Life as the Unsquiggy

updated 12/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

TO THE FANS OF TVS LAVERNE & SHIRLEY who often come up to him, Michael McKean will always be...Squiggy? Wrong, he was Lenny, the taller, dumber half of the Shotz Brewery duo with the goofball repartee. "I don't care if they don't know which guy I was," he says, "as long as they don't call me Laverne."

These days, McKean, 45, might more aptly be called Noah. Me and his wife, Susan, 41, and their sons, Colin, 16, and Fletcher, 7, share their Spanish-style four-bedroom San Fernando Valley, Calif., home with a menagerie that includes four cats, three dogs, two parrots and a goose. Since Susan is a competing equestrian, they also have three horses in a stable out back. But as crowded as their household is, McKean can't bear to be away. A prolific toiler in TV and films, he was an angst-ridden yuppie in last year's HBO series Sessions, has a recurring role as obnoxious Aussie book publisher Gibby Fisk on HBO's Dream On and will play an eccentric desert rat in next spring's Mojo Flats. Bui when work is done, he always looks homeward. "He's absolutely horrible," reports Susan. "He calls and says, 'I can't sleep.' He misses his kids—and they miss him."

McKean must have been especially homesick last summer. That was when he and two old friends, fellow comics and musicians Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer, embarked on a 31-city tour through the U.S. and Canada, reprising their most ridiculous roles—as the overripe members of the fictitious British rock group Spinal Tap, who were the eponymous stars of This Is Spinal Tap, director Hob Reiner's 1984 parody of a behind-the-scenes rockumentary. Their "reunion tour is the basis of a Spinal Tap special airing on NBC this New Years Eve, during which the group will offer selections from their latest album. Break Like the Wind.

McKean, who plays gravelly-voiced lead singer David St. Hubbins. recalls the Tappers' months on the road as both wearying and exhilarating. "When you're onstage making that amount of noise, it's just undeniable power," he says. "Even if, as in our case, the power is overwhelmingly idiotic. It's like defying gravity."

McKean first earned his dramatic wings at 9, portraying Dan Cupid in an elementary school play in Sea Cliff, N.Y., where he grew up with an older sister and a younger brother. He went on to perform in dozens of plays at nearby North Shore High School. Both his father, Gilbert, a record-company executive, and his mother, Ruth, a school-library clerk, saw him as suited, by default, to the life of an actor. "He didn't have the personality or discipline to work at a desk job," says Ruth, sounding a trifle amused.

He had the talent, though, to win acceptance at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University), which has a nationally known drama department. But alter skipping too many early-morning classes (because of chronic insomnia, he says), he was asked to leave at the end of his freshman year. He moved on to New York University, where he majored in drama. He dropped out to marry Susan, then 18, whom he'd met at a playwriting conference in Connecticut and followed to L.A. There he caught up with David Lander, a Carnegie Tech classmate, who had formed an improv group called the Credibility Gap. McKean and Lander resumed developing two characters. Lenny and Anl'ny, born of their all-night bull sessions back at school. A few years later, Lenny and Anl'ny became Laverne & Shirley's Lenny and Squiggy.

There might not have been a Lenny—or any other roles, McKean believes—if not for a life-altering car crash in 1972, four years before L&S debuted. It was on that spring night thai McKean. then a self-described "real bad drinker." found himself in the (hunk tank of an L.A. lockup alter he banged up his station wagon while driving under the influence. "Jail was a revelation," he says. "I woke up and went, 'Naaah, maybe not.' " Friends, among them Harry Shearer, who bailed him out the next day, attest that McKean quit cold turkey. "Now," the actor says, "I have to find more creative ways to alienate people."

Doing the Spinal Tap special reawakened some of that creativity including his love for music. "He could have a career just doing songs if he wanted to," says Reiner. Indeed, at a Hollywood coffee shop called Highland Grounds, McKean recently tried out some new numbers, accompanying himself on piano and guitar. "Everybody seemed to dig it," he says, sounding just a little like 'Lenny—or is it Squiggy?

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
MARIE MONEYSMITH in Los Angeles

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