Little Miss Sunshine's David Rasche: From Nonmusical Second City to Musical Second Stage

By Harry Haun
13 Nov 2013

Rasche and Will Swenson in Little Miss Sunshine.
Photo by Joan Marcus

"Not singing was kinda hard to get used to. My sisters stayed in churches — I didn't — so they kept singing throughout their lives. I really missed the regularity of it — like, in college, every Wednesday afternoon, four o'clock, you sit in a room of people and sing. It's a wonderful, wonderful experience. When I was in high school, I was in Glee Club. When I was in college, I sang professionally in a church for a while."

Then Chicago's Second City crooked its finger for him to come in to replace John Belushi, and the singing stopped. (But not the songwriting: One of his bitter ballads, "It Was Your Fault," become a Second City standard.) Acting and comedy came first.

Equipped in both departments, Rasche moved to New York City in 1977 and co-starred with Irene Dailey in an early Playwrights Horizons play by Martin Sherman called Rio Grande. "The floor was still sticky from when it was a strip joint."

The next year he made his Broadway debut in The Shadow Box as Mandy Patinkin's understudy "and played most of the run when Mandy retired from the role." Michael Cristofer's Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about three terminally ill patients and their loved ones "was a beautiful play. There were nights when your heart went out at the whole sorrow of someone dying and that theatre just levitated. The audience was so empathetic to these poor people who were in this play."

It was at Playwrights Horizons in 1982 that Rasche stepped out from the herd when director Gerald Gutierrez cast him against his sandy-headed beach-boy type as a sadomasochistic art director in Geniuses, Jonathan Reynolds' dark comedy about a rain-soaked, behind-budget war epic in the Philippine jungle. "That was a huge hit, and nobody had any idea it would be," he remembered. "Our movie was identified as 'Parabola of Death.' What happened was, Jonathan went to do a book about the making of 'Apocalypse Now,' and there was this huge typhoon that wrecked the sets and shut them down. Then he went home, and Coppola's wife came and took over. I don't know whether any of that was true or if it's just a Jonathan Reynolds fantasy."

A lingering Chicago connection, David Mamet, made sure Rasche got good shots at his work in New York (Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Speed-the-Plow and Edmond).

He tippy-toed into features, uncredited, in 1978's "An Unmarried Woman" and as Television Actor #3 in"Manhattan" but was soon co-starring in Bette Davis' last, "Wicked Stepmother," and Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" — all the while building a household face in TV series, starting with his starring-role of "Sledge Hammer!" (spoofing Eastwood's "Dirty Harry") and continuing episodically via "Bored to Death," "L.A. Law," "The West Wing," "Veep," "Monk," "Suddenly Susan" and "Ugly Betty."

Like Lorna Dallas, Cheyenne Jackson, David Alan Basche, Denny Dillon, Chip Zien, John Rothman, Richard Bekins, Olivia Thiriby, Kate Jennings Grant and Peter Hermann (all New York names), he was one of the familiar-but-not-star-familiar faces aboard "United 93," the 2006 reenactment of the skyjacked plane that crashed 9/11 near Shanksville, PA, mission unaccomplished. Paul Greengrass, who directed "Captain Phillips" and got Tom Hanks' personal best in the last ten minutes of his performance, helmed.