To be or not to be famous in America? That is the question for Steve Coogan.
In his native land, the British funnyman is as revered as Jerry Seinfeld was in his TV heyday.
His status is mostly the result of his monstrous comic invention, the small-of-brain, massive-of-ego talk-show host Alan Partridge, whose incompetence is outdone only by his insensitive gaffes. "My worst nightmare of what I might be" is how the actor refers to him. Born as a mock radio broadcaster in 1992, his unctuous creation went on to spawn two TV series, "Knowing Me, Knowing You … With Alan Partridge" (1994) and "I'm Alan Partridge" (1997, 2002), plus videos and specials.
Over here, however, Coogan is best known, if known at all, as the tiny Roman emperor who feuds with Owen Wilson's cowpoke in 2006's "Night at the Museum," which starred Ben Stiller. "Years ago, I was a toy soldier come to life in 'The Indian in the Cupboard,'" Coogan recalls. "Yes, I only play small people."
Not anymore. His stateside profile is on the rise thanks to two R-rated comedies. In "Tropic Thunder," Coogan, 42, makes a brief yet colorful appearance as Damien, a frantic director of an out-of-control war epic.
Stiller, who directed and stars in "Thunder," insisted that he take the part. "Ben and I are pretty good buddies, along with Owen," says Coogan, who obviously is an ace networker. "They invited me into their comedy fraternity."
Then there is "Hamlet 2," which just expanded to 1,500 screens. The object of a bidding war at this year's Sundance went to Focus Features for a hefty $10 million.
Coogan adopts an American accent as Dana Marschz, an inept actor turned self-loathing high school drama teacher in Tucson who concocts an inane musical sequel to the Bard's tragedy. A time machine and a moonwalking "Sexy Jesus" figure heavily.
That Dana occasionally dons a caftan (the better to bolster his sperm count) and roller skates like a wobbly newborn calf (it's his only mode of transportation) adds to the often bizarre antics that recall "Waiting for Guffman" and "Rushmore."
"It charmed me," Coogan says of the script by director Andrew Fleming ('Dick') and Pam Brady (TV's 'South Park'). "I loved it that Dana was not a smart-ass, cynical guy. He's an innocent, and you want to root for him."
True, but there is a discomfort factor in watching someone so pathetic and oblivious, akin to the loutish Larry David on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." That's in addition to the blows struck against all manner of good taste and discretion. When he first read "Hamlet 2," Coogan says, "I was appalled. I worried about what my mother would think. At the same time, it made me laugh."
He did get a kick out of his castmates who play the students, even if most had no clue who he was. "One of the kids said, 'Where are you from?' I said, 'England.' He said, 'Do they speak English there?' I said, 'Guess what? They do.' "
There is a loyal legion of influential fans (Tom Cruise is a recent Coogan convert) who believe that this lanky fellow who recalls both Eric Idle (those eyes) and Tiny Tim (that nose) deserves to be just as big in this country.
"He is overdue," says Simon Pegg ('Shaun of the Dead,' 'Hot Fuzz'), a fellow Brit who toured with Coogan for a year. "He is an absolute master at playing buffoons. He's even better than Ricky Gervais at being a slightly objectionable character. There's something of the ass in him, and he freely admits that."
It was his talent to revel in his character's inadequacies that encouraged Fleming and Brady to go after Coogan for "Hamlet 2." "He is very comfortable playing the comedy of failure," Brady says. "It's a British thing. He's not afraid of looking stupid. He has the ability to expose the suffering of a character. A lesser actor would just go for the laughs."
A lesser actor also wouldn't have saved the filmmakers the cost of a narrator with his dead-on Jeremy Irons impression.
A popular tabloid target back home, Coogan seems to have outgrown his penchant for randy roustabouts and drug-fueled misbehavior, much of which he has admitted to and has cost him a marriage. When questioned after being caught cavorting with lap dancers in a hotel room in 2002, he maintained his sense of humor as he responded, "I was under the impression that they were Latvian refugees who needed shelter for the night."
Those days appear to be over. As Fleming notes: "He was the one of the most professional people I've ever worked with. He was there very early every day."
Instead of capitalizing on his current double bill, Coogan is revisiting his past this fall with his first comedy tour in 10 years, playing 100 dates across England. The title? Steve Coogan Presents Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters.
Maybe it is wise to play a little hard to get with the American public. After all, he says, "if you chase something too desperately, it eludes you."