I remember the exact moment I first saw Steve Carell on screen. I was eleven years old; it was the summer of 2004 and I went to go see this little comedy called Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (you may have heard of it). I knew close to nothing about it besides the fact that Will Ferrell was the star and it was supposed to be pretty funny. Before the movie was even through its first fifteen minutes, I was in love with it, with this brand of humor, with Ferrell’s delivery, with the way it pushed the envelope to the very edge of PG-13 ok’ness. I felt like I was watching an R-rated movie but the world thought it was just PG-13. It was a momentous occasion. And then those introductions happened, those beautifully placed interview-like character introductions where the four members of the Channel 4 News Team broke the fourth wall and explained to us eager audiences who they were. Steve Carell was the last of the four to introduce himself and I was actually lucky to even hear what he said because I remember dying, absolutely dying, when I saw him smacking those schlops of mayonnaise into the toaster. “Years later, a doctor will tell me that I have an IQ of 48 and am what some people call mentally retarded.” Actually, years later, he would be one of the most respected and well known actors currently working in the Hollywood sphere. And the rest, as they say, is history. Let’s rewind the clocks and discover how exactly Steve Carell came to be on the eve just before the release of his newest comedy venture, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.
Born in the late summer of 1962 in Concord, Massachusetts to Harriet and Edwin Carrel, Steven John Carell was the youngest of four children and attended the Nashoba Brooks School, The Fenn School, and Middlesex School growing up. He was an active ice hockey player and also played the fife; his love for history expanded during his college years when he majored in Historical Studies at Denison University in Ohio. It was during his time at Denison that he started to investigate his comedic talent when he joined a student run improvisational troupe called Burpee’s Seedy Theatrical Company. Following graduation, Carell sought out more performance opportunities. Early on, he acted on the stage with a touring children’s theater company and in some comedy musicals as well as a television commercial for Brown’s Chicken. In 1991, Carell worked with the renowned Chicago troupe, The Second City. Stephen Colbert was also in The Second City at the time…but as Carell’s understudy. Also in ’91, Carell won his first film role as Tesio, a very minor role, in John Hughes’ Curly Sue.
While his work in feature films wouldn’t blossom until the very early 2000s, he continued regular television work. He nabbed supporting roles on Come to Papa, as well as on Over the Top and Watching Ellie – these latter two being short lived TV vehicles for Tim Curry and Julie Louis-Dreyfus, respectively. In the spring of 1996, he was a cast member of another short-lived television program: The Dana Carvey Show, a sketch comedy show on ABC spearheaded by Saturday Night Live veteran, Dana Carvey. Though the show fizzled out pretty early on, The Dana Carvey Show has since been credited with forging Carell’s career, and it also reunited him with his The Second City friend, Stephen Colbert. The duo provided the voices for the animated short, The Ambiguously Gay Duo, which continued onto Saturday Night Live after Carvey was cancelled. Carell’s biggest accomplishment before making a splash in big screen films was working as a correspondent on The Daily Show from 1999 until 2005. He participated in regular segments including “Even Stevphen”, which again paired him with frequent collaborator, Stephen Colbert.
Between 2004 and 2005 is when Carell’s career made a mad dash. Following a supporting role in Bruce Almighty and in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, Carell played Brick Tamland in the aforementioned Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, directed by Adam McKay. The smash hit comedy made Will Ferrell a bankable and largely sought after comedy star, and it also jumpstarted Adam McKay’s career as a filmmaker, not to mention co-star Paul Rudd’s acting career as well as Carell’s, but, just as importantly, it provided flexibility for up-and-coming producer/filmmaker, Judd Apatow. After holding a producing credit on Anchorman, Apatow and Carell partnered up to co-write their game-changing R-rated comedy, The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The film took in a domestic total of $109 million, earned Carell an MTV Movie Award and a WGA nomination. The anticipated success of the film is what drove NBC to renew a newly-starting series entitled The Office, which Carell had recently signed on to star in. The short first season was directly adapted from the Ricky Gervais-starring British series of the same name but has since expanded into nine seasons. During the show’s peak, Carell & Co. made waves as far as television comedy goes. The chemistry amongst the cast and the show’s witty writing staff – which included cast members Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak – is what has allowed it to continue for so long and be worthy of numerous revisits. Yet, the show decided to continue even following Carell’s absence – Carell left the show at the end of its seventh season when his contract ran out. During Carell’s time as The Office lead, Michael Scott, Carell won a Golden Globe and received six Emmy Award nominations.
The Office’s production schedule was incredibly flexible so that Carell could weave in and out of television and film productions. In 2005, he co-starred in the critically savaged remake of Bewitched with Will Ferrell and Nicole Kidman. By this time he had been unofficially inaugurated into the unofficial Hollywood group, “The Frat Pack,” which consisted of his regular collaborators: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, and Luke Wilson. In 2006, Carell stepped into dramatic territory for the Best Picture nominated Little Miss Sunshine in which he played the gay uncle to Abigail Breslin’s Olive Hoover. Evan Almighty saw Carell headlining the sequel to Bruce Almighty and Dan in Real Life was another “dramedic” sap that welcomed mixed reviews and co-starred Oscar winner Juliette Binoche and comedian Dane Cook. The big screen adaptation of the 1960s television favorite, Get Smart, received praising reviews and made well over $200 million worldwide. Co-starring Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, and Alan Arkin, Get Smart found the perfect balance between rich humor and entertaining action. In 2007, Carell was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Carell has also dabbled in voice work with very successful results. The largely underrated animated film, Over the Hedge, contained a phenomenal voice cast of which Carell was a major part. The fantastic Horton Hears a Who! paired Carell’s voice alongside Jim Carrey’s (who plays Carell’s nemesis in this weekend’s Burt Wonderstone). Most recently, Carell lent his voice to the main character of Universal’s Despicable Me, which currently has a sequel in the works.
On the feature film front, Carell has continued to impress critics even more now than he did when he first broke out. The underwhelming Date Night earned its stripes for pairing two of television’s biggest stars together – Carell and 30 Rock’s Tina Fey – for a night of miscommunication, confused identity, and debauchery. A supporting role in the Nancy Meyers-esque Hope Springs and starring in the dark comedy, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, were well received. However, it was Crazy, Stupid, Love, the genius ensemble romantic comedy, that saw Carell managing both the dramatic and comedic hats simultaneously. Playing off co-stars Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, and Marisa Tomei, CSL is one of Carell’s best performances of all time. On the horizon, Carell has the Sundance breakout The Way, Way Back in the tube as well as Capote director Bennet Miller’s serious drama, Foxcatcher, co-starring Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum. And finally, the long-awaited sequel, Anchorman: The Legend Continues, is planning to hit theaters this coming holiday season.
Amidst all the career commotion, Carell married his wife of now seventeen years, Nancy Walls. The two met during a class that Carell was teaching for The Second City that she was attending. Walls moved onto Saturday Night Live and then The Daily Show, where she worked professionally with Carell. They have worked together several times since including The 40-Year-Old Virgin – she plays a sex therapist – and The Office, where she played Carol Stills, one of Michael Scott’s many girlfriends over the course of the show.
While this weekend’s The Incredible Burt Wonderstone throws Carell back into rambunctious comedic territory, having him beside a legend like Jim Carrey (the man who starred in one of Carell’s very first film, Bruce Almighty) as well Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, and Alan Arkin (who worked with Carell in Get Smart and Little Miss Sunshine) is a promising assemblage. As a performer, what makes Carell so charming is his confident lack of confidence. He’s good at playing shy and introspective but can also nail the rowdy and off-kilter. Evan Baxter, Frank Ginsburg, Andy Stitzer, Michael Scott, Brick Tamland, and Cal Weaver all lack the confidence to do what they want, but it’s Carell’s engaging presence that makes them so compelling and makes him so watchable, relatable, and desirable as a performer. I continue to say that he’s one of those actors that will find himself nominated for an Academy Award one day soon. While he may not win one until way down the road, if ever, he’s got the ability to be remembered as one of the most likable actors to ever grace the screen, both big and small.
Article by Mike Murphy