FYI Magazine

From Mamet Plays to Men in Black

Though his name is in lights, David Rasche ’66 retains the humility of a Midwest preacher’s son.

He’s working with Robert DeNiro and Diane Keaton, and last month he was on set with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Even so, actor David Rasche ’66 still wonders if the opportunities will keep coming.

“It’s a difficult life,” says the 66-year-old actor. “You never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes you go for long periods without working. Not that I’m Henry Fonda, but even Henry Fonda, whenever he finished his last job, was always convinced he would never ever work again. And the truth is you just don’t know.”

Concerns notwithstanding, after almost 40 years as an actor, Rasche is busier than ever. In June he was cast in Gently Down the Stream with DeNiro and Keaton as the father of a girl who wants to marry against his wishes. He recently finished filming Men in Black III with Smith and Jones, in which he plays the ornery head of the MIB Service in 1960s flashback scenes where a young Will Smith first meets his partner.

He is joining the cast of HBO’s Bored to Death, now in its third season, in which he plays a mega-wealthy, retired tech entrepreneur. And he plays the soulful husband of a Holocaust survivor in the upcoming German feature film Remembrance.

In four decades Rasche has carved out a comfortable niche in the hardscrabble world of show business, working steadily on stage, on TV and in movies since kicking off his career with Chicago’s famed Second City improvisational theater troupe. He’s appeared in more than 100 films and television shows, from the rogue cop in the 1989 movie An Innocent Man with Tom Selleck to the President of the United States in the television series DAG (2000–2001). He is perhaps best known for his starring role in the ABC cult comedy series Sledge Hammer! (1986–1988), in which he played the title role of a goofy cop who talked to his gun and handed out his own brand of loony street justice.

Still, Rasche remains philosophical, even melancholy, about his chosen profession. He describes the anxiety of not working, of waiting for the phone to ring and not knowing if it will. He tells of getting a call out of the blue, asking him to read for a part because a casting director he had never met saw his work once and thought he would be a good fit.

“And then I was talking to a friend of mine who is an actor and he said, ‘Well, I’m glad you’re working, you deserve it.’ And I said, ‘I don’t deserve it any more than you deserve it.’ That’s really not the issue. There are a lot of roles around that I call CBA roles—Could Be Anybody. So why those come your way or don’t come your way, it’s very mysterious.”

Part of that reflective, contemplative attitude stems from his upbringing in Belleville, Illinois, near St. Louis, as the son and grandson of ministers. In fact, nearly 50 members of Rasche’s extended family entered the ministry and many of them attended Elmhurst, which began as a proseminary. Rasche considered the field and even attended divinity school at the University of Chicago for two years. “I gave it a go, but it was not my calling,” he said. “I had more questions than answers.”

While he may not have opted for the ministry, he is part of an extensive family legacy at Elmhurst. “My grandfather went to Elmhurst,” he said. “My great-uncles all went to Elmhurst. My father went to Elmhurst, my mother went to Elmhurst, my aunt went to Elmhurst, my two sisters went to Elmhurst and they both married people who went to Elmhurst.”

At Elmhurst, Rasche lived in Niebuhr Hall, studied in Germany during his junior year and developed interests in theology, literature and philosophy. The esteemed English professor Robert Swords was a major influence.

“Professor Swords got me into an upper-level philosophy course in my sophomore year,” Rasche said. “I shouldn’t have been allowed to take that course, but he helped me go where I wanted to go.” It was Swords who convinced Rasche, upon his return from Germany, to major in English and attend graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he earned a master’s degree in English. He later taught English at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota before returning to Chicago.

Rasche only dabbled in acting in his early years and hardly did any theater work at Elmhurst, although he did sing in the school’s glee club. It was the seminal comedy work of Mike Nichols and Elaine May on the syndicated radio show The Midnight Special on Chicago’s WFMT-FM that sparked Rasche’s acting ambitions. He was intrigued by the duo’s improvisational work.

“I would hear Nichols and May do these routines and I thought that was absolutely the most wonderful thing I had ever heard,” he said, still recalling the thrill of this revelation. “I heard the folk music and I heard the stand-ups, but what really got me were those two people being funny.”

That led to workshop sessions at Second City, where he eventually landed a spot in the regular cast, replacing another Chicago boy who had left for the grander stage of New York City—John Belushi.  

After a couple of years with Second City, Rasche began performing in Chicago’s thriving theater scene and was a founding member of the Victory Gardens Theater. He also worked for a time at Chicago’s Organic Theater, where his professional relationship with the young playwright David Mamet flourished. The two had first met in the early 1970s at Second City, where Mamet was working as a busboy.

“I saw him on stage at Second City and just thought he was hysterically funny,” Mamet recalled in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “He was very dry and always had a kind of ‘I know something you don’t know’ twinkle in his eye—and maybe he does.”

At the Organic, Rasche appeared in one of Mamet’s first plays, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and went on to appear in more than half a dozen of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s works, including a star turn in Edmond at the Atlantic Theater in New York and in Faustus at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre.

“He’s a wonderful actor,” Mamet said. “Like any really good actor, he is idiosyncratic and what you’re looking at is him. A good actor doesn’t make stuff up and what you see is his actual self. His personality shows through in the role he is playing.”

Longtime friend Rev. Dick Wohlschlaeger, pastor of a Presbyterian church in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, said Rasche shows an affinity for Mamet’s work.

“One thing that makes David successful as an actor is that he can be both outrageously, clownishly funny, but also embrace and communicate the penetratingly dark dialogue
of a David Mamet play,” Wohlschlaeger said.

Though he makes New York his home, Rasche’s career moves are tracked in detail by Hollywood’s show biz web sites such as Deadline Hollywood and Yet he largely retains the modesty of a Midwestern preacher’s son. And he says his experience at Elmhurst played a role in the person he has become.

“It was a very family sort of place,” he recalls. “Most of us had known each other a long time by the time we got to Elmhurst, and it was a very tight group. The people who graduated with me became people who helped the world become a better place. They became ministers, teachers, hospital administrators and social workers. The religious atmosphere sent people off in a direction that was not about money, and it wasn’t about fame. It was about helping people and about doing God’s work, and a lot of them did exactly that.”

In four decades since graduating from Elmhurst, David Rasche has carved out a niche in show business, working steadily on stage, on TV and in movies.

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