Few people could imagine having the sheer breadth of the career Eugene Lee has had, especially in television. In May, Lee wrapped up his 43rd year with Saturday Night Live as its Production Designer and if you’re following the math that began with the variety show’s very first season in 1975 (he has nearly 500 episodes to his name). Lee’s been with SNL since day one and he’s stronger than ever, just as the show is.
If that wasn’t enough for the 79-year old Wisconsin native, Lee also designs the sets late-night favorites The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers. But wait, there’s more. He also the mastermind behind the sets for the Tony-winning musicals Ragtime, and is a three-time Tony winner himself for Wicked, Sweeney Todd and Candide.
I chatted with the legendary 14-time Emmy nominee (and two-time winner) on his history with the show, the changes its gone through over four decades, the book he has coming out and how his father’s words of wisdom are why he’s still working today.
AW: Hello, Eugene, this is Erik Anderson, from AwardsWatch. How are you doing today?
EL: I’m anxious, actually. I’m feeling kind of anxious to get back to work, you know, there’s so much good material on the tube every day. There’s so much going on you keep thinking, ‘boy, I wish we were on this week.’
AW: I was curious about that. What’s been occupying you this summer during your off time?
EL: We’re doing a few things at Trinity Rep. I’ve worked for that theater for over 50 years. I’m, you know, lots of little projects being worked on this summer. Mr. [Lorne] Michaels, I’m going to run his pencil factory up in Maine, so that’s kind of exciting (more on that later). So that’s been kind of a silly project. I’ve been trying to work on Barry Diller’s little project in New York. You know, he’s building a public park except it’s in the middle of the Hudson River so that you can’t, who can pass that up.
AW: That sounds pretty exciting.
EL: Well, it just happened accidentally. I never, you know, I don’t have never had a resume and I’ve never gone looking for work and actually this is a rather light summer. Just different things. I am finishing things up.
I gave a speech in Albany as part of the New York University system and it turns out the person who started this thing was William Kennedy and he’s 90 years old and he was terrific. You know, he’s famous for a novel he wrote called Ironweed that was made into a feature film [with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson]. And he has other books, The Albany Cycle, which are the same characters in different books, he was very nice.
I’ve written a book but it hasn’t been published. It was going to be published, but for reasons beyond me, it just fall apart maybe. I wrote the book only because I talk to the kids (Saturday Night Live performers), they were very, they were nice, they all want to know about Saturday Night and drugs and whatever, you know, how they old days were, when we were funny (laughs). Well, in any case they made a little dinner for me and they were just really friendly. And this Kennedy, I brought along a mockup of my book. I hadn’t planned on using it because I also brought along a little video that we pieced together. So I thought I’d show the video, ask for questions and get out of there. So I gave the little speech, it was nice and everybody was nice but after the little meal, my book was lying on the table next to me and he [Kennedy] said to me if, ‘What’s that?’ And I said, and he’s 90, by the way – I only wish I could live that long. So I said ‘It’s my book.’ ‘So let me see it,’ he says. ‘Can I look at it?’ So he looked at it, but he looked at it real seriously, you know, he turned to page by page and it’s getting, it’s a pretty long book. How many pages now? (Lee asks his assistant Patrick. ‘Almost 400,’ Patrick says).
You know, I think I could edit, but it actually, the trouble is you keep getting more things you want to put in it. And he looked at the book and he said, ‘So what’s happening?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s just not happening.’ He said, he said exactly this. He said, ‘oh, a person would be a fool if they didn’t print that.’ I said, ‘Really?’ He says, ‘yeah.’ And he said, ‘We’ll print it.’ And I said, really? He said, ‘Oh yeah, we have a huge print shop, you know, at the university, you know what I mean, we’ll, we can print it. Consider it done.’ He said, so that was kind of. So of course I had to move that ahead and we’re almost finished. We scanned it all digitally, you know, so it’s ready…just stop me if I ramble on.
AW: I don’t mind listening to you at all. How did the book begin the in the first place?
EL: I save everything, you know. There was a writer’s strike and that’s why I decided to do the book and I thought, why not, nothing else is happening. My grandfather was a writer of children’s books. Ronald Reagan said his favorite childhood books were by my grandfather. So I thought if he could write… His books are were very nice, they’re out of print now. They represent another age somehow, you know.
So I did a little mockup [of the book] and I sent it around. Oskar Eustis wrote the foreword to the book and Lorne Michaels wrote the afterword so that’s kinda fun. One day we got an email from a person, a lady, who said that she knew me and we had met in Marfa, Texas. And, and she was head of publication of things that they say theater communications group. And they got the mockup of the book and they loved it. They said ‘We’ll do it, it’s great. It’s kind of like a document of a working person.’ They said, ‘We don’t care about the grammar, the spelling.’ It didn’t happen but it looks like it’s happening now. I worked on it too long and I’m anxious to get rid of it. Let someone else deal with it.
AW: What’s the book called?
EL: It’s called The Adventures of Eugene Lee. It was actually an Amazon pre-order, but then in that all collapsed. But, but now it’s, now it’s in the works. So. And it’s the only called that I had a play the Seattle Rep, I think it was Soapy Smith [The Ballad of Soapy Smith, 1983] and when I got back from doing that, people in New York said, ‘Hey Eugene, you’re on the cover of a magazine.’ ‘You must be kidding,’ I said. I went to the bookstore and yes, the American Theater magazine, it’s now a very glossy publication, back then it was just monochromatic, black and white, I think. And sure enough I’m on the cover, which is kind of interesting. And the article was called ‘The Adventures of Eugene Lee.’
Next up…the early days of Saturday Night Live and working with The Rolling Stones and Prince