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."
Carvey underwent a routine angioplasty to open the artery, but scar tissue kept forming and reblocking it. His doctor in Los Angeles, P.K. Shah, chief of cardiology at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, recommended bypass surgery to channel the blood away from the blocked arteries to ones that were functioning normally.
Carvey decided to have the operation near San Francisco, closer to his family. Even as he was being wheeled into the operating room, he was cracking the hospital staff up with an impression of a hypochondriac Woody Allen. "They were just dying," he recalls.
After the operation, Carvey began to recover, and felt fine until he went out hiking near Lake Tahoe and felt the same burning sensation as before. When he got a check-up, doctors told him there seemed to be a problem with the way his blood was flowing. Carvey says that an angiogram, an X-ray of his blood vessels, revealed that the surgeon in San Francisco had bypassed the wrong artery. Carvey's stunned reaction was, "Come again? Excuse me?"
Carvey learned that he had been a time bomb for months, and could have had a fatal heart attack at any time. Shah immediately performed an emergency angioplasty to open the artery that was still narrowed.
While recovering, Carvey waited for an apology from the San Franscisco surgeon, but says it never came. He sued the surgeon for $7.5 million. Carvey says he had no other recourse, because the surgeon had insisted in a deposition that he did not make a mistake.
During the trial, the doctor's lawyers argued that he "could have been misled by the unusual anatomy of Mr. Carvey's heart."
But Shah told the court there was nothing unusual about Carvey's heart, backing up his contention with films of Carvey's heart in action, and a blow-by-blow description of the botched surgery and its effects. The surgeon's insurance company settled with Carvey for an undisclosed amount but never admitted liability. Carvey donated all of the money to charity.
ABCNEWS contacted the surgeon, who disputes Carvey's claims and maintains his surgery was perfect.
Back on the Screen
Today, Carvey has a clean bill of health, and is returning to the big screen with a new movie, The Master of Disguise, and to television with a string of appearances. Last week, on The Tonight Show, he showed off his good health by doing push-ups for Jay Leno. Comedy Central is running compilations of Carvey's best Saturday Night Live skits.
In The Master of Disguise, he plays Pistachio Disguisey, a sweet-natured Italian waiter who discovers he has an amazing knack for mimicry. When he hears a family enemy is out to steal the world's most precious treasures, he uses his secret powers to stop the criminal mastermind and save his father from danger.
Carvey plays no fewer than 36 different characters in the film. For the man of a thousand faces, the roles seem fitting.