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John Michael Higgins on ‘Saved by the Bell,’ Letterman, and that time he shaved his head for ‘Seinfeld’ – The Boston Globe

You know Boston native John Michael Higgins from something. Just what that something is depends on your taste.
Perhaps as the kimono-obsessed dog handler in Christoper Guest’s “Best in Show.” Or the color-worshiping folk singer in Guest’s “A Mighty Wind.” Maybe as Cameron Diaz’s boss in “Bad Teacher.” From roles in cult-favorite comedies like “Community,” “Arrested Development,” or “Seinfeld.”
“I’m not a super-famous person — I’m just a character actor that everyone’s seen,” says Higgins, 58. “If I’m walking down the street, I see the moment that someone clocks me. I [try to guess] what’s it gonna be? Christoper Guest? The cartoons? ‘Pitch Perfect’? I’m invariably wrong. People have such deep-cut knowledge.”
Gen Z and old-school “Saved by the Bell” fans might now know him as Bayside High’s Principal Ronald Toddman. Higgins is “the new Mr. Belding” on Peacock’s reboot of the series entering season two. With a diverse young cast (and some original favorites), a drier sense of humor and no laugh track, this is a Gen Z Bayside.

The new season premieres Nov. 24, just before Paul Thomas Anderson’s much-hyped “Licorice Pizza” hits theaters Nov. 26. Higgins has a role in the star-studded cast including Sean Penn, Tom Waits, and Bradley Cooper. (”It’s just lovely,” he says.)

When we call the Amherst College ‘85 alum, he’s sitting in his parked car in Pasadena. (“I have the dog in the car, so just know he can hear you,” he quips.) We caught up with Higgins to talk how he went from a New England theater actor “clutching coupons” to a guy with one of the most varied IMDb pages you could find.

Q. “Saved by the Bell” reboot executive producer/showrunner Tracey Wigfield (“30 Rock,” “The Mindy Project”) called you for this project after “Great News” was canceled.
A. I was really charged up about “Great News.” I thought, “I will never tire of playing this character; Tracey’s writing the daylights out of this character.” It got pointlessly canceled; I got so pissed off. I said to Tracey on the last day: “If you ever call, I’m going.” And she called. She said, “I’m doing a reboot of ‘Saved by the Bell.’” I thought it was a joke. I said, “Who am I playing, [A.C. Slater]?”
I went and boy, am I glad I did. She’s just crushing it. The show is aggressively entertaining. Charming, funny, colorful — exactly what we need right now.
Q. So I was probably in fourth or fifth grade when the original was on, and to me, that was what high school was going to be.
A. Totally! I was already an adult when the show aired, but a lot of people will come up to me and say, “Boy, that show was so important to me, it gave me the parameters of who I’ll be in high school.”
I went to public high school, and I have nostalgic feelings about it [while filming]. I also like working with young actors. Maybe that’s a sign of my age, but I find them to be invigorating. They’re so determined and disciplined and kind. They’ve given me a new lease on the new generation; I feel very optimistic about them.
Q. You’re known for improvising. Do you improvise at all in “Saved by the Bell”?
A. Everything is almost pieced in tweezers for 22 minutes but that said, Tracey will always encourage me to go off-road as long as we have the “tweezer take” in the can. If I think of a clever line, I’ll pop it out, sometimes they use it. But it’s not imperative for me to improvise.
Q. You were born in Boston. Where did you grow up?
A. My dad was in the Navy, so we moved all the time. We moved to D.C. a lot. But I have a lot of relatives in Boston, Milton, Danvers, and Brookline. I went to Amherst College, so I was often in Boston; I consider it a second hometown.
Q. Did you study acting at Amherst?
A. I didn’t. I was a professional child actor for a long time, and put a pause on acting at Amherst. But before I left, I found an agent in New York, so I walked out into something of a career.
Q. What do you mean by “professional child actor”?
A. Wherever we landed as a Navy family, I’d hook up with the local theater. I think the first time I was paid I was 11 for a production of “A Thousand Clowns.” After Amherst, I was a stage actor in New York City, mostly classical theater: Shakespeare, Sheridan, Shaw. Anybody that begins with an “Sh.”
Q. How did you go from Shakespeare to a career in film and TV?
A. I booked a lead in [”The Late Shift,”] because HBO was stumped to find a guy to play Letterman. I was probably the last name on the last list of the last session.
Q. And Letterman hated it.
A. Yeah, he hated it. I don’t blame him! I wouldn’t want my private life plastered all over the screen, either.
Q. It must have been weird to get famous so quick.
A. I was doing a production of “The Rivals” in Hartford at the time. I was clutching a coupon for an $8 haircut, while Letterman was pounding away at me every night on his show. It was so surreal. [laughs]
Q. “Seinfeld” is now streaming on Netflix. How did you get the part as Elaine’s boyfriend Kurt?
A. They were having issues because producers wanted the guy to be actually bald. It’s hard to get actors to shave their hair off because they might need it on Tuesday. I said, “My hair grows like a Chia Pet; I don’t care.” We were shooting right before Thanksgiving. My hair grew back Dec. 6.

Interview was edited and condensed.
Lauren Daley can be reached at [email protected]. She tweets @laurendaley1.
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