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From Operaman to Leading Man

Film

by Naomi Pfefferman

February 12, 1998 | 7:00 pm

From Operaman to Leading Man

In 'The Wedding Singer,' Adam Sandlerproves he can carry a tune and a movie

By Naomi Pfefferman,Senior Writer

Above, Adam Sandler (center) stars as Robbie inThe Wedding Singer and Adam Sandler as a child,taken from the coverof his cassette 'What the Hell Happened to Me?'


"David Lee Roth lights the menorah. So do James Caan, Kirk Douglasand the late Dinah Shore-ah.... We've got Ann Landers and her sister,Dear Abby. Harrison Ford is one-quarter Jewish; not too shabby. Somepeople think that Ebenezer Scrooge is. Well, he's not. But guess whois: All Three Stooges!"

-- from Adam Sandler's "Chanukah Song"

Adam Sandler shuffles into an interview, lookingscruffy. He's wearing brown cords, a baggy, brown velour shirt,oversized sideburns and the jokey, self-deprecating demeanor of theclass clown you remember from Hebrew school, minus the braces and theacne.

The thirtyish writer-songwriter-comedian is knownfor playing doofuses in the movies and for his "Chanukah Song," afunny, folksy ditty often played on the radio during the holidayseason.

This week, he has a new film coming out, "TheWedding Singer," in which he portrays his first romantic leadingrole, opposite Drew Barrymore. But Sandler doesn't feel like aromantic leading man. "I'm trying to get a serious girlfriend," hesays, sheepishly.

As for his self-image, Sandler says: "I saw apicture of myself...and I went: 'Woof! I shouldn't be in front of thecamera.'"

The loser image belies his recent success. Sandlerhas recorded two Grammy-nominated, platinum comedy albums and hassnagged $5 million for starring in "The Wedding Singer." But, thenagain, the actor has made a career of playing endearing andnot-so-endearing losers. There was the foppish Operaman, who sang thenews on "Saturday Night Live"; the infantile drummer in "Airheads";the bratty rich kid who goes back to school in "Billy Madison"; thenice-guy crook in "Bulletproof."

Sandler's affinity for the underdog may have somethingto do with his Jewish upbringing in small-town, USA. TheBrooklyn-born comic grew up in the non-Jewish milieu of Manchester,N.H., where he attended Hebrew school and sometimes encounteredanti-Semitic slurs. He was one of only two Jews in his class atWebster Elementary School.

Class-clowning was a good way to make friends; italso provided a springboard to his future profession.

Even so, his stand-up comedy debut at a Bostonclub, at age 17, was abysmal; even his big brother, Scott, admittedthat he stunk. But Sandler's family was supportive (all except onegrandmother, who wondered why he couldn't be a funny doctor), and heperfected his act while earning a fine arts degree at NYU.

After graduation, he was off to the comedy clubsof Los Angeles, where he was discovered by executive producer LorneMichaels of "Saturday Night Live" in 1990. Sandler, all of 23, wenton to write and perform on "SNL" for five years. Then came film rolesin "Coneheads," Nora Ephron's "Mixed Nuts" and, finally, his firststarring vehicle, "Billy Madison" (1995), which he co-wrote with anold NYU roommate.

Sandler penned the "Chanukah Song" while he wasstill at "SNL." It was December; he'd already done a Thanksgivingsong, and Michaels was encouraging a Chanukah tune. "I was walkingdown the street when I thought up the first line," the comic says."It went, 'Paul Newman is half Jewish; Goldie Hawn is half too. Putthem together: What a fine-looking Jew!'"

An updated version of the ditty lauds theJewishness of Winona Ryder, Lenny Kravitz and Courtney Love. How didSandler know they were Jewish? "I just guessed," he says, with ashrug.

Nevertheless, the comic does not play a Jewish character in"The Wedding Singer," which has a 1980s backdrop. Sandler insteadportrays a down-on-his-luck, non-Jewish wedding entertainerwho is left at the altar at his own nuptials. He then becomes theworst wedding singer imaginable -- until he switches to working barmitzvahs. That is no easy task, however, because there are only fourJewish families in town.

Drew Barrymore, who plays the love interest,doesn't think that it's such a stretch to find Sandler in a romanticleading role. "Adam is one of the most incredible men because he hasthat attractive combination of humor and intellect," she says. "Iworship comedians like [him], Woody Allen and Albert Brooks. Ofcourse, they all seem so dark and tortured, but they're like medicinebecause they make you laugh."

Sandler was suitably angst-ridden during therecent interview. He still gets "very scared" while performing infront of an audience, he reveals. He hates being alone, so he racksup $700 per month in phone bills. He'll wake a buddy up at 5 a.m.just to make sure there's another person left on the planet.

While he's waiting to find his "seriousgirlfriend," he focuses on his main hobby: eating. "I'll playbasketball for an hour, knowing that, then, the ribs will be ready,"he says.

So, does Sandler identify with his "WeddingSinger" character? The actor shakes his head. "He's a great guy, andI'm just all right," he says. "But I'm working on it."

 

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