Character opposites, the poles of behavior a character switches back-and-forth from, are essential to a natural portrayal. Because that's how we act in real life. Consider . .

by Steve Vineberg

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

© 2002 The New York Times Company

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