ROB SCHNEIDER DOES A PRETTY good pigeon imitation—just ask Kelsey Grammer, who worked with him in the new comedy Down Periscope. While shooting the film in an abandoned East Oakland, Calif., paint factory last May, the cast had to contend with a variety of ambient noises that intruded on the actors' concentration. "Kelsey was able to deal with trains, he was able to deal with motorcycles," says Schneider. "But the pigeons drove him crazy." He pauses and, a crooked grin sliding across his face, brings up a low coo from the back of his throat.
At 31, Schneider is forging a career as an incurable irritant. This is, remember, the man who created that maddening "makin' copies" guy, Richard Laymer (Rich...Rich man...the Richmeister!), on Saturday Night Live. His big-screen breakthrough came as the tip-grubbing hotel bellman in 1992's Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and last summer he livened up the otherwise dreadful Judge Dredd, playing a weaselly computer hacker who plagued Sylvester Stallone. Now Schneider is, as he describes it, the "nakedly ambitious" foil to Grammer's laid-back sub commander in Periscope. "My specialty," he says, "is flawed characters."
That and dealing with major-movie-star egos. A scene in Dredd called for him and Stallone to run in front of a jet of fire. "They put flame-retardant gel on Sly's back and hair," he says, "and not much on me. When I asked why, Stallone said, 'I'm more flammable than you.' " Eventually, Schneider learned to speak up. In a later scene, the two actors smashed through a breakaway wall as plaster and wood chips flew all over them. When the director said, "Cut," somebody yelled, "A bucket of water for Mr. Stallone!" After a pause, Schneider added, "and a bucket of crap for Mr. Schneider." The crew, he says, "took care of me after that."
Schneider developed his offbeat humor in the San Francisco suburb of Pacifica, where he grew up the youngest of five children. His mother, Pilar, 67, is a former kindergarten teacher who now presides over the town's school board; his father, Marvin, 64, is a real estate broker. "Rob was always the clown," says his brother John, 33. Schneider says his father provided the comic inspiration. "My mom's Filipino. Her family had better food and worse jokes," he says. "My dad's Jewish. They had worse food and better jokes."
After graduating from Pacifica's Terra Nova High in 1982, Schneider tried college but quit, he says, "because nothing could teach me how to write jokes except getting out there" onstage. He honed his act at San Francisco comedy clubs, getting his first break with an appearance in 1987 on Late Night with David Letterman. But his dream to go beyond standup stalled when he moved to L.A. "Even my parents started to think I was a loser," he says. In 1988 Schneider met and soon married London King, 28, a former model; they divorced in 1990, by which time they had a daughter, now 6, whom Schneider says he sees "frequently," though she lives with her mother in the Midwest.
SNL producer Lorne Michaels spotted Schneider on an HBO special in 1990 and signed him as a writer, then as a cast member in 1992. "He understood how to make things funny," says SNL head writer James Downey. "He didn't worry about looking cool." Schneider left SNL in 1994 because, he says, "it was time to graduate."
For him, that meant turning his attention to movies. A small part in Stallone's Demolition Man led to Dredd. "Stallone got over $10 million, and I was offered about .03 percent of that," he says with mock petulance. "Not that I'm complaining." Nor is he complaining about Down Periscope. "I was insulted that they wanted me to play the jerk," he says. "But then I read the script again and found myself relating to the guy."
Between assignments, Schneider cozies up by himself in a two-bedroom apartment he owns on San Francisco's Nob Hill. He is part-owner, with his brother John, of a local club, the DNA Lounge—and claims he doesn't have much time for romance. His last relationship, with former NBC press representative Jill Baron, ended last year because of conflicting schedules, he says. "We didn't even have time to break up."
That may not change anytime soon. Schneider was just in the Czech Republic filming Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio, a live-action version of the story, slated for summer release. Now back in the States, Schneider has had some time to relax, occasionally crashing at his parents' home. But even then, he doesn't have a chance to rest for long: "At first my family says, 'Oh, it's great to have Rob here.' " But, he admits, the famously annoying guy can annoy even them. "Pretty soon they say, 'Uh, Rob—we need the couch.' "
KAREN BRAILSFORD in Los Angeles and MICHAEL SMALL in San Francisco
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