Stage, screen, and television funnyman Nathan Lane (b. Jersey City, NJ, February 3, 1956) is best known for his film role as Albert in The Birdcage (1996), and his Broadway performances as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls (1992), Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1996), and Max Bialystock in The Producers (Broadway 2001, film 2005). His mantlepiece boasts two Tonys® and five Drama Desk Awards for Best Actor, two Emmys® (Timon and Pumbaa 1995, Teacher’s Pet 2000), a Golden Globe® (The Producers 2006), and a Screen Actors Guild Award (The Birdcage 1996). He has been nominated for similar awards numerous times, won several of lesser cachet (an Obie for Love! Valour! Compassion! 1995), and has been inducted into the American Theatre Hall Of Fame.
Lane has described his childhood as “bad Eugene O’Neill.” The third son in an Irish Catholic family, he was christened Joseph, after his uncle, a Jesuit priest. His father was a truck driver who drank himself to death when little Joe was eleven; his mother was manic-depressive. He went to parochial schools in Jersey City and attended a Jesuit high school where he devoted himself to drama activities and was voted Best Actor in the class of 1974.
His big brother Dan, a substitute father for Joe, helped him escape the home life by taking him often to the theatre in New York. When Joe won a drama scholarship to St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia, Dan drove him down – and drove him back to Jersey City the same day, when they discovered that the scholarship did not cover living expenses. Joe said to his brother, “College is for people who don’t know what they want to do.” He moved to New York, worked at telemarketing and singing telegrams, and began the long struggle to break into show business. When he registered with Actors Equity, a Joe Lane was already listed, so he changed his name to Nathan, invoking the character of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls.
After some success in stand-up comedy and work in off-Broadway theatres like Second Stage, the Roundabout, and the Manhattan Theatre Club, Nathan Lane made his Broadway debut in a 1982 revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter with George C. Scott, for which he earned a Drama Desk nomination. He appeared on Broadway again in a box-office flop, Merlin (1983), at Lincoln Center in Some Americans Abroad, and in the national tour of Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound. In 1986 he won the St. Clair Bayfield Award for Shakespearean Performance for his part in Measure For Measure in Central Park, and in 1990 snagged a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor and the Lucille Lortel Award for The Lisbon Traviata. At last in 1992 he starred in his dream role, Nathan in Guys and Dolls with Faith Prince, winning another Drama Desk Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, and a nomination for a Tony®. The same year he was given an Obie Award “for Sustained Excellence of Performance.”
In 1993 Lane played Max Prince (read “Sid Caesar”) for 320 performances in Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor (a version for television was produced in 2001). In 1996, he starred in the smash-hit revival of Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, winning a triple crown of awards (Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle). But his performance as Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’s The Producers (2001) outdid and out-won anything Nathan Lane had done before. The show ran for six years. In 2004 Lane was called to London’s West End (instead of taking a vacation in the Hamptons) at the last minute to replace Richard Dreyfuss in the role, and won the Olivier Award as Best Actor in a Musical. He also appeared in the film version (2005) and got a Golden Globe® nomination for his performance.
Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane’s co-star in The Producers, joined him again in 2005 for a limited but very popular revival of The Odd Couple. (Broderick and Lane were honored with adjacent stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame soon after.) In 2006, Lane appeared in an uncharacteristically serious dramatic role in Butley. More recently he starred in David Mamet’s November, and appeared as Estragon in Waiting For Godot on Broadway with Bill Irwin. From March 2010 to March 2011, Nathan Lane starred as Gomez, with Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia, in the new musical based on The Addams Family (earning Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations), and in the spring of 2013, he returned to Broadway for a limited run in The Nance, a new play by Douglas Carter Beane. In 2008, he was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.
Besides off-Broadway productions too numerous to mention, Nathan Lane has been seen in twenty-five films, including Addams Family Values (1993), The Birdcage (1996), and Swing Vote (2008), and has lent his voice to several animations, as Timon in The Lion King (1994) and its sequels, Ernie Smuntz in Mousehunt (1997), Snowbell in Stuart Little (1999), and Hammegg in Astro Boy (2009). On television he has hosted Saturday Night Live and the Tony Awards®, starred in The Boys Next Door (1996) and Laughter on the 23rd Floor, and made guest appearanceson Mad About You and Frasier (both performances nominated for Emmy Awards®), Sex and the City, Miami Vice, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Absolutely Fabulous, and 30 Rock.
Nathan Lane has received many recognitions for his visibility and activism as a gay man, among them the 2002 GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Vito Russo Award, the 2007 Trevor Project Hero Award, and the 2007 Human Rights Campaign Equality Award. He has been a board member and tireless fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
When Lane was twenty-one, he decided to tell his mother he was gay. Shocked, she responded, “I’d rather you were dead.”
Lane didn’t miss a beat: “I knew you’d understand.”