Sunday, November 11, 2012

Stephen Furst, Dec. 16, 1988

"St. Elsewhere" cast, with Furst at center
Standard-Examiner staff

OGDEN -- Stephen Furst had just finished co-starring in "Animal House," and was talking with an agent about the possibility of working in commercials.

"The agent told me I was too fat," Furst said with a smile, "and that nobody would want an overweight spokesman for their products." He didn't believe the agent, and in the ensuing years has appeared in about 50 commercials.

Furst, who plays , Dr. Elliot Axelrod on the TV series "St. Elsewhere," spoke at Weber State College convocation lecture Thursday. But it wasn't really a speech or lecture in the traditional sense; it was more of a mix between stand-up comedy and question-and-answer session with the student audience.

"I'm not famous -- I hate that word 'famous'," he told the crowd as he paced back and forth across the stage. "The thing now is that people don't know my name. They're mistaking me for other people. They think I'm Oprah Winfrey."

A Virginia Beach, Va., native, Furst graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in drama. After graduation, he spent five weeks in New York City -- which, he said, "was four and a half weeks too long" -- then headed for California with the dream of acting in films.

The next nine months were spent looking for work and delivering pizzas. The pizza part of his Los Angeles experience, he said, was eye-opening for a naive Virginia boy -- especially the time he took two pizzas to a ritzy L.A. neighborhood. The man who answered the door was naked, Furst explained, and when the man asked him in, Furst noticed there were "about 35 people on the floor having sex.

"I couldn't believe there were 35 people and they only ordered two pizzas."

Fortunately, his salvation came in the form of the movie "Animal House," in which he co-starred with Tom Hulce ("Amadeus"), Donald Sutherland and the late John Belushi.

Furst said he auditioned six times before landing the part, his first professional role since leaving college. Working with all those formidable actors his first time out was a challenge, Furst told the students. But his praise turned to dark humor when it came to discussing Belushi: "He was great. But between you and me, I think he was doing drugs.

"We were going to do a Mormon version of 'Animal House,'" he continued. "Sandy Duncan was going to play the John Belushi part."

Backstage after the lecture, Furst recalled working in Utah in the late '70s on a movie titled "Take Down," which was directed by Utah filmmaker Keith Merrill. "I think we shot here in Ogden a couple of days," he said.

Furst has appeared in 10 motion pictures -- including "National Lampoon's Class Reunion," "Midnight Madness," "Silent Rage," "The Unseen" and "Up the Creek" -- but his role as Dr. Axelrod, the perpetual underdog on "St. Elsewhere," for the past four seasons is the one that's brought him the most success.

The actor is married, with two sons, aged 6 and 9, and lives in Los Angeles. He describes himself as "Mr. Suburbia," saying he doesn't pal around with other "St. Elsewhere" cast members. The only exception is co-star Howie Mandel, who plays Dr. Fiscus. Mandel, Furst told the crowd, is a buddy who's given to playing practical jokes -- like the time the Fursts returned from a vacation in Hawaii and discovered that Mandel had listed their home for sale with Century 21.

One of the highlights of Furst's lecture was the presentation of several outtakes -- scenes that were flubbed or not broadcast for one reason or another -- from "St. Elsewhere."

After doing a few guest shots as Dr. Axelrod during the series' second season, Furst signed on as a regular cast member for the third season. "St. Elsewhere" has long been praised by critics, but it's taken audiences a long time to come around. And, ironically, the series, now in its sixth season and getting its highest ratings ever, is being dropped at the end of the season. The creative team -- writers, directors and producers -- are moving on to another series next year. Still, Furst is cautiously optimistic about his career.

"I'll scratch along like every other actor. I'll get by."

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