80 Trivia Tidbits About Harry Shearer for His 80th Birthday

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80 Trivia Tidbits About Harry Shearer for His 80th Birthday

Just considering his work on The Simpsons alone — he’s the voice of Ned FlandersPrincipal SkinnerSmithersMr. BurnsKent BrockmanRainier Wolfcastle and dozens of other citizens of Springfield — Harry Shearer would be considered a comedy giant. But that’s really only a starting point. He’s also been a cast member on Saturday Night Live and a fixture in Christopher Guest’s films, most famously as Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls. And, over a career that’s spanned eight decades, he’s guest-starred on everything from The Jack Benny Program to The Golden Girls to Dawson’s Creek to Animaniacs

Today, Shearer turns 80 years old, and to mark the occasion, here are 80 things you should absolutely know about him…

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Not Born in Springfield

Shearer was born on December 23, 1943 in Los Angeles, California. 

His First Acting Gig

When he was a kid, Shearer’s piano teacher became a child agent in Hollywood, and she asked Shearer’s parents if she could bring him to auditions. His first was for the radio version of The Jack Benny Program when he was seven years old in 1950. He also guest-starred in a handful of episodes of the television version of The Jack Benny Program later in the 1950s where he worked with Mel Blanc.

On the Genius of Jack Benny

“He was just the greatest,” Shearer has said. “He was the smartest person I’d ever — certainly then — encountered in show business.” He added that Benny was “a guy who dug the idea of other people on the show getting laughs, which sort of spoiled me for other people in comedy.” 

“My sentiments about it basically are that I started in show business at the top and I’ve been working my way down ever since,” he concluded.

Shearer Goes to Mars

Shearer’s first film credit was with another legendary comedian — Lou Costello in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars. His only line was “But how does the spaceship work?”

Eager Near-Beaver

In the pilot episode of Leave It to Beaver, he played one of Beaver’s buddies, which became the character Eddie Haskell. The role was recast for the series because, as Shearer has explained, “there was a feeling among my parents that it was fine for me to work to the extent I was, but they didn’t think it was necessarily the greatest idea in the world for me to be a regular in a series.”

And Yet Another Legend…

He also worked with Red Skelton and remembered being frustrated that the comedian was ad-libbing. Or as Shearer told The A.V. Club, “I remember going, ‘Hey, I’m 9 years old. I’m sticking with the script, I don’t know about you.’ I felt that was a little unfair to a 9-year-old.”

Oh, and One More Legend, Too

He played “Street Kid” on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1957.

A Decade-Long Gap

After appearing in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Shearer took a break from show business. “(Acting) was going to be something I was going to do as a kid, and then I’d stop when I was 15 and have a serious adult life. I thought maybe journalism, maybe government, maybe politics, maybe teaching. I tried a little of all those things, and as soon as I could, I got back to show business.”

After the Gap

In late 1968, he joined The Credibility Gap, a comedy team that did a lot of work on California radio stations KRLA and KPPC. This is where he met future Spinal Tap band member Michael McKean.

Live, from New York…

The Credibility Gap ended in 1979 in part because Shearer moved to New York City, where he became a writer and cast member of Saturday Night Live.

Early Saturday

Shearer was only the sixth new member of Saturday Night Live after the original cast of “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.”

On the Loathsome Lorne Michaels

Shearer describes his initial run on SNL as “an unending fight to get on the air.” He also grew to “loathe” Lorne Michaels and has called him “an expert at manipulating people, and playing psychological games with people.”

Shearer’s Mount Rushmore

Through his work on Saturday Night LiveThe Simpsons and other television shows, Shearer has impersonated at least five presidents, including Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and Abraham Lincoln.

Dead, from New York…

When Michaels left Saturday Night Live at the end of the fifth season, the entire cast left too, but Shearer offered to stay on under new producer Jean Doumanian to help overhaul things and bring in people like Christopher Guest. Doumanian declined the offer, and Shearer left.

Live, Again, from New York…

Shearer, however, rejoined the SNL cast in 1984 for another one-season stint. He, McKean and Guest performed as Spinal Tap on the show, and they were all offered a permanent spot. Only Shearer accepted, though McKean would join for one season in 1994.

‘A Gifted Performer But a Pain in the Butt’

Dick Ebersol, who produced SNL from 1981 to 1985, said Shearer was “a gifted performer but a pain in the butt. He’s just so demanding on the preciseness of things, and he’s very, very hard on the working people. He’s just a nightmare-to-deal-with person.”

Dead, Again, from New York…

Shearer left SNL for a second time in 1985 because he felt he wasn’t being utilized enough. He said his only saving grace of that second run was working with Martin Short.

Shearer in ‘Real Life’

Shearer was a co-writer on the 1979 Albert Brooks classic Real Life, which he also appeared in.

On the Tenacity of Albert Brooks

“The thing that amazed me when I got to know (Albert Brooks) was his commitment,” Shearer has said. “Once he decides he’s gonna do something — whether it’s a movie or a joke — he commits to it totally, which frees him to go as far as he can. Even if it’s an idea that just occurred to him that minute, he’ll push it as far as possible.”

Laverne & Shirley & Harry

Shearer wrote one episode of Laverne & Shirley and guest starred in six as various characters. This was yet another time he worked with McKean, who played Lenny on the series.

Shearer 2 Night

Shearer was a writer on the satirical talk show Fernwood 2 Night and its later incarnation, America 2 Night.

Not Just Comedy

Shearer has a small role in the 1983 drama The Right Stuff and appeared in an episode of Miami Vice as well.

Yet Another Legend…

Shearer was in two episodes of ALF.

Creating Spinal Tap

Along with McKean and Guest, Shearer co-wrote and starred in the landmark 1984 comedy This Is Spinal Tap.

Spinal Tap’s Inspiration

Spinal Tap isn’t based on any one particular band. As Shearer has explained, “We were combining bits and pieces of different groups and different individuals in groups we’d seen over the years. It’s always been a pastiche. There are a lot of people walking around saying, ‘That’s about us.’ That’s nice, but it’s not true.”

Spinal Tap’s Birth

Spinal Tap began in 1979 on an ABC sketch comedy pilot called The TV Show. McKean, Guest and Shearer did a bit as a band called Spinal Tap and began improvising as their characters. This inspired the film, which came out five years later.

Spinal Tap’s Birth

The song they played on The TV Show — and thus, the first Spinal Tap song ever — was “Rock and Roll Nightmare.”

And Rob Reiner Makes Four

Reiner was also involved with The TV Show pilot, and having directed some TV movies and having starred in All in the Family, he was a natural choice to direct This Is Spinal Tap and appear in the film as its fictional director, Marty DiBergi.

They Used a Demo, Not a Screenplay, to Pitch ‘This Is Spinal Tap’

“Rob, Chris, Michael and I got together, and we got a small deal to write a first draft screenplay for a company called Marble Arch, which was Lew Grade’s American company,” explained Shearer. “We realized very soon that we couldn’t write this in screenplay form, so we took the money and made a 20-minute demo of the movie we wanted to make.”

It Took a While to Get Greenlit

As Shearer recounted, “Over the succeeding two years, we would go around with a can of film under our arms to basically all the majors in town and show them the 20 minutes and watch them have utterly bewildered expressions on their faces.” Finally, it was greenlit by Norman Lear at Embassy Pictures.

There Was Never a ‘Spinal Tap’ Script

“We sat down and wrote a scene-by-scene breakdown. We never wrote a script, but we wrote a scene-by-scene breakdown of what happened in each scene,” Shearer has explained.

Spinal Tap’s Backstory

They also wrote an elaborate history of the characters and the band so that the characters could reference their shared history together.

A Quick Shoot

This Is Spinal Tap was shot in just 25 days.

Not a Box-Office Hit

This Is Spinal Tap made just $4 million (though it only took $2 million to make).

But It Was a Hit on VHS

As Shearer has explained, “That movie rose to prominence because it was one of the first films to benefit from the home-video revolution. People found out about it on video much more than they did from seeing it in the theaters.”

Shearer Loves Spinal Tap

“We had so many obstacles in our way,” Shearer has said. “The fact that we came together at this one moment and had an absolute shared vision, and were able to execute it, is almost miraculous. We had to fight to get it released. It was such a gift to us.”

Spinal Tap on Tour

Shearer has explained that touring as Spinal Tap was part of building the band’s realism. “Partly, (touring) was just part of our idea for the project — to complete it. Basically, to do the rest of the joke and to have the fun of doing the tour and to say to the people who wondered, ‘Yeah, they really did play.’ It was to sort of cement the sense of reality we were trying to build into the band — not that we wanted to have that career, but we just wanted people to buy into it as much as possible. That this band really did exist, and that the alternative rock ‘n’ roll universe we created was a real one.”

Touring for Decades

Spinal Tap has appeared in character on many TV shows, including Saturday Night LiveLate Night with David LettermanThe Arsenio Hall ShowThe Tonight Show with Jay LenoThe Tonight Show with Conan O’BrienThe Daily ShowLate Night with Jimmy Fallon and many more.

Hearing Double

Spinal Tap also appeared on The Simpsons in the Season Three episode “The Otto Show.” In it, Shearer interviews himself when he played Marty the DJ interviewing Derek Smalls

A National Treasure

This Is Spinal Tap is in the Library of Congress. It was inducted in 2002.

A Smalls Solo

In 2018, Shearer did a solo album and a couple of music videos as Derek Smalls.

Spinal Tap’s TV Legacy

Ricky Gervais cites This Is Spinal Tap as a major inspiration for The Office, which led to the rise in mockumentary comedies in the sitcom format.

The Dark Side and the Light Side of the Force

While he went uncredited, Shearer voiced two characters in the original Star Wars. He overdubbed rebel pilot Dex Tiree and Death Star crew member Captain Khurgee.

A Trip to Amity Island

He also recorded audio for Jaws in the jumble of people heard on the beach.

Why He Loves Radio

Having done Le Show for over 40 years, Shearer has said the reason he sticks with it is because “it’s very rare in contemporary America to have access to what is still, arguably, a mass medium and have nobody review the script or the tape before it goes on the air and have no meetings about it afterwards. It’s just the thing itself. It’s a very direct contact with the audience.”

From Le Show to Le Simpsons

Recalling how he ended up on The Simpsons, Shearer said, “Matt Groening was a fan of my radio show. I did characters and a lot of satirical stuff. He had his partner, Jim Brooks, call me and ask me whether I wanted to take part. I told him I didn’t want to be in a cartoon show. After two or three calls, he managed to twist my arm, and eventually I said: ‘Oh, okay.’”

His First ‘Simpsons’ Voice

The very first character he ever voiced on The Simpsons was Principal Skinner.

On His ‘Simpsons’ Voices

Shearer says he came up with the voices for his Simpsons characters via “intuitive leap. I didn’t see the drawings. We weren’t shown the drawings. I just saw a one-line description in the script and I thought, ‘Let’s try this.’”

The ‘Simpsons’ Voice That Was a Pain in the Neck

Dr. Marvin Monroe, however, was based on real-life psychiatrist David Viscott. Shearer cites Dr. Monroe as his least favorite character, as it hurt his throat to perform the voice, which is why the character has largely been retired.

He Wrote One Episode of ‘The Simpsons’

It was the Season 28 episode “Trust But Clarify.”

Hibbert No More

Shearer used to perform Dr. Hibbert, but in 2020, The Simpsons announced that a Black actor would take over the role. Shearer seemed to express disapproval about this, saying, “I have a very simple belief about acting. The job of the actor is to play someone who they’re not.”

Do Mr. Burns!

Shearer doesn’t love doing The Simpsons voices for people on the spot, explaining, “I don’t want to be a performing monkey.”

A ‘Simpsons’ Backlash

Shearer has saidThe Simpsons has stuck around long enough that it has also elicited a backlash. I run into people that say, ‘Isn’t it time?’”

‘The Principal and the Pauper’

Like most fans of The Simpsons, Shearer also hates the Season Nine episode “The Principal and the Pauper,” where Seymour Skinner is revealed to have stolen that name and identity. In an interview, he said he went to the writers and said, “That’s so wrong. You’re taking something that an audience has built eight years or nine years of investment in and just tossed it in the trash can for no good reason, for a story we’ve done before with other characters. It’s so arbitrary and gratuitous, and it’s disrespectful to the audience.”

His Favorite Episodes of ‘The Simpsons’

In particular, he cites Season Two’s “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish” and Season Eight’s “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer,” the latter of which he called “about the most beautiful half hour of animation I’ve ever seen on television.”

Double Duty

When Shearer performs scenes with both Mr. Burns and Smithers he does them both at the same time.

His Favorite ‘Simpsons’ Character

It’s Mr. Burns. “Nothing beats pure evil,” he’s explained.

More Favorites

He once told Jay Leno, “My three favorite (‘Simpsons’ voices), just because they look so good on a resume, are Hitler, the devil and God.”

Mr. Shearer on Mr. Burns

Shearer has said that he thinks people love Mr. Burns because “a lot of people have bad bosses.”

C. Montgomery Burns the Second

Shearer was the second actor to play Mr. Burns. Voice actor Christopher Collins played him for four episodes in the first season of The Simpsons before Shearer took over the part.

In a League of His Own

He’s played a sports announcer on several occasions, including in A League of Their Own and Little Giants.

Before Reality TV…

He appeared in both The Truman Show and EDtv, two movies often compared to each other as they focus on a man living his life on TV.

A Rare Flop

While Shearer is well known for his collaborations with Guest in This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, a lesser-known collaboration with Guest was in the Chris Farley flop Almost Heroes, which Guest directed and Shearer narrated.

Nixon’s Partners in Crime

In addition to having played Richard Nixon on several occasions, Shearer played Nixon stooge G. Gordon Liddy in the 1999 comedy Dick. He’s also supplied the voice of Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, on The Simpsons.

Skip This Picnic

Shearer directed his second feature film, Teddy Bears’ Picnic, in 2001, which he also wrote and appeared in. The movie, which was about the members of a country club, was done in an improvisational style a la This is Spinal Tap, yet it failed to capture the same magic.

His Directorial Debut

It was for the 1988 comedy Portrait of a White Marriage, which was written by and starred Martin Mull.

Not Only Principal Skinner

He played another school principal, Principal Peskin, in two episodes of Dawson’s Creek.

Return Guest

In 2003, he appeared in his second biggest collaboration with Guest: A Mighty Wind. In it, he played Mark Shubb, a bassist and vocalist for The Folksmen.

Based on Lots of Folks

Much like Spinal Tap, The Folksmen isn’t based on any particular folk band, it’s a collection of elements from various places.

Spinal Tap vs. The Folksmen

In an interview with The A.V. Club, Shearer explained how his contribution to This Is Spinal Tap differed from A Mighty Wind. “In This Is Spinal Tap, Chris, Michael, Rob and I were the co-creators of the movie, so we were involved in every step, from the devising of it to the casting of it to the writing of the songs together to the acting,” he said. “Then Rob went behind the camera. In this picture, Chris, Michael and I had created The Folksmen and written some Folksmen songs, but the devising of the picture was done by Christopher and Eugene Levy, the co-writers. We all came in afterwards and, as in Tap, we did consult on how our characters looked and dressed. As in Tap, we improvised the dialogue. But it’s Christopher and Eugene’s concept, and it’s Christopher’s movie.”

Spinal Tap and The Folksmen

In 2001, The Folksmen opened for Spinal Tap at Carnegie Hall.

The Folksmen on Tour

Like Spinal Tap, The Folksmen performed in character in a wide variety of venues, including The Late Show with David LettermanThe ViewMad TV and Late Night with Conan O’Brien.

‘For Your Consideration’

In 2006, he teamed with Guest again in For Your Consideration, a mockumentary about actors dealing with award-season buzz. Shearer played Victor Allen Miller, a veteran actor forced to take work as a hot dog mascot.

On Victor Allen Miller

Shearer has said that Miller is “closer to me than any of the other characters I’ve played. One of the things I thought about early on in the process was ‘I can take all this really ugly stuff I experience and feel and bump it up a little notch and I have Victor.”

A Much More Serious Topic

In 2010, he wrote, directed and hosted his third film, a documentary about the flooding of New Orleans called The Big Uneasy. This was a passion project for Shearer as he primarily lives in New Orleans.

Never Enough Nixon

In 2023, Shearer co-created and starred in the six-episode comedy web series Nixon’s the One, which used real Nixon tapes for its scripts.

A Minor Part in ‘Mascots’

For the 2016 Guest film Mascots, Shearer only provided a voice, playing an announcer in the mascot competition.

He’s Married

Shearer has been married to Welsh singer-songwriter Judith Owen since 1993.

Kent Brockman’s Big Award

While he’d been previously nominated for three Emmys, Shearer won his first Emmy in 2014 for his voice work on The Simpsons.

Derek Smalls’ Big Comeback

sequel to This Is Spinal Tap begins filming in February. While details on the film are still few and far between, we know that Shearer, along with McKean and Guest, are returning along with Reiner. Paul McCartney and Elton John will also be making cameos.

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