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.
You’ve worked with “socially gay” actors who have chosen to remain professionally closeted to this day. Do you ever feel resentful of those people?
I know who you’re talking about, but they’re my friends and I choose to just enjoy them instead of worrying about why they haven’t come out. I’ve spoken to a lot of those people and been like, “What’s your deal?” They’ve explained themselves to me, and I’ve been like, “OK, that’s very personal and specific, so I won’t give you too much shit about it because we all have our demons and crosses to bear.” I’d rather focus on Jane Lynch, who’s always been out. I did my first sketch show with her in ’93 and we’ve been friends ever since. She’s one of my comedy heroes and a hero in my life. At one point she said to me, referring to the characters we play, “We don’t have to worry about being fuckable.” I remember back in the ’90s that it was a lot harder on all my gay friends who looked, acted, and talked like butch leading men, and — with the exception of Robert Gant — I can’t think of any of them who continued to be actors. It was actually easier for me because I was the gay “silly billy.”
Lynch starred with you and Jack Plotnick on the Lifetime series Lovespring International in the summer of 2006. That was a pretty big deal to have three openly gay actors on one show.
That’s true, and we were surprised we didn’t get more love for that. I think it could’ve gone for a second season if we would’ve gotten more attention from the gay press and GLAAD. Jack Plotnick brought that up in an interview once, and the interviewer was like, “Well, you and Jane play straight characters, and Sam’s character isn’t out of the closet, so it’s not a really good representation.” I was like, “What do you have to do?!”
When you’re out at a gay bar in Los Angeles, which of your projects do people approach you about most often?
Who says I go to gay bars? [Laughs] Right now it’s the Prevacid commercial, actually, but a lot of people come up about Curb Your Enthusiasm and [gay paralegal James Alan Spangler from] Arrested Development. Arrested Development was something that people didn’t see as much when it was on, but it’s big on DVD. It’s one of those things where people have all the lines memorized, including mine, so they’ll come up to me, say one of my lines, and I’ll be like, “What?” I also get a lot of English tourists who come up to me and say, “You were a waiter on Friends!” I’m like, “I was on two episodes.” People worship that show.
How was your Friends experience?
Wow, what can I say about that? I will go on the record of saying it was a wonderful experience and I was happy to do it. [Laughs] I’d known David Schwimmer before because he had been roommates with a really close friend of mine, so he treated me really well. I later became friends with Matthew Perry when we did The West Wing together.
I might approach you about the two Will & Grace episodes where you played Jimmy, one of Jack’s OutTV colleagues.
Well, the first time I did the show I played a bartender on one of the Woody Harrelson episodes. I had this extra playing my bar back — this blond kid who was prettyish in the face and straight off the bus from Kentucky. During rehearsal he turned to me and said, “How come you get to do all the lines?” I said, “Um, because I auditioned for it and got the part?” He was like, “Well, I think when the camera starts rolling I’m just gonna start talkin’.” I was like, “That would not be a very good idea. That’s Jim Burrows over there, a very respected director, and he would not appreciate it if you just started ‘talkin’.’” So he didn’t. A few years later, I swear to Christ, I saw this same kid on TV, and he had fathered Anna Nicole Smith’s child. It was Larry fuckin’ Birkhead! Later, I did one of the OutTV episodes with Rip Taylor, who phone-stalked me to the point that it brought me to tears. I’m genuinely afraid of him. He asked for my number, but I’d seen that Victor Garber, who was also in the episode, had given him his phone number earlier, so I thought, Who’s going to call me when they could call Victor Garber? But then the calls started and didn’t stop for months. He would leave the longest, meanest messages on my machine. I wish I’d saved them, but they hurt my feelings so much at the time that I erased them.
You also played a gay waiter on the short-lived 2005 series Kitchen Confidential and got to stare longingly at star Bradley Cooper.
I did, which was very easy. I love Bradley. He’s really smart and funny, and he was a movie star even before he was a movie star. I used to tell him, “You’ll win an Emmy if things go as they should,” which of course they didn’t. It’s a shame the show got cancelled, but it’s on DVD, so tell your readers to buy it today!
According to IMDb, you were “Man in Car #2” in a 2005 episode of Fat Actress called “Holy Lesbo Batman.”
Kirstie Alley was actually very cool. That’s also the first time I met and worked with Mo Collins from MADtv, who is literally one of the funniest people in the world. She played the lesbian prison guard when we all went to jail. She had me laughing so hard off-camera that I almost wet myself, and that’s never happened before.
Since I’ve got your IMDb profile pulled up, let’s see what else looks interesting. You were in the 1998 TV movie Gia?
I played an assistant to photographer Francesco Scavullo, and Angelina Jolie cusses me out in our scene together. She was very intense but really nice. Jennifer Aniston was also a delight to work with on Friends, so since I’ve had such good experiences with both, I’m like, “I can’t pick a team, y’all!”
Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde. Discuss.
Reese Witherspoon and I had a really good time together because we’re both from the South and had similar family dynamics. I played her gay assistant in the first 10 minutes, but they cut out a scene where she’s leaving the firm, has a Jerry Maguire moment, asks who’s coming with her, and I completely turn on her like a dick. Part of me was sad my part got shortened because it was juicy, but at the same time it’s probably better not to be known as the gay guy who turns on Reese Witherspoon.
You played a demon in a 2003 episode of Charmed. Was he gay too?
I don’t think he had a sexuality. But I remember asking Alyssa Milano, “OK, I get killed by a fireball, so how does that work around here?” She was like, “Oh, it’s really the actor’s choice. Just do whatever you want.”
Finally, tell me about Roy Osmond, your character in the 1995 Cagney & Lacey reunion special Cagney & Lacey: Together Again.
Or, as they called it, “The Menopause Years.” That was my first movie of the week. The story was that someone unlikable had been murdered in an apartment building, so all the tenants were under suspicion and they were interrogating me. I had to be like, “I’m a homosexual, and I’m not a strong person, Mrs. Lacey” — not how any gay guy would ever really talk, but that’s how they used to write gay characters back then. I remember looking at the CDs they had chosen for my character’s quote-unquote apartment, and it was just Cher, Barbra Streisand, and Bette Midler — what attention to detail! Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless were both so nice, but what I didn’t know until I saw the fucking movie on TV is that my next-door neighbor was played by Rose Marie from The Dick Van Dyke Show. It’s like the time I did Arrested Development with Liza Minnelli but didn’t get to meet her. Henry Winkler, who I had such a crush on in my youth when he was Fonzie, was also in that episode. He said to me, “Oh, Liza would love you so much.” I’m like, “Because I’m gay, right?” And he said, “Well, I didn’t say that, but I hope you get to meet her. She’s coming later today.” But I couldn’t wait around because I had another job or audition, so I missed meeting Liza and I’ll kick myself forever. I did save the call sheet that said “Henry Winkler, Liza Minnelli, Sam Pancake.” I should frame it.