Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

Hollywood Story

David Rasche '66, star of stage, screen and sit-com, is a celebrated 'smart perfomer.'

David Rasche’s first big dilemma as an actor came in the form of his first big break: an offer to star in his own television series. When the offer came, Rasche was living in a roachy little apartment in lower Manhattan. The prospect of regular TV work should have thrilled him. It didn’t. Rasche had come to acting by an improbable route, and that was part of the problem. A minister’s son, he had taught English at a small Lutheran college in Minnesota, then had spent two years at the University of Chicago Divinity School, with a stint as a late-night clerk at a hospital emergency room thrown in. It all left Rasche with a perspective on television that was altogether atypical for a young actor. “In divinity school, we talked about how television was the worst influence in modern history,” he explains, “and how advertising was compromising the morality of humanity.”

In time, and in impressive fashion, Rasche would make his peace with television, and a significant part of his living through it. He has done guest spots on dozens of TV shows, including The West Wing, L.A. Law, and Malcolm in the Middle. From 1991 to 1994, he had a recurring role in Nurses, a Saturday night situation comedy on NBC (he played Jack Trenton, a crooked financier performing community service at a Miami medical center). But Rasche is best known for his starring role in Sledge Hammer!, a kooky 1980s cop comedy that has become a cult classic.

In all, Rasche’s acting career spans more than three decades and a wide range of media and venues, from Hollywood to Broadway. He has worked alongside such luminaries as David Mamet, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen. He has earned more than fifty filmography credits (and has completed eight films in the last five years alone). He has exhibited a genius for a variety of supporting roles that have made him, in a friend’s words, “kind of famous.” Rasche played a flamboyant Beverly Hills hairdresser in The Big Tease (1999), an abusive husband in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), and a conservative father and businessman in Just Married (2003). He’s made close to fifty appearances on stage, including three in the last year, and five altogether on Broadway.

In short, Rasche has enjoyed the kind of career that is many an actor’s dream. Nevertheless, he continues to regard his success from the skewed perspective of the skeptical, questioning student he once was. “I have had,” he says cryptically, “the illusion of a career.”

David Rasche is a tall, cool drink of…milk. He is handsome and wholesome, blonde and blue-eyed, tall and tan; and today he has dressed the part of the preacher’s son in tan slacks and a white oxford shirt with blue stripes. In the garden of a Santa Monica restaurant, he starts our conversation by asking me about my life—as though he’s the one conducting the interview. When I turn on my recorder and start asking questions, he nearly protests. This is not the kind of modesty you expect from an actor with a resume like Rasche’s. He looks like an anchorman, but prefers to play the goofy garbage man. One is a leading man; the other is a character actor. Rasche has done both and everything in between.

His star turn was not exactly preordained. If anything, the stars seemed to be saying that he should be ordained. A native of Belleville, Illinois, Rasche was born in 1944 into a family of nearly fifty ministers. Not only his father but also his father’s father. His uncles. His maternal great-grandfather. His maternal grand-uncles. Their children. His grandmother’s sister’s husband. With that pedigree, it’s no wonder it took him a while to find stage right.

Like the ministry, Elmhurst College was in the family. “My grandfather went there,” says Rasche. “My grandmothers had brothers who went there. My father went there; his brothers went there. My mother went there; her sister went there. My sisters went there. My brothers-in-law went there.” His voice rises in disbelief, as if he were hearing this litany for the first time. To Rasche, Elmhurst was as familiar as home. He enrolled with mixed feelings, because he wanted to get away from home.

A veteran of high school theater productions, Rasche continued to appear on stage at the College. Robert Swords, his faculty adviser, remembers him as something of a standout. “Somehow I think I knew in the back of my head that he would end up in the theater,” says Swords, a professor emeritus of English. “Everything he did, he did with great intensity. In my English class he had a presence. He made a character for himself.”

After a year of study in Germany and graduation, Rasche found himself still searching for a role in life. At Swords’ suggestion, he entered graduate school, then taught English for a few years at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Unhappy, he moved to Chicago and enrolled in divinity school. He dropped out during his second year and spent another year punching in for weekend night-clerk shifts at a hospital. “I just had absolutely no direction—none,” he recalls. “Nothing appealed to me. It was just sort of day to day.”

Four years out of college, an obsession that had begun at Elmhurst provided Rasche with a new and lasting focus. The obsession was with The Midnight Special, a folk music show airing on Saturday nights on WFMT-FM, Chicago’s classical music station. Between folk songs, the show was heavy on satire. Its host was Mike Nichols, who with Elaine May was among the founders of Second City, the improvisational troupe that would become famous for creating the form of sketch comedy that would be popularized nationally on Saturday Night Live. The NBC show still plucks noteworthy talent from the Chicago troupe.

Rasche worshipped Nichols and May. When he was 26 and still very much adrift, he found out that he could go to Second City and take workshops with the pair. “I thought, ‘My God, is that true? That can’t be possible. Mike Nichols and Elaine May?’ They were just absolute gods to me.” Despite his student days on the stage, Rasche was too afraid to take a workshop by himself. So he made a friend take the course with him, and paid the friend’s fee.

He got over his stage fright quickly. “The minute I walked in and saw the dark club with little tables and the chairs and the stage and the piano and smelled the stale beer and cigarettes, I just knew that this was all I ever wanted to do,” he says. In time, the Second City troupe offered Rasche a vacancy left by John Belushi. He stepped into it, and loved every minute of it.

Rasche spent two years at Second City, then helped start Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. Soon, however, he felt adrift again. A friend suggested he move to New York. “I thought, ‘I can’t go to New York; that’s for famous actors.’” But the friend pushed him, and a week later, “there I was at Grand Central Station with my suitcase.”

“I knew one person. Fortunately, he was home. I don’t know what I would have done if he wasn’t, I swear to you. He said I could sleep on his couch. I stayed with him for six months, and with his wife. They soon separated. I hope it wasn’t because of me.”

Rasche jumped into acting classes, performed in plays, joined a theater company, and landed his first TV appearance. “It was the part of a drug dealer. I went into the audition thinking, ‘I couldn’t possibly get this. I’m David Rasche from Belleville! My father’s a minister! They’ll never hire me for this!’ But I got the damn job. I guess they were casting against type.”

His time in New York embraced all the extremes of the actor’s life: nights spent in a bed with cockroaches or on a floor in Little Italy; days spent on theater stages, in television studios, and finally on his first movie set (for an uncredited appearance in the Jill Clayburgh vehicle An Unmarried Woman). Rasche acquired an agent, and the parts kept coming his way. He did guest spots for several years on the soap opera Ryan’s Hope. In 1977, he co-starred in The Shadow Box, a Broadway play that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. That led to more roles on Broadway, and to a small part in Manhattan (1979), one of Woody Allen’s best films.

The celebrated critic Pauline Kael called Rasche “a smart performer” in movies. In 1984, he landed a notable role as a coked-out Russian spy in the film Best Defense. The role showcased the actor’s ability to swing effortlessly between unhinged and angelic. His character is after technology in the possession of an engineer, played by Dudley Moore. In one scene, Rasche bobs his head from side to side while he bebops to an internal jazz tune; in the next, he grabs Moore’s collar and screams, “Don’t f--- with me!” When Moore accuses him of being a KGB spy, Rasche’s eyes bug open. “I’m a Rotarian!” he protests.

Two years later, Rasche landed the lead in Sledge Hammer!, a half-hour sitcom on ABC. The show’s creator, Alan Spencer, saw Rasche in Best Defense and offered him the lead; Rasche never even auditioned. Sledge Hammer! was a Dirty Harry parody. Rasche played Detective Inspector Sledge Hammer. According to the TV historians Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, “Sledge was the ultimate tough cop: square-jawed and totally self-confident, with no mercy for the wimps and scum who infested his fair city. That included jaywalkers and litterbugs, who deserved to be shot like all the rest.” Sledge favored reflecting sunglasses and liked to talk to his gun, a .44 Magnum named Gun. Rasche’s ability to be serious in absurd situations meant the show somehow never overshot itself. In one episode, Sledge solves a series of murders of Elvis impersonators by learning to do an Elvis impersonation himself. It looks more like calisthenics combined with a bad case of Tourette’s syndrome than like an act that would make the ladies swoon. In another episode, Sledge forces a miscreant, at gunpoint, to punch himself silly.

Sledge Hammer! premiered on September 23, 1986, and lasted two seasons. It hopped around the ABC evening schedule—from Tuesday to Friday to Thursday to Saturday—and had to dredge to find an audience against tough competition (at various times it ran against Dallas, Miami Vice, and The Cosby Show). But it has become a cult classic, inspiring eBay auctions and gaining fans around the world. A DVD of the series came out over the summer. Rasche still is widely recognized as Sledge. “People from every continent stop me,” he says. “The guy parking my car, the lady at the 7-11.” Once, at a gas station in Vermont, a woman with an Eastern European accent asked him if he were, in fact, Sledge. She remembered watching him in her basement in Sarajevo while the city was being bombed.

Rasche’s comedic bent continues to serve him well. In the movie The Big Tease (1999), he took on the role of Stig Ludwiggsen, a hairstyling champion with an ego as big as his hair. In That Old Feeling (1997), he played Alan, the New Age-y, psychobabbling husband of Bette Midler. Rasche’s portrayal of a famous marital authority facing the possible breakup of his marriage pogos effortlessly between Zen detachment and unbridled breakdown. When he finds out that Midler has run off with her former husband, he sobs in a corner, noting that she took her purse, which contains his meds. When Midler comes back, he says to her earnestly, “I want you to tell me absolutely everything I’ve done wrong that led you to do this. Do you think my head is too big for my body?”

But Rasche is good for much more than just laughs. Callie Khouri directed him in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. He had a small, powerful role as an abusive husband and an overly (perhaps inappropriately) affectionate father. “I can’t tell you how many people I read for that part, but it was a lot,” says Khouri. “It was so important to have a person who was handsome and charming and formidable—and who then could turn around and scare the daylights out of you. David is best known as a comic actor, but his acting chops are superb.” Khouri recalls shooting a scene in a bedroom in which Rasche threatens his frightened wife in front of his daughter. “One of the other actresses, between takes, came over and said, ‘I know this is what you want, but David is just scaring the hell out of me.’”

Rasche’s face is familiar in Los Angeles and always gets him a good seat in a restaurant. Still, he seems to have few illusions about his show-biz success. Mostly, he’s grateful that his acting has consistently paid the bills. “I’ve been very lucky,” he says. He has been married to the actress Heather Lupton for nearly twenty-five years. They met after Lupton saw Rasche perform on stage. (She had a small role on Sledge Hammer! as the former Mrs. Hammer.) The couple has three children, and divide their time between California and New York, where Rasche continues to work in the theater.

Since his Second City days, Rasche has been friends with the playwright David Mamet. He has performed in eight Mamet plays, including Speed-the-Plow and Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Ben Brantley, the New York Times theater critic, says Rasche “has shone as a Mamet interpreter.” Brantley called the actor’s lead performance in the 1996 play Edmond “a wonder.”

For all his achievements, Rasche admits that he still finds the acting life to be a psychological drain. At times, when the inevitable rejections pile up, the neuroses form a Greek chorus: “Why didn’t I get the job? Is it some basic flaw that I have? Is it fate? It gets to the point where you think you don’t exist if you’re not in the newspaper.” At other times, he’s actually in the newspaper and that only makes him feel worse. In San Francisco last spring, for example, Rasche starred in Dr. Faustus, David Mamet’s first play in five years. The reviews were bloody.

Through the many highs and the occasional lows of Rasche’s long and improbable career, the major constant has been the love for acting that he first felt when he walked into Second City decades ago. Rasche gets animated when he talks about it.

“For me, the most fun you can have is to walk into a room with a script that you can’t figure out,” he says. “A bunch of wonderful actors and a director and the playwright are there. You start off and you don’t know what you’re doing—you’re stumbling around thinking, ‘I should never have been an actor.’ And everybody’s feeling the same; we’re all beating our heads. Then somebody says, ‘Well, I could sit like this.’ And somebody else says, ‘If you sit like that, then I can sit like this.’ Then all of a sudden you’ve created something. There is nothing more fun than starting off with nothing, with a void, with total confusion—and then finding something in it. I really love that.”

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