His star shone for years off-Broadway before his Great White Way triumphs in "Guys & Dolls," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," and "The Producers," the last two of which earned him Tony Awards.
Why, then, is this maestro of music and light laughter hunkered down at the Huntington, rehearsing the title role in Simon Gray's "Butley," a black comedy about an alcoholic, acerbic English professor whose male lover and wife leave him on the same day?
"Butley" is not a Broadway tryout. Nor is it a drama workshop for an overextended musical theater actor in bucolic New England, says Lane, dismissing two likely explanations.
He has dreamed for years of taking on the title role in "Butley," Lane says. Gray has wanted Lane to play Butley since the mid-1980s, when Lane played Nick in the American premiere of Gray's "The Common Pursuit" and the playwright and actor got to know each other.
"I feel," Lane says of the role of Ben Butley, "as if it was written for me."
Lane's older brother, Dan, took him to see Alan Bates's 1973 Tony-winning performance in the title role on Broadway.
"I was about 16, and I was fascinated by the play, by the accents. It was all so foreign to me, I couldn't understand it," Lane recalls. "And I was just mesmerized by Alan Bates."
Even as he rehearses the part, the actor remains somewhat in awe of the acclaimed British actor's so-far definitive rendering of the self-loathing British don whose reckless self-destruction has been compared to Hedda Gabler's.
"It's a huge and challenging role. The range of emotions is extraordinary, and he never leaves the stage," says Lane. "He's also a difficult, sometimes very unpleasant character. In 1970, when the play was written, that kind of character hadn't been seen before that often. It gave Alan an opportunity to spread his wings and tapped into everything he can do."
Lane, 47, has stepped lithely into larger-than-life performers' shoes before. He won each of his Tonys -- for Pseudolus in "Forum" and Max Bialystock in "The Producers" -- for roles originated by comic performer Zero Mostel. Lane's star turn as Max on Broadway is considered so peerless that Jason Alexander, who plays the role in the Los Angeles premiere of the Mel Brooks musical, has inserted a line in the character's jail monologue in which he imitates audience members parsing the play: "He's good, but he's no Nathan Lane."
"There isn't anyone else like Nathan," says his close friend actor Victor Garber ("Alias"). "He is able to express more in a look or a word than most actors I've ever worked with."
Lane's elastic features are expressive; his famously skewed eyebrows annotate facial expressions that can flicker from those of a con man to a clown or a droll intellectual to a regular guy in less than a New York minute.
His "Producers" costar, Matthew Broderick, has seen it firsthand.
"When we were working together, I found myself hoping something would go wrong -- that someone would forget a prop or not enter, which always makes things fun," says Broderick by telephone from the set of his new movie, "The Stepford Wives."
"Because Nathan can't really be thrown. He's extremely quick on his feet. He's very funny, and he's also a good audience.
"As funny as Nathan is and as good a singer as he is, he's just as good in straight, serious roles," adds Broderick. "He's incredibly versatile. And very, very smart."
Those who've watched him closely say the role in the Huntington production will bring as much from Lane as anything he's done so far.
" `Butley' seems like a dream role for Nathan," says playwright and screenwriter Paul Rudnick, calling from his corner of the set of "The Stepford Wives."
"You can't just have a good actor -- you have to have a brilliant actor, someone who can hold the stage, who's the reason for the evening. Someone who has elegance and the common touch.
"When Nathan comes onstage, the welcome, the affection is extraordinary," Rudnick adds.
Theater devotees have followed the actor's work since his early, signature performances in Terrence McNally's "The Lisbon Traviata" and "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," a play McNally wrote for Lane.
"Nathan was born for the stage and most truly exists there," says McNally.
`Not a sad clown'
Lane acknowledges he is most at home onstage. He was a chubby, lonely kid who discovered the comfort and joy of making people laugh and engaging an audience early on, he recalls.
Lane has described his Irish Catholic family background as "bad Eugene O'Neill." Born in Jersey City, the third of three sons in a blue-collar family, he was named after his uncle Joe, a Jesuit priest. He changed his name to Nathan when he applied for an Equity card and discovered there was already a Joe Lane in the union.
Lane's father was a truck driver, an amateur tenor who drank himself to death; his mother was a manic depressive, helpless for extended periods during Lane's childhood.
When he was 21, he told his mother he was gay. Her response was, "I'd rather you were dead." Lane riposted, "I knew you'd understand."
But Nora Lane made a point of seeing all of her son's shows.
"What she used to say was, `I'm not saying it because I'm your mother, I'm saying it because it's true. You were the best one,' " he says.
The Dickensian aspects of his background have been overdramatized, he adds. "I am not a sad clown," he insists. "I am not a sad clown," he says again, adding an expletive for emphasis. Lane sits down for an interview with the enthusiasm of someone about to undergo a root canal. He loosens up quickly, though, when he begins to talk about "Butley."
He grows intrigued when he is asked about a bracketed swath of dialogue that Gray included in early published editions of "Butley" but has since excised.
Lane wasn't aware of the passage.
He reads it out loud, ponders it, and later keeps his driver waiting until he gets a copy. He calls Huntington artistic director Nicholas Martin, who is helming "Butley," that night to discuss his discovery. "Nathan not only comes to the first rehearsal with all lines learned, but with all thoughts for his performance in place," Martin says. "He knows everything there is to know about the play. But he's like a super-actor. It never gets in the way of his spontaneity. He can do 10 different things with the same line."
Lane and Broderick return to Broadway New Year's Eve to reprise their roles in a three-month limited run of "The Producers." Plans are coming together for the two to costar in another film version of the work, says Lane.
"As I'm getting older, I want to challenge myself," he says.
But his efforts to break out into movies, television, writing, and producing have been frustrating.
Lane spent five years developing a biopic of Jackie Gleason. "But then there was a television version with Brad Garrett, which was very sentimental and very cliched," says Lane, disappointed. "I think it turned people off."
Even following the heady success of "The Producers," Lane says, he found it impossible to get the film made.
"People said no one remembers Gleason except for `The Honeymooners,' " says Lane.
"He was Irish Catholic and dark and unpleasant, yes. But he was funny, really funny, and charming. . . . I think he symbolized a lot of what the country was about at that time."
Lane enjoyed his biggest movie success with 1996's "The Birdcage," opposite Robin Williams. But that didn't break open his career, either. "After `The Birdcage,' everybody said, `Oh, you must have been offered everything.' And I was offered nothing," he says, chuckling.
"And, you know, the longer time goes on, the directors get younger, they're 22, and they don't go to theater, they don't know what I do. And after 27 years, I don't want to have to prove to some kid that I know how to act."
Twice he's tried to get TV projects off the ground. In the 1998 sitcom "Encore! Encore!" he starred as an opera singer who loses his voice and goes home to live with his mother in Napa Valley. It was quickly canceled.
He is still fuming about "Charlie Lawrence," a CBS sitcom that aired twice last spring in which he played a gay former actor who becomes a congressman.
" `Charlie Lawrence' was a show I was very proud of and happy with," says Lane, who was an executive producer and writer.
"We made seven episodes," he says. CBS president Les Moonves "really did not care for it and decided to systematically sabotage it," says Lane, a palpable irritation creeping into his voice.
"Look, it was totally a business decision, but it was handled quite brutally," he continues.
He pauses and vents. "As Michael O'Donoghue once wrote to Tom Shales, `I only hope you get rectal cancer and die screaming,' " Lane says, quoting the comedy writer's venomous comment with relish.
"Does that explain how I feel about Les Moonves? And I only hope his wife takes him for everything he's worth in the divorce."
That brief rant resembles the withering wit that flashes through "Butley," a play Lane finds more enthralling as he delves into it more deeply, he says.
"Look, this is all that matters," Lane says, gesturing toward a rehearsal room as he leaves the Huntington Theatre.
"I think it's going to be great," he says with a sudden burst of enthusiasm. "I think it's going to mean the rediscovery of the play, the rediscovery of Simon Gray."
In a somewhat more subdued tone, he allows, "It already has a different feel than the Alan Bates play."
A week closer to opening night, Lane reports that rehearsals for "Butley" are going more smoothly than he expected.
"It's such a good play, so well constructed," he says. "The language is incredible. And it's screamingly funny.
"Yes, it's going very well," he adds. "And I never say that. I never feel that way about anything."
Maureen Dezell can be reached at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.