathan Lane’s. Nathan doesn’t play straight and he does all kinds of things!” I was like, “I can play straight, Julie. I’ve played straight on TV.” And she said, “Yeah, only for 30 seconds in a commercial!”

You do come off as pretty butch in the Prevacid commercial that’s in heavy rotation right now.
An actor-writer friend of mine saw that and said, “You seemed straight until you hit the other guy on the shoulder with your open palm in the very last second.” I was like, “Damn!” While we were shooting it, I was the only one who was like, “Are we on a gay date in this comedy club?”

In some ways your being unapologetically gay has helped sustain your career: You’ve embraced a niche, become a go-to gay character actor, and made a steady living off that for 20 years.
Not that I’m overflowing buckets of joy and happiness, but I am fairly happy, and I think I’d be miserable if I were pretending to be straight and trying out for more straight roles just to prove something. So, yeah, I am lucky to be one of those guys. But I’ll tell you, these gay kids today who are 10, 15 years younger than me, just starting out, and getting roles ... I try not to be an old crank about it, but these kids have no idea how tough it was in the early ’90s — the pre-Will & Grace days before Ellen came out. Thank God people finally came around.

What’s your take on the popular complaint that gay actors can play the flamboyant comedic gay parts but straight actors get all the dramatic gay roles?
I don’t really go in for dramatic straight roles, but I don’t bitch about all that because every actor has complaints about who they’re up against, what roles they don’t get, and how they’re pigeonholed. Even my friends who are on shows complain that they don’t like the show-runner or the writers, so I just choose not to complain. I read the other day how Colin Firth said he felt he was a part of that problem, but I think the world is growing and changing.

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