Voice of Homer Simpson Stars in 1-Man Play

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Byline: Ted Cox

Dan Castellaneta remembers seeing a recent list of the 100 funniest people, with Homer Simpson in the top 10.

"I think he was ahead of Richard Pryor," Castellaneta says, "but my name wasn't even mentioned - as if Homer's entirely separate."

For the record, Castellaneta not only provides the voice of Homer on "The Simpsons," but helped develop his character over the show's 12 years (and running and running). Homer isn't just an amalgamation of fantastically stupid lines ("Well, of course, everything looks bad if you remember it"), he's a product of Castellaneta's impeccable comic timing and gift for nonsense - not just Homer's trademark "D'oh," but his extensive vocabulary of whimpers, groans and hoots.

Castellaneta honed his comic craft in the mid-'80s at Second City before moving on to "The Tracey Ullman Show," a great if little-seen variety program on the fledgling Fox network, which not coincidentally is where "The Simpsons" got its start as a short subject. That's how Castellaneta got the job of doing Homer's voice. But over the past 10 years, Homer has come to dominate Castellaneta's life and career.

"It's like a double-edged sword," Castellaneta says, sitting in an office at Second City downtown. "It has opened opportunities for me, and by the same token it does limit me, certainly in L.A. circles, because they all think either, 'He's busy with that show,' or, 'He's a voice-over guy.' They don't see me."

Castellaneta steps out from behind the cartoon this weekend with his one-man show "Where Did Vincent Van Gogh?" at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights. A goofy, loopy, above all playful study in shifting identities, it grows out of Castellaneta's original love of improvisational comedy, as he developed the play at workshops a few years ago before refining the script and taking the finished product on the road during breaks from "The Simpsons."

Just as Castellaneta would later feel almost willingly trapped into the role of Homer, he says he originally felt pushed into comedy as a child growing up in Oak Park. "I wasn't a kid who fit well into sports," he says.

Yet his father liked to bring home comedy records, and Castellaneta was particularly struck by the work of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. "When I listened to them," he says, "it was like a door opening."

Oddly enough, Nichols and May were products of the Compass Players, the improvisational forerunner of Second City. Castellaneta didn't make the connection then, but he did have a cousin who worked as a waitress at Second City, and another cousin who used to regularly attend the revues in what was then a fairly rough part of town. "I was too young to go down there," Castellaneta says, "but people kept telling me I should go and take classes." Once he did, "I just said this is the place for me."

A member of Second City's Etc. and touring troupes and a backup to John Kapelos on the main stage, Castellaneta worked with Richard Kind, Bonnie Hunt and Isabella Hofmann, among others, before getting his break with Ullman.

Yet that series - for all the good work Castellaneta did on it, alongside Julie Kavner, Sam McMurray and, of course, Ullman herself - lasted only three seasons, while "The Simpsons" grew out of it and continues on today. …