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Steve Carell ‘Hears a Who’

Steve Carell explains why he found re-creating the voice of the mayor of  Whoville for a remake of the beloved Dr. Seuss story such an "awesome responsibility."
/ Source: TODAY contributor

When an actor talks about the enormous pressure of re-creating a famous character, you’d expect him to be talking about a towering figure like Hamlet or Abe Lincoln, not a character in a children’s book. Unless the character is a star in a Dr. Seuss book.

Then, said Steve Carell, who co-stars in the new animated feature “Horton Hears a Who” as the mayor of Whoville, it becomes an “awesome responsibility.”

The reason, he said, is because Dr. Seuss’ creations are so universally read and so much a part of our lives from such an early age.

“You grow up with it,” he told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira on Tuesday in New York. “ ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ is one of the first books that I have any sort of memory of.” And now he reads Dr. Seuss books to his two children, Elisabeth, 6, and John, 3.

“Kids love it. My kids love the series. It’s a legacy,” he said. “To try to become a part of that legacy is exciting.”

The Whos inhabit a world on a tiny speck that in turn rests on a clover blossom. They are discovered by Horton the elephant, played by Jim Carrey, with whom Carell co-starred in “Bruce Almighty.” Also starring as one of the voices is legendary comedian Carol Burnett.

Only Horton can hear the Whos, and the book follows his battle to protect the speck and the struggle of the Whos to make themselves heard to an unbelieving world.

Horton’s refrain throughout is “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

In the end, thanks to a mighty “Yawp!” from the mayor’s disinterested son, the Whos and Horton with them are saved. Vieira said she’d heard that Carell, best known as the star of “The Office” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” cried at the end of the story.

“I did,” he said, adding to general laughter, “Thank you for bringing that up. That’s not embarrassing at all.”

At 44, Carell has hit the big time. A relatively late bloomer, his first job out of college was as a mail carrier. He learned his comedic craft at Second City Comedy, and got his first major job in 1999 as a correspondent for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”  Now, thanks to his role as Michael Scott on “The Office,” he’s a major star. At the recent Academy Awards show, he presented the Oscar for best animated feature and was named “Best Dressed” at the show by Esquire, beating out even George Clooney.

It was an honor Carell accepted with as much tacky humor as he could muster.

“George Clooney is a hack,” he joked. “It’s all makeup. It’s mirrors, too. They spackle it on. I agree, I’m much better looking than George Clooney.”

Despite his success — he also plays the title role in the big-screen remake of “Get Smart,” coming out in June — Carell says he has a hard time believing he’s a star and is always on the lookout for the banana peel around the corner.

“I think it’s just a defense mechanism,” he said. “It’s a way to protect against any kind of disappointment.”

As to what it’s like being a star, he said, “It’s weird to hear it. I can’t even speak to that. It’s too bizarre a concept.”