Wallace Shawn: The Arthouse’s Favorite Dinner Guest?


It is, to borrow a phrase from one of his better-known movie roles, “inconceivable” that filmgoers of all ages aren’t familiar with at least the voice, if not the leprechaun-like face, of  comedic mainstay Wallace Shawn. Fans of art films know him as a favorite cast member for the likes of Woody Allen and Alan Rudolph, Gen-Xers remember him as the scheming Vizzini in The Princess Bride or as debate teacher Mr. Hall in Clueless, and kids will recognize his voice as that of Rex, the not-so-terrifying Tyrannosaurus from the Toy Story films. Acting, however, is just one part of Shawn’s mutli-faceted career.

The son of two New Yorker staffers (his father William Shawn would serve as the magazine’s editor from 1952 to 1987), Wallace was born in the Big Apple in November, 1943. After graduating from Harvard and studying at Oxford, Shawn became an English teacher in India and planned on a career in diplomacy, but was drawn to the stage as an actor and writer. His early stage plays, such as Our Late Night and Marie and Bruce, won him critical acclaim, an Obie award, and a 1977 raid by the London vice squad for allegedly obscene content.

Shawn’s film debut came in 1979 in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, with him playing Diane Keaton’s  first husband, described by her as a genius and a sexual dynamo and then appearing on screen as what Allen calls “a little homunculus”  (People who live in glass houses, Woody…) . An array of quirky supporting roles would follow, from All that Jazz to a role as a waiter on Louis Malle’s Atlantic City. That gig would lead Malle to re-team with the actor and helm the 1981 arthouse favorite My Dinner with Andre (Article), with Shawn and theatre colleague Andre Gregory scripting and essentially playing themselves as friends who meet up for a meal and a lengthy conversation on art, life, intellectualism, and the value of a good electric blanket.

The 1980s saw Shawn get steady work in such films as The Hotel New Hampshire, Crackers, Heaven Help Us, Prick Up Your Ears, The Moderns, and Allen’s Radio Days and Shadows and Fog. A key part was in Rob Reiner’s 1987 fantasy/romance The Princess Bride as the would-be kidnapper who engages Carey Elwes in a battle of wits and offers the sage advice “never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line” just before meeting his comeuppance. In a 1994 shout-out to his parents’ literary roots, Wallace played an Algonquin Hotel waiter who witnesses the formation of the Round Table clique in Rudolph’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, and the following year he attempted to instruct Alicia Silverstone in the fine art of debating in Clueless, a part he would reprise in the TV series based on the comedy.

Shawn moved easily between TV, movies, and theatre in the ‘90s and beyond, with recurring small-screen roles on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Crossing Jordan, The L Word and Gossip Girl, among other shows. Along with Toy Story’s Rex, his film voice work includes Disney’s Chicken Little and Pixar’s The Incredibles. On the stage, the increasingly political tone of his writing was evident in such plays as The Fever and The Designated Mourner, both of which—along with Marie and Bruce–were eventually adapted for the screen. As dramatic as his stage work has been, it looks as though Shawn’s milquetoast manner and middle-aged cherubic features will continue to let movie audiences laugh at him for some time to come.