LOS ANGELES—Jon Lovitz, former Saturday Night Live cast member and star of TV's The Critic and NewsRadio, is taping a scene from his latest Subway commercial on a Burbank soundstage. To the casual onlooker, his work has seemed consistently competent, even polished. But the consummate perfectionist insists on yet another take.
"I think I can really nail it this time," Lovitz tells the weary director and crew. It's almost 10 p.m. The shoot, originally slated for four hours, has stretched to nearly 12.
"Eat fresh," Lovitz says, comically drawing out the "H"-sound. "Yeah. We got it. I think that's the one."
One may wonder why Jon Lovitz, an established star with a lengthy list of film and TV credits, would need to do a commercial for a fast-food chain. The ultimate benefit, Lovitz explained, was "a certain creative freedom."
"These Subway ads allow me to choose the more cutting-edge projects I've always wanted to do," Lovitz said. "Subway has basically freed me artistically."
For example, without Subway, the opportunity to voice a talking penguin in the new Bob Saget animated mockumentary Farce Of The Penguins might have never come up—or worse, proved too big a gamble, Lovitz said.
"It could be a big flop or a big hit, but none of that really matters," Lovitz said. "It's more about the quality of the work and the company you keep. The opportunity to work with Dave Coulier, Jimmy Belushi, and [Counting Crows front-man] Adam Duritz was incentive enough, but when the Saget calls, you come running. Even after reading the script, though, I just knew. I said, 'This is exactly the kind of risky material I want to take on'."
The Benchwarmers, another labor of love Lovitz said he wouldn't have been able to take part in without his income from the Subway campaign, was challenging, but ultimately "what being an artist and entertainer is all about."
"It was a chance to tell a very small story without all the Hollywood glitz," Lovitz said. "The highly nuanced part I played—a billionaire surrounded by Star Wars figurines—was difficult because I had to find the source of his humanity."
"I had so many fascinating conversations with Dave Spade, Rob [Schneider], and Craiggers [Craig Kilborn] about our scenes together, and what kind of message we wanted to send," Lovitz added.
The Subway ads couldn't have come at a better time for the former red M&M, who was weary from years of acting stints that didn't use his talents to the fullest.
"The 'Eat' campaign really put me on the map," Lovitz said. "And now I can really pick and choose my roles."
In April, Putt-Pal USA signed Lovitz to endorse its Green Brushes product line for a sum significantly lower than his Subway salary. Lovitz leapt at the chance to endorse the device, saying it would "bring a little-publicized problem to the tri-state area's attention."
"Endorsing the Green Brushes is worth it because it is something I genuinely believe in," Lovitz said. "Not that I don't believe in Subway—after all, six grams of fat for a six-inch sub is pretty remarkable—but removing debris from putting greens is something very close to my heart."
Doing commercials is also a way of getting back to his roots as a performer, and it's clear that Lovitz still relishes those early days in which his raw talent first found its voice—namely, a 1982 spot for Bakersfield, CA-based Eagle Vinyl Siding.
"I've achieved a lot in my career, but no matter how much I mature creatively, I find that in everything I do, I'm essentially trying to get back to the hunger, spark, and enthusiasm of the work I first fell in love with," Lovitz said. "I might never be able to truly do that, but I can at least try to give something back. And on my own terms."
Truly a man for all seasons, Lovitz has several diverse projects planned, including a spot for a local Cajun restaurant in his hometown, Tarzana, CA, and a special appearance at Ready Radials, where he regularly purchases tires.
In September, Lovitz will embark on his most ambitious effort yet: Directing his first Subway commercial, with veteran Subway pitchman Jared Fogle making his long-awaited return.