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Byline: Evan Henerson Theater Writer

It was a role Bill Fagerbakke pretty much had to get.

The creators of a cartoon based on the slobbery dog ``Beethoven'' movies were looking to voice a pooch named Caesar who, the description said, ``should sound like Dauber from `Coach.'''

``My agent said, `We better get you in,''' recalls Fagerbakke who played that same Dauber for eight seasons opposite Craig T. Nelson. ``But what if I didn't get cast? It would have been depressing.''

Fortunately he got the ``Beethoven'' gig. Then he got ``Gargoyles'' and ``Jumanji,'' and the animated renaissance of Bill Fagerbakke was in full bloom. In 1998, a 'toon-seasoned Fagerbakke recorded the pilot for an offbeat Nickelodeon show about an optimistic yellow sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea.

Perhaps you've heard of it.

``What a surprise -- and what a wonderful ride,'' Fagerbakke says of his work on ``SpongeBob SquarePants.'' ``As my kids were coming to the age of understanding what I did for a living, this cartoon just took off. I'd go to an elementary school, and it was like I was Moses. The seas would part, and all the kids would be yelling, `It's Patrick!'''

Five seasons on Nick -- and one ``SpongeBob'' film later, Fagerbakke has returned to the legitimate stage for the first time in nearly two decades. His daughters, ages 12 and 14, will be in the audience for ``The God of Hell'' -- opening Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse -- but this one's not for the young.

In Sam Shepard's dark comedy about patriotism run amok in rural America, Fagerbakke plays a dairy farmer named Frank whose farm is overrun by a pair of government workers harboring military secrets. Frank is a big lumberjack of a man, more at home with his tractor and prized heifers than around human beings.

``It really seems specifically agitated by that kind of perverted patriotic fervor that happened in our country three to four years ago,'' he says of the play. ``There's almost a traditional absurdist feeling to this.''

This casting should not come as a shockeroo to those familiar with Fagerbakke's work on TV shows like ``Coach'' and ``Oz'' (Officer Karl Metzger). Fagerbakke, who stands at 6-foot-6, is accustomed to enacting characters who are large and -- quite frequently -- not the sharpest tools in the shed.

Consider Patrick Star, the slow-witted sidekick starfish to SpongeBob who probably couldn't outwit an eggplant on his best day.

``Especially the one-toothed Patrick,'' agrees Fagerbakke, laughing, during an interview in a Nickelodeon conference room. ``Whenever Patrick only has one tooth, you know what's happening is really dumb.''

Regardless, it's a gig that has helped Fagerbakke maintain a family-friendly work schedule, and given him an instant icebreaker (``I know Patrick'') with his daughters' friends. And for a man who uses acting to ``subsidize parenthood,'' the Topanga father of two is happy for the niche -- blockheaded or otherwise.

``To be able to make a damn living in this business is a small miracle,'' says Fagerbakke, who is married to actress Catherine McClenahan. ``When I'm less concerned with supporting my family, then maybe I'll be more concerned with fulfilling other aspects of my craft. And I'll definitely get back to doing more theater. It's such balm for the soul.''

As pretty much any student of the craft will agree, an actor needs brains to convincingly depict the lack thereof. Fagerbakke -- whose conversational voice is not instantly recognizable either as Dauber or Patrick -- is affable, good-humored and fully aware that he can carry off a believable moron.

Paul Tibbitt, co-executive producer of ``SpongeBob'' says that Fagerbakke is so on the ball and well-prepared that he has earned the nickname ``one-take Bill.''

``He even understands some things about the character that I don't,'' says Tibbitt. ``He nails it every time and requires very little direction, and he makes my life much easier.''

``He's an actor you respond to,'' adds ``God of Hell'' director Jason Alexander, the ``Seinfeld'' alum who worked opposite Fagerbakke in an episode of his now defunct series, ``Listen Up.'' ``When I was reading the script, I was trying to figure out who is this sort of quintessential Midwestern dairy farmer. He's a guy who looks like he could push cows around and have kind of a face you know. (Bill) did exactly what I hoped he would do.''

< Fagerbakke was a sophomore at the University of Idaho when he blew out his knee and found his thoughts turning to something other than football. He quit the team and went along when another former teammate suggested they try out for the spring musical, ``Godspell.''

``I had the time of my life, and from that moment I just took wing,'' says Fagerbakke. ``At first, I thought this would be a wonderful thing to teach, but the more I got into building things creatively and getting to layer things, I wanted to try to make a living at it.''

He has performed in Shepard's plays twice, in regional theater productions of ``Fools for Love'' and ``Tooth of Crime.'' The playwright, Fagerbakke contends, captures the rhythms and attitudes of Western and rural America like nobody else.

``I think that puts him in a pretty small group,'' says Fagerbakke. ``That's what always has drawn me to him: the thing his characters say. The characters he creates are very familiar to me in a really kind of basic, primal way.''

Fagerbakke has never met Shepard, but there was one near encounter between the two men.

``Right around the time I finished `Tooth of Crime,' I saw him walking down Broadway,'' Fagerbakke says. ``I wanted to approach him and thank him for the work.''

Evan Henerson, (818) 713-3651



Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday; through July 30.

Tickets: $35 to $69. (310) 208-5454.




(color) Bill Fagerbakke hugs Patrick, his cartoon alter ego.

Evan Yee/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 26, 2006

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