Somehow, Mark Metcalf ('68) spitting out the famous line “Is that a pocket protector…in your shirt pocket?” to a roomful of his co-workers at an engineering firm just wouldn’t be the same.
But that was the direction Metcalf, an engineering student at U-M in the mid-1960s, was headed before fate, his roommate, and his hormones intervened. The result was a distinguished stage, movie, and TV acting career, capped by the memorable role of the pledge-pin-spewing, worthless-and-weak-ranting ROTC cadet commander Douglas C. Neidermeyer in the iconic 1978 movie Animal House.
“I was living in Markley, and I had a roommate who said, ‘Come on over to the auditorium. We’re doing Henry VI parts one, two, and three,’” says Metcalf. “He told me the girls in theater were real friendly. The girls in the Engineering Department barely looked like girls, and they weren’t very friendly.”
Metcalf was cast in 15 parts with 13 costume changes. He was hooked.
“It really clicked,” he says. “I didn’t make a commitment then to acting. I was getting paid for it in New York City for six years before I said, ‘I guess this is what I’m doing.’
“In those days we didn’t think about careers, we thought about what was fun to do.”
And fun he had. He worked at the old Maynard Street diner, Red’s Rite Spot, where the wait staff was encouraged to be rude to the customers. He spent a lot of time at Flick’s Bar and ate pressed duck at The Pagoda on Main Street after the bars closed “to sober up.”
“The Chinese have a saying—may you live in interesting times,” Metcalf says. “They were interesting times in the United States of America. I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I loved being in Ann Arbor.”
A Theater Major “Practically Born on a Horse”
Metcalf, 65, was born in Findlay, Ohio, and raised in suburban St. Louis until his teenage years, when his family moved to New Jersey. He wanted to return to the Midwest for college and a family friend had attended U-M. He enrolled in 1964, expecting to become a civil engineer like his father. Then he discovered the theater his sophomore year and changed majors.
“I did a ton of plays at Michigan,” he says. “The Theater Department in those days was not a place where they trained actors. It was a place where they did plays. I did six, seven, eight, nine plays a year. Shakespeare, Miller, Ibsen. I had some really wonderful teachers.”
His first professional acting job was with the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in 1971. He did a full season there, and then moved to New York City. He had just finished filming Julia with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave in 1977 when he auditioned for Animal House, reading for the role of Otter, “which I liked because he gets the girls.”
Instead, director John Landis asked Metcalf if he knew how to ride a horse. Without missing a beat, Metcalf told him he was practically born on a horse, which, of course, was not true. “After I got the part I asked Landis if he thought Universal Pictures would spring for some riding lessons,” Metcalf says with a laugh.
“It was a good, funny script,” he says. “When I found out the cast, and that we were shooting in Oregon, far away from Hollywood, I knew it was going to be fun. I had no idea 33 years later I’d still be talking about it. It was just a job.”
After Animal House, he did more stage acting around the country, acted in films, and produced a couple TV shows. In the 1990s, he had a few notable TV appearances as The Maestro on Seinfeld, the Master on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and as Mr. Nitzke on cult favorite Teen Angel. He also starred in two Twisted Sister music videos as a Neidermeyer-like father whose question—“Whattya wanna do with your life?” —spoke to a legion of slackers and head-bangers.
These days, Metcalf resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he moved in 2000 with his then-wife, a native, to raise their son away from Los Angeles. He has carved out an almost Jeff Daniels-like existence in Wisconsin: living in the Midwest, still dabbling in Hollywood when called, but devoting a lot of time promoting the local arts. He works with young filmmakers on mostly low-budget slasher films, has produced a series of short films written by local high school students, has acted in community theater productions, and blogs and records podcasts for an arts-centric website called Third Coast Digest. He is currently directing a production for the First Stage Children’s Theatre in Milwaukee, and serves on its advisory board.
He also makes occasional appearances at conventions to sign autographs for fans of his many roles, especially Neidermeyer. While Metcalf embraces his Neidermeyer alter ego now, it wasn’t always that way.
“There were times there when I did resent it,” he says. “I did think I typecast myself. There were times I kicked myself for reprising the role in the Twisted Sister videos. That typecast me even further. But after this amount of time I have to embrace it.”
As proof to how much he embraces it, he recently shot a promo of an upcoming episode ofCelebrity Wife Swap that features Twisted Sister lead singer Dee Snider. Metcalf tweaked his signature line from the videos, asking instead, “Whattya wanna do with your wife?”
Metcalf visits L.A. from time to time, but not to pursue jobs. He is happy with his life, and pleased that younger generations get a kick out of Neidermeyer.
“There are 12-year-old kids who know the lines better than I do,” he says. “They’re upset if I don’t spit on them when I ask about their pledge pin. I’m proud of it. It will outlive me.”