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LOOK BACK IN LAUGHFTER: Kevin Pollak remembers the Garrett in Campbell.

South Bay Survivor

The mean streets of Silicon Valley paved the way for Kevin Pollak's success

By Steve Palopoli

SOME PERFORMERS might romanticize their early years, but Kevin Pollak hasn't let nostalgia beautify his blighted memories of coming up in the South Bay clubs of the mid-'70s. His first paid standup gig was at the now-defunct Campbell club the Garrett, opening for the impossibly longtime local entertainment fixture Joe Sharino. "That was one of the weirdest audition scenarios," remembers Pollack. "I had to perform for him in his living room. That was not easy or enjoyable."

And yet the San Francisco–born Pollak, who grew up in San Jose and returns March 4 to the California Theatre to be honored with Cinequest's Maverick Spirit Award, would weather much much worse during his baptism by fire on the Silicon Valley circuit. At that time, rock clubs were the only real places for comedians to get a gig, sandwiched between loud bands. Audience members generally preferred to use these comedy interludes to get some chatting in with their friends before the bands they paid to see came on. "It's may be the worst setting possible for standup," says Pollak. "It was hell, but it sort of broke me in the sense that if I could survive that, imagine what it was like when I went to San Francisco at age 20, and people were actually paying to see comedy. It was a cakewalk."

He had his cakewalk, and made it, too. But by the mid-'90s, his successful standup career had been eclipsed by his acting roles. His three favorite roles have defined his film work, in Barry Levinson's 1990 film Avalon, Rob Reiner's 1992 blockbuster A Few Good Men and Bryan Singer's 1995 cult hit The Usual Suspects.

"All three of them were these monumental moments in my career," he says. And they were all of course, decidedly noncomedic roles. After Avalon, no one in Hollywood seemed to remember that he was a comedian. "The irony is that there are more dramatic scripts sent to me than comedy. Overnight, I'm not kidding, people were asking where I trained in New York. My career took a left-hand turn. I still feel like I'm going to be found out."

It got so bad that when his friend Bruce Willis suggested him for a role in The Whole Nine Yards, the director is said to have responded "But, you know, this is a comedy." At least Pollak can count on his pals to set the record straight. "Bruce grabbed him by the shoulders and said, 'He's a comedian, you idiot!'"

Clearly, that director had never seen Pollak's impressions, perhaps the most famous part of his live act. His William Shatner imitation is so sublimely dead-on that the man himself declared it the best he had ever heard in his Trek-fan book Get a Life. "In the master's eye, I am the shit," says Pollak. How to do Shatner right? "It's the cadence and the rhythm. It's a very specific rhythm. It's very easy to do, very hard to do well."

KEVIN POLLAK will be honored with Cinequest's Maverick Spirit Award on Wednesday, March 4, at 7pm at the California Theatre in San Jose. Call 408.295.FEST for tickets.

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