Nathan Lane on playing the dark side

Nathan Lane on "Penny Dreadful: City of Angels"
Nathan Lane on "Penny Dreadful: City of Angel... 07:45

It was a sign of the times when correspondent Martha Teichner met last month with actor Nathan Lane, "elbow bumping" before sitting down. "Are we far enough away?" she asked.

"I hope so!" Lane laughed.

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The Tony-winning actor best known for comedies such as "The Producers" and "The Birdcage" now stars in a noir TV murder mystery tinged with the supernatural: "Penny Dreadful: City of Angels." CBS News

A Broadway star, for once happy not to be on Broadway with all the theaters closed.

"I bet you're glad you've got a TV show right now," Teichner said.

"Oh sure, I mean, and that we finished it, that we did our entire season," he said.

The 10-part series, "Penny Dreadful: City of Angels," premieres April 26 on Showtime (part of ViacomCBS). It's a noir murder mystery tinged with the supernatural. Lane's character is a longtime police detective in 1938 Los Angeles. "He appears to be one thing, which is this sardonic, tough-talking classic sort of Raymond Chandler-esque character, and yet he's a tortured soul," he said.

"What was happening in L.A. in 1938, there are these parallels [with] the persecution of the Latino community, and in the case of Los Angeles the Nazi infiltration." (Hitler thought Los Angeles would make a great base of operations.)

Lane, at 64, is grateful for the chance to try something new. "I'm feeling like, you know, at this point the gods looked down on me and said, 'Oh, you know what? Let's let him have this."

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Nathan Lane and Daniel Zovatto in "Penny Dreadful: City of Angels." Showtime

Lane is, after all, best-known for being funny.  Wander through his career, you can't help but laugh – on Broadway in "Guys and Dolls," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," "The Producers," and in movies like "Mousehunt" and (as the voice of Timon the meerkat) "The Lion King."

He was poignant and funny as a gay man in the film "The Birdcage" with Robin Williams. It took Lane nearly three years after "Birdcage" to come out publicly.

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Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in Mike Nichols' "The Birdcage." MGM

"I came up in a different generation," he said, "and that whole feeling of making a big statement about it, I was never comfortable with. And selfishly, there was a part of me that thought, I've finally gotten to this point where I'm playing the lead, one of the leads, in a film, in a big movie, and if I say this, will that destroy all of that? Does it all go away? So, I wish, you know, I wish I had been braver. But you can only do what you can do at the time."

By then, Lane had met Devlin Elliott.  They were married in 2015. Elliott is a theatrical producer – yup, one of those guys Lane played so hilariously alongside Matthew Broderick in the 2001 Broadway mega-hit, "The Producers." "It was a hard act to follow," he said. "Because they just want you to keep doing the same thing."

"And people expect you to be funny?" asked Teichner.

"Yes, yes."

Lane was doing his comic thing in "The Addams Family" in 2010 when The New York Times published a flattering profile, calling him the greatest stage "entertainer" of the decade.

Lane said, "I read this piece, and I was like, that's interesting you know? That's how he sees me. It was enough to make me say, you know, is that all there is? I feel like I had a lot more to offer as an actor."

So, he pitched himself for the lead in Eugene O'Neill's tragedy, "The Iceman Cometh."

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Nathan Lane as "Hickey" in "The Iceman Cometh." Richard Termine

In a 2018 revival of the AIDS play, "Angels in America," Lane was lawyer-to-the powerful Roy Cohn, hated for his part in the 1950s "Red Scare."

Teichner asked, "Does someone who is known for being likeable find it difficult to leap into a role, playing somebody who is so reviled?"

"No, no, I loved that," said Lane. "I love being unlikeable! You know, that role, it's a gift!"

So, too, how he sees his roles in plays by his friend and mentor, Terrence McNally, who wrote about gay life and the AIDS plague. (Lane starred in McNally's 1995 play "Love! Valour! Compassion!")

When McNally died of coronavirus last month, Lane asked if he could add his thoughts in a follow-up interview: "It's awful that, you know, for someone – I think someone else said, you know, 'For someone who survived another plague, to have been brought down by this is just horrific.' (sigh) It's really, but it's about remembering him at this moment and his work."

As for his own work, Nathan Lane's very first Broadway show was "Present Laughter" in 1982. Its star was George C. Scott, who years later offered Lane this wisdom: "George C. Scott, I hadn't seen him in a long time, and he said, 'Do you love it? Do you still love it?' I said, 'Well, do I love what?' And he said, "Acting!' I said, 'Yes, I do!' And he said, 'Good. Don't ever lose that.'" 

Teichner asked, "Do you still love it?"

"I do," Lane replied, "with all my heart."

To watch a trailer for the series "Penny Dreadful: City of Angels" click on the video player below:

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020) Official Trailer | SHOWTIME by Penny Dreadful on SHOWTIME on YouTube

       
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Story produced by Dustin Stephens. Editor: Joe Frandino.