In the 2001 stage hit “The Producers,” Nathan Lane made his entrance singing Mel Brooks’ satirical tune “The King of Broadway.” But a song intended as on stage irony, turned out to be real-life truth: For the past two decades, when it comes to an American musical comedy performer, Lane is closer to royalty than almost anyone else on Broadway.
Born and raised in New Jersey as Joseph Lane, the would-be actor switched his first name after going to New York and finding another Joseph Lane registered with Actors Equity — he chose “Nathan” after the character Nathan Detroit in the 1950s musical “Guys and Dolls.”
That name change turned out to be a prophetic move because, after a decade of mostly false starts, Lane’s breakthrough starring role on Broadway came in 1992 playing Nathan Detroit in a revival of “Guys and Dolls.” The production showcased Lane’s musical comedy strengths — a wisecracking persona wedded to a strong voice, with impeccable comic timing and manic energy supporting his talents.
It was the first in a series of stage roles that established him as a Broadway star. He won his first Tony in 1995 for a revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” and has had prominent roles in comedies from playwrights Neil Simon, David Mamet and Terrence McNally. He is currently starring in “The Addams Family.”
Lane’s successes on the stage haven’t been matched by his work in Hollywood, though not for a lack of trying. As of mid-2010, he’s made more than 150 appearances on television, but his most noteworthy showings have generally been on unscripted talk shows, where his wry wit and snappy one-liners invariably go over big with hosts and audiences. Lane admits to frustration: “I don't know what goes on in their heads out in Hollywood.”
He had fared with equal unevenness in more than 50 movies, the two major exceptions coming in the mid-1990s. His biggest cinematic hits were as the voice of Timon, the irresponsible meerkat in Disney’s 1994 animated blockbuster, “The Lion King,” and starring with Robin Williams in “The Birdcage,” a 1996 remake of “La Cage Aux Folles.” Ironically, the 2005 filmed version of his biggest Broadway success, a cinematic translation of the stage version of “The Producers,” bombed.
Compounding that irony is that Lane’s most famous stage role, in the 2001 musical stage version of “The Producers,” itself originated in Brooks’ original 1968 cult film of “The Producers.” What didn’t translate to film for Lane was a triumph on Broadway. Lane rampaged across the stage, playing theater producer Max Bialystock, who turns his manic energies to partnering with a nerdy accountant — a perfect pairing with Matthew Broderick — to try to stage the world’s worst play. Lane won a second Tony for the performance.
Lane clearly prefers theater work: “I fell in love with the whole ritual — the lights going down, the curtain going up, telling a story to a large group of people in the dark. You're in control on stage.”