As Michael Scott, the inept boss of Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch on “The Office,” Steve Carell has perfected the art of clueless corporate management.
It’s an iconic role that has made Carell richer as a performer, and rich, period. He earns $300,000 per episode, and recently notched his fourth consecutive Emmy nod for lead actor in a comedy. But it’s time for Carell to prepare his exit interview. He recently announced he’s leaving the acclaimed sitcom at the end of the upcoming seventh season to focus on his booming movie career.
The actor, fresh off the spring success “Date Night” with Tina Fey, just scored another with his voice work in “Despicable Me.” On July 30, he re-teams with his "40-Year-Old Virgin" co-star Paul Rudd for the comedy “Dinner for Schmucks.” But when he finally clocks out of “The Office,” will Carell be able to leave Michael Scott behind?
Despite his movie success, few actors are as closely identified with a character as Carell is with his bumbling TV alter ego. Part of the connection comes from the fact that Michael Scott’s idiosyncrasies and awkward arrogance inform so many of Carell’s roles.
In “Despicable Me,” he voices a hapless villain, Gru, who can’t get his minions to respect him. In “Dinner for Schmucks,” he plays the off-kilter nerd who’s the target for a mean-spirited dinner invitation that inspires the film's title.
From “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” through “Get Smart” and “Evan Almighty,” a definite pattern emerges in terms of recurring character traits for Carell's roles. Bumbling, hapless, desperately seeking acceptance are all part of Carell’s onscreen oeuvre.
“He excels at playing the awkward, hapless hero. You’re not always sure if you’re supposed to like him, but you end up liking him anyway,” said Entertainment Weekly senior writer Dave Karger.
“That’s Steve Carell’s particular skill, is that he can make these oftentimes annoying characters, appealing at the same time. Not everybody can do that.”
Maureen Ryan, television critic for the Chicago Tribune, agrees. “There's usually a core of sweetness or kindness to his characters,” Ryan said. “They may be ignorant or socially awkward, but they're not evil. I think that core of niceness is what makes him so relatable and what makes his characters so similar.”
Actor can still draw on Michael Scott character
So if Michael Scott represents a character type that fits right into Carell’s acting wheelhouse, is that really a problem?
Robert Downey Jr.'s manic style is instantly recognizable, whether he’s “Iron Man” or “Sherlock Holmes.” Will Smith may jump between action, dramas and comedies, but his charismatic style is never far behind. Same for Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and just about any other top star you can think of. Every actor plays to his or her particular strengths.
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“There is nothing wrong with Carell drawing on [Michael Scott], if appropriate to the role,” said Dr. Paul Levinson, Fordham University’s professor of television and media.
“Never have I felt while watching a Steve Carell movie ... that I’m watching an episode of ('The Office'),” said Entertainment Weekly's Karger, who thinks the actor has displayed quite a range inside his comedy comfort zone. “He’s actually kind of versatile. It’s very difficult to go from character comedian to leading man convincingly. And he’s carried romantic comedies, like 'Date Night.'"
In fact, Carell has quietly become perhaps Hollywood’s most bankable comedy star outside of Adam Sandler. Going back to “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Carell has logged nine straight hits, including voicework in “Over the Hedge” and “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!”
Evil characters without soft sides may be tough
Can Carell pull off what Steve Martin and Bill Murray have done, which is get audiences to buy a funny guy in a serious role? It's not that easy.
“I don't know if I could see Carell as a straight-up villain or as a crafty, duplicitous character,” Ryan said. “... I'd like to see him stretch [beyond his comfort zone], because he's a really good actor. Could he have a career like Bill Murray's? Why not?”
“He’s shown shades of drama with things like “Little Miss Sunshine,” and did it really well, but that was basically a comedy, too," Ryan said. "Will he make a movie like Bill Murray in “The Razor’s Edge?” And if so, will it be better received than that film was? That’s the unknown.”
Karger says Carell’s box-office appeal affords him the freedom to try different things, if he wanted to. “He’s one of the few actors who can bring a mainstream audience to a more thoughtful, almost arty kind of film, like “Dan in Real Life.””
As for his decision to finally leave “The Office,” the only surprise is that it took this long for him to finally call it quits. Most TV actors can’t wait to escape the episodic grind once the movie studios start calling. Carell has always seemed to enjoy the comforting familiarity of the Dunder Mifflin set.
Ryan, who has covered “The Office” frequently for her Tribune blog ‘The Watcher’, thinks Carell is leaving the show at the perfect time.
“The show still has its moments but it's not exactly must-see anymore,” she said. “It's always best to leave people wanting more, and not overstay your welcome, as ‘The Office’ may do without him.”
Michael Avila is a writer in New York.
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