Ally McBeal's ally talks bagpipes, yodeling and other quirks
by T. Johnson, TV Guide, June 13, 1998
|The lights are dimmed on the courtroom set of Ally McBeal, the soundstage virtually empty of cast and crew.
Peter MacNicol has shown up early, and in this darkened space he has a story to tell: The studio lot, where
I Love Lucy and My Three Sons were once filmed, is haunted. A studio manager has confirmed strange
happenings on these stages, like the time a worker on another show walked through a doorway but felt as
if he had just gone through a ring of fire.
And just whose spirit is lurking in this place? "William Frawley," says MacNicol, invoking the name of the
character actor who costarred in both sitcoms, first as Fred Mertz on Lucy, then as Bub on Sons.
Such supporting players live on in the mind of MacNicol, whose varied career is marked by a host of character
roles in such diverse fare as "Sophie's Choice," the 1982 movie with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, and
Chicago Hope. With Ally McBeal, MacNicol has found a part perfectly suited to his taste for eccentrics. As John
Cage, a.k.a. the Biscuit, MacNicol plays the bagpipes, dances to the music of Barry White and succumbs to
frequent scene-stopping "moments": extended periods Cage takes to silently consider an unusual new legal
strategy, even if it interrupts a trial.
"Growing up, I lived for old movies, and my identification was never with the lead," MacNicol says. "I was
always smitten with character actors. When I was in high school plays, I was the one reaching for the silver
hair spray. Now I've kind of caught up with my dream."
McBeal creator/executive producer David E. Kelley originally conceived of Cage as a "very materialistic,
jet-setting, vain and morally lax individual," MacNicol says, and planned for him simply to be a guest or
recurring character. That changed once MacNicol took the part. While shooting the first episode, the actor
injected some quirks into Cage. A courtroom scene called for Cage to pour a glass of water. "I said, 'I am not
going to simply pour a glass of water,'" MacNicol recalls. "I am going to pour the longest glass of water in
televison history, for the sheer shock value of it." The scene stayed. "Like no other character in a David E.
Kelley show, Peter is indulged in that sense," says Jonathan Pontell, supervising producer. "And he brings it
MacNicol may not be as eccentric as Cage, but the actor does have his oddities. His method of rehearsing?
He listens to yodeling tapes. And then there are the bagpipes. Yes, he does play them in real life; the idea
came from a Three Stooges movie he once saw in which Curly opens a door and sees a ghost playing the
"He is such an inventive guy, so idiosyncratic in what he does," says Greg Germann, who plays Cage's
partner, Richard Fish, and who worked with him at the New York Shakespeare festival in their pre-McBeal
days. "And we just crack each other up. He's just an oddly funny man." Says Adam Arkin, one of his close
friends from Chicago Hope, also produced by Kelley: "The boy in him is very much still alive."
MacNicol, 40, is the youngest in a family of three brothers and two sisters. His early dreams were to be a
paleontologist, and he still collects archaeological artifacts. His father, John, a corporate executive who made
his own jump later in life to become an Episcopal priest, often would take him on expeditions to the Texas
countryside to collect fossils. (John and Barbara, MacNicol's mother, a homemaker, still live in Dallas.) The
intense math course work, however, convinced him to pursue acting instead of paleontology; he took
theater arts courses at the University of Dallas and later the University of Minnesota. He got a job at the
Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, performing for two seasons in a host of plays that included "Romeo and
Juliet" and "Hamlet."
Despite MacNicol's launch into the classics, his career has always been on a unique trajectory. In college, he
spent one quarter studying in Italy and briefly considered giving up his acting ambitions to become a
Franciscan monk (while other students toured Rome, he went to Assisi, St. Francis's hometown). In 1981, he
had just played the lead in the feature "Dragonslayer" and won raves for the Off-Broadway run of "Crimes of
the Heart" when he left New York and headed to northern Minnesota, where his aunt and uncle had a home.
"I was very uncertain [acting] was where my life should go," he says. His sabbatical lasted only seven
months, broken when "Crimes" went to Broadway. "I've always had a funny attitude about acting," he says.
"I leave for stretches at a time. There is a bit of a firefly aspect to me. I turn off, and I turn on."
He didn't even bask in the glow of much of the attention that surrounded "Sophie's Choice." His was a
breakthrough role playing the young witness to Sophie's tragedy, but by the time the movie was released,
he was in Alaska touring "Tartuffe." "I suppose it was wanderlust," he says. He performed on the stage for
the next four years and in 1986 married Marsue Cumming, who runs a not-for-profit foundation that helps
inner-city kids in Los Angeles.
Although the flow of acting work continued with plays and TV movies, he again took "a moment" by enrolling
in an intensive course in filmmaking at New York University. But when money ran out, he went back to
acting. What he landed was "Ghostbusters II," "HouseSitter" and "Addams Family Values," as well as the
short-lived 1992-93 sitcom The Powers That Be. After performing in 1993 in "Black Comedy" on Broadway,
MacNicol was offered the role of lawyer Alan Birch on Chicago Hope. The part was quickly expanded.
But things changed once Kelley left the day-to-day writing of Hope; the courtroom scenes fell by the wayside.
Five episodes into the second season, MacNicol went to Kelley and said, "I really think it is time for me to
move on." Birch was killed off.
On the Ally McBeal set, the crew has returned to shoot a scene for the season finale in which the Biscuit
loses a case. But it's a good bet that John Cage won't meet Birch's fate in the near future, and plans are in
the works to at last show the inside of Cage's office. "We don't know him really well yet," MacNicol says
assuredly. "I don't think he's going anywhere."