Kevin Pollak has navigated some seriously tricky transitions in his career. He started out as a stand-up comic and impressionist, then suddenly segued into dramatic acting with a major role in Barry Levinson’s 1990 film Avalon. “It was life-changing,” Kevin, 62, tells Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “I was insanely fortunate to work with a writer-director who hated seeing anyone ‘acting’ and was very much about the moment, spontaneity and improvising, which fueled my joy and desire.”
Now Kevin’s tackling a very different acting task as the titular comedian’s long-winded, short-tempered former father-in-law on Amazon’s heavily scripted, highly stylized dramedy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. “It’s treated like theater,” he notes. “I wasn’t accustomed to eight-page monologues. But it’s been the most challenging and instantly rewarding role of my career.” That’s saying something, considering he’s co-starred in classic films like A Few Good Men, The Usual Suspects and Casino. Still, Kevin’s not one to look back or rest on his laurels. “You really need to be present with your life,” he explains. “And not take anything for granted.”
Scroll down for more of our conversation with Kevin Pollak!
Why did you want to play Moishe Maisel?
[Executive producers Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino] called up with this opportunity. They had done the pilot and realized they didn’t have in-laws. I watched the pilot, and it was incredibly smart and clever and magical in its milieu. It was a bit of a no-brainer, quite frankly.
Are you basing Moishe on anyone you’ve known?
Yes, my grandfather and his twin brother, who escaped the Cossacks, would sit at opposite ends of the dinner table for Passover and yell at each other from a great distance all throughout the meal, misremembering their history.
You have a similarly combustible chemistry with Tony Shalhoub on the show. Had you ever met him before?
We had not. It was instantly a mutual lovefest. We are part of a group of actors of a certain ilk and age, where it’s one of us but not all of us who are chosen for a particular project. Tony’s character may be my favorite on the show, when I watch it as a fan. Any time he opens his mouth, I cry with laughter.
What’s the hardest thing for you about becoming Moishe?
I wasn’t really accustomed to my character being such a blowhard who speaks right through everyone else. Moishe doesn’t listen — he just talks, and the scene happens around him. The most painful part is people in the inner circle of my real life insist this is the role I was born to play. Apparently, I’m louder than I think I am.
You were born around the time ‘Maisel’ is set. Do you remember the ’50s?
I was far too young to have any actual memories, but I’ve always had a great affinity for the time period.
What were you like as a kid in San Jose, California — were you the class clown?
Yes, I was. I directed a documentary [2015’s Misery Loves Comedy] in which I interviewed almost 60 annoyingly funny people, and being a class clown is a bit of a through-line. It’s born in us. Public speaking is America’s No. 1 fear, above death. But to the comedian, it’s a natural calling. We have a need to be on that stage.
Was anyone in your family in showbiz?
They were nowhere near show business in any capacity. But they were also instantly supportive. It was just so crystal clear to be around me, apparently. To think any other future was possible for me was silly.
When did you realize you were funny?
My mom came home one day when I was 9 and caught me lip-syncing a comedy album, standing in front of the 7-foot-tall hi-fi. I had seen them laughing uncontrollably at this comedian, and I wanted to be the one making them laugh uncontrollably. She said, “That’s it! You’re doing that for the Zuckers at Passover.”
And did you?
It was my first booking. Unpaid, but a booking nonetheless. Everybody went ape for it. That was really the first time a gathering of people watched me perform, all eyes on me, and it was over in that moment. I was gone for life.
You started performing in San Francisco nightclubs as a teenager. How did your parents feel about that?
When I was 18, they were very OK with it. Because it meant that my childhood dream had led to a possible profession.
How did the other comedians treat you?
I was the youngest performer, but Dana Carvey was only a couple of years older than me, and we became fast friends and still are. There was one nurturing older comedian named Marty Cohen — he played a character called “Partyin’ Marty Hardy” on the TV show Solid Gold. He took me under his wing. I remember him saying to me, “When your material catches up with your stage presence, you’re going to be very good.” I took that to heart.
How do celebrities you’ve impersonated react when they meet you?
The first time I was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, I did Peter Falk, and I’d taught myself to move just one eye, because he had a glass eye. Three months later, Peter accosted me at a grocery store and said, “How do you do that with your eye?” I became friendly with him and also over the years with Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin and Albert Brooks.
Sounds like people take it well…
What’s the greatest life lesson you’ve learned over the years?
Live in the present. Don’t worry about the past or future. Have a plan, but when it shifts and changes, be ready to go with it.
Any regrets, like not having children?
No. I’ve been with a woman twice for long periods of time — 20 years [with ex-wife Lucy Webb] and 14 years with Jamie, my better half now. I said to both of them, “I am not a procreator in my bones, but if you are, I’ll go on that journey with you.” And in both cases, they felt similarly. We have cats, and we treat them like children.
You excel at both drama and comedy. Which one do you like better?
I get to play both drama and comedy on Maisel. I really don’t have a preference between the two. My only preference is for the quality of the writing. I become fearless if the writing is great.
For more on your favorite celebs, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!