WHEN "The Larry Sanders Show" went off the air, many of its
fans mourned above all the departure of Hank Kingsley,
Larry's on-camera sidekick. In the hands of the
burgundy-voiced actor Jeffrey Tambor, whose stentorian "Hey
now!" became a touchstone for Sanders watchers, Hank was a
cluster of contradictions: a veteran performer with a
staggering na´vetÚ, a generous narcissist, a sincere phony.
"I tried to make him heartfelt and petty," Mr. Tambor said
on the phone from Los Angeles, where he was shooting his
new ABC series, "That Was Then." "We're all characters full
of contradictions. I was never critical of Hank. You have
to fall in love with any character you play, but I had no
trouble falling in love with him. Even in repose I found
him very funny."
Mr. Tambor's inspiration for Hank's public persona, not
surprisingly, was Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson's celebrated
co-host. "Ed was right there for Mr. Carson," Mr. Tambor
said, "and, watching the operation, I got the character -
that side of Hank, which was totally professional and
totally there for Larry. On the other hand, in his life, in
his social skills, he's an amateur. He's a walking pro-am
character; my intuition told me to explore that. Coming to
work was very, very important to Hank. I always imagined
his house in Malibu with absolutely barren shelves, not a
book in sight."
Mr. Tambor remembers the six seasons of "The Larry Sanders
Show" as "a huge learning experience and a great time in my
life." He said he had learned about "acting in the moment"
from Garry Shandling, who was a creator of the show and
played the title role. "In retrospect," Mr. Tambor said, "I
see that he had a great respect for acting; he was very
careful with the casting."
Mr. Tambor could shift tones on a dime, exposing Hank's
desperate need for recognition by transforming a qualm into
a plea and a plea into a full-blown tantrum, or suddenly
darkening the character by suggesting the possibility of
megalomania beneath the sad-sack exterior. But the key to
Hank, according to Mr. Tambor, was his childishness. He
recalled fondly the episode in which Hank, invited to a
poker party because someone had dropped out, cried in
gratitude. "That was the warp and woof of the character."
September 29, 2002