Peter Scolari: Trapped on the 37th Floor (R.I.P.)

Beloved character actor Peter Scolari (b. 1955) has left us too soon and as always I thought I would chime in with an appreciation that fills in some of the more obscure cracks that other eulogists have overlooked.

FOR EXAMPLE, when news broke us of his death, everyone of a certain age was going around saying “Remember Bosom Buddies?” And it’s a worthy exercise — my adult son had not heard of the show, for example. But what most people don’t know is that Scolari was in a sitcom PRIOR to Bosom Buddies. His first one was Goodtime Girls (1980), an attempt to do for the ’40s what Happy Days had done for the ’50s. In fact, Garry Marshall was one of the producers. It’s about all these working girls living in Washington DC during the Second World War, starring Annie Potts of Designing Women and Ghostbusters, Georgia Engel of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Lorna Patterson of the sitcom version of Private Benjamin. The downstairs neighbors were played by Adrian Zmed of TJ Hooker and Scolari, whom vaudeville lovers will be delighted to know played a clown, thus had numerous opportunities to show off his juggling and unicycle skills! He also trotted those skills out on other TV shows, such as Circus of the Stars.

At any rate, Goodtime Girls only lasted one season, but that was fortunate, because it meant that Scolari could go on to do Bosom Buddies (1982-84) with Tom Hanks, which required him to partake of yet another vaudeville skill — drag! Funny to remember a time when those guys were roughly on par in terms of status. For about a decade afterwards Hanks remained a popular light comedy star in what I would call fairly trivial films — it wasn’t until 1993 when he shot to the top, with Philadelphia and Sleepless in Seattle, followed by Forrest Gump and everything else. Meantime, Scolari cemented his reputation as a TV star, with a plum regular role on Newhart (1984-90). This was followed by a couple of failed sit-coms in which Scolari starred: Family Album (1993) and Dweebs (1995), each of which lasted only a few episodes. Later, he would voice the role of the Rick Moranis character on the Honey I Shrunk the Kids animated series (1997-2000), and win an Emmy for playing Lena Dunham’s dad on Girls (2012-2017). Recent high visibility stuff included recurring parts on Fosse/Verdon (2019) and Evil (2019-2021). In 2005, I caught him in Stewart F. Lane’s Off-Broadway play In the Wings, and reviewed it for Time Out New York. He was a man of the stage as well as the screen and had been in the Broadway casts of shows like Wicked and Hairspray.

But where the rubber really meets the road for a professional actor is where the magic doesn’t happen. That’s why I have headed this post with a photo from the 1991 TV movie Fire: Trapped on the 37th Floor. I sought and watched this movie on Youtube a few years ago for a couple of reasons. I am a huge devotee of disaster movies. And this one is about one of the few high-rise fires that had happened prior to September 11. Unlike Towering Inferno, it was based on a real event, which had happened in the Los Angeles First Interstate Bank building in 1988. If it hadn’t been real, you might have chided the screenplay writers for the inplausibility — the sprinkers in the building were shut off for maintenance and the fire alarms didn’t work. So the fire that broke out in the 12th floor became massive by the time firefighters arrived. Fortunately, the blaze happened at night, so few people were in the building, and most everyone was successfully evacuated. Except for two office workers on the 37th floor, here played by Scolari and Lisa Hartman (who’s done a lot but whom I know best from the 1977 TV series Tabitha). Scolari plays a sort of nebbishy accountant who’s in love with Hartman’s hot saleslady, and stays late at work to impress her and get close to her, if I remember rightly. That’s probably a fictional element to make some sort of story happen, otherwise the whole movie would be just shots of Scolari and Hartman hiding under desks and coughing, interpersed with fire chief Lee Majors on the street barking commands to his firemen (which it practically is). I was a little shocked to see Scolari in this quotidian vehicle just after his TV sit-com hot streak. But an actor’s got to work, to keep his face out here. And in this movie, you see him do his job — just like juggling or riding a unicycle: you show up, hit your marks, create a character people want to watch. It’s harder than you might think.

At any rate, now he’s trapped much higher than the 37th floor, playing a harp atop a unicycle. If you find the silly image offensive, I am virtually certain Scolaei wouldn’t have. He was a very funny guy, whose legendary good heart shone through all of his characters.