A few years ago, Dana Carvey seemed to be everywhere — playing the Church Lady and the Grumpy Old Man on Saturday Night Live, and doing his trademark impressions of people like Regis Philbin, Ross Perot and the elder George Bush.
Then, suddenly, he disappeared, as if he packed up his odd case of characters and simply vanished from the screen.
Carvey, who is now 47, had a heart problem, but one his doctor said could be fixed by routine surgery. He underwent the operation, but a few months later found out that it was anything but routine.
First Impression Was of a Beatle
Carvey grew up in a suburb south of San Francisco, with three brothers and a sister. He spent hours entertaining his family with his uncanny impressions.
He says the first impression he ever did was of Paul McCartney, after seeing one of the Beatles' historic appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, when he was 9. When he used McCartney's Liverpudlian accent to ask his mother for pancakes the next morning, she screamed with laughter and dropped her spatula.
Carvey eventually took his act to local comedy clubs in the Bay Area area and later moved to Los Angeles, where he did comedy and had occasional roles in movies and TV series. Then, in 1986, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels saw a show Carvey did at a club in West L.A. and hired him the next day.
The show wanted Carvey to headline its new season and help boost ratings — a daunting challenge. "The pressure was just ridiculous," Carvey remembers.
But one of the characters he came up with for the first night, the Church Lady, was a huge hit with the audience, and would go on to become a Saturday Night Live classic.
With the rest of the writers and crew, Carvey went on to develop sketches like the bodybuilding duo Hans and Franz — Carvey was Hans, Kevin Nealon was Franz, and their tag line was "We're going to pump you up" — and the hapless rockers in "Wayne's World," where he played the sidekick Garth to Mike Myers' Wayne Campbell.
Carvey also came up with his unforgettable impressions of political figures like the elder George Bush and Ross Perot, and entertainers like Johnny Carson and George Burns. "I just abstract them. I take it really far," he says of his impressions.
Bush loved Carvey's impression of him, roaring with laughter when Carvey deconstructed the impression at a White House Christmas party. Carvey told the audience the secret to a good George Bush impression was to start with a little bit of Mr. Rogers, then add some John Wayne, and the president was in stitches.
Carvey's greatest commercial success came with the Wayne's World movie in 1992, which made $170 million at the box office and led to a lucrative sequel.
Then, while he was out jogging one day in the spring of 1997, he began to feel chest pains. Doctors told him that although he was physically fit, he probably had a blocked artery. Carvey had a history of heart disease and high cholesterol in his family, and lived the stressful life of a comedian.
"I was sweating an adrenal for 20 years with cholesterol of 450," he says. "That's like a match to gasoline. So it was a matter of time, which I didn't realize."