Lafayette’s Will Forte stars on TV’s Saturday Night Live and in the new movie MacGruber.
Portraits by Lisa Loftus
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When Forte is discussing his career, his voice turns quiet, as if he’s pacing himself. About to begin his longest day of the week on SNL, he describes the energy required to perform on the legendary comedy show. “It’s Tuesday today, the big writing day,” he says. “We stay up all night writing, grab two hours of sleep on the couch, then get up and write until tomorrow’s table read. Then, you rehearse every day until the show and try to catch up on sleep. When Saturday comes, we do the show live at 11:30, then stay up all night to drain out the energy. Then, you start all over again. It’s very intense, a ton of work—and lots of fun.”
Forte came into the world with a funny name—Orville Willis Forte IV. “I’m the first Orville Willis to actually go by part of my given name,” says Forte. “My great-grandfather went by Buster, my grandfather was Junie, and my dad is Reb.”
Forte uses OrvilleIV as his Twitter handle, though his 200 followers shouldn’t expect much: He has yet to send a single tweet. “I guess I have private thoughts—I have not felt the need to share them on the Internet,” he says.
In real life, Forte decided on “Will” at an early age. “He was Billy until he was about five,” says his mother, Patti Forte, who lives in Danville. “Billie Jean King was in the news at the time, and some kids teased him and called him a girl. He came home one day and said, ‘Mom, my name is Will.’ And he’s been Will ever since.”
Patti describes her son as a kind child with a creative streak. “When the kids were little, I had to take Michele and Will to a series of eye appointments. Will would entertain himself by singing and making up these little songs,” she says. “The first time I saw him sing on Saturday Night Live, I could not believe how far he had taken that skill.” (Forte would further build on it by bringing Patti onto a Mother’s Day episode of SNL and serenading her during Weekend Update.)
Forte, who was on the varsity football and swim teams at Acalanes High, was a laid-back teen with a lot of friends. Oddly enough, he wasn’t a star drama student with hopes for a TV or film career.
“I did watch a tremendous amount of television during that time, though,” says Forte, laughing. He was a fan of ABC’s MacGyver, the mid-80s action series that MacGruber lampoons, about a secret agent who could rapidly neuter a nuke with, say, duct tape and a tube sock. “When I was watching MacGyver, I wasn’t making fun of it. I totally bought that the guy could deactivate a bomb with some household items.”
Forte earned a history degree from UCLA and entered the real world with a quick stint in the financial industry. There was nothing funny about his brief tenure at Shearson Lehman Smith Barney. “I hated it. I was miserable,” Forte says. Throughout college, he had been encouraged to try comedy by girlfriends and fraternity buddies. “I thought, ‘If I don’t give comedy a shot right now, it’s never going to happen.’ ”
Patti Forte encouraged her son to chase his dreams. “I told him, ‘You aren’t married, you don’t have any money—your future is wide open,’ ” she recalls. “I asked, ‘If you could do anything you wanted, what would it be?’ He looked at me and whispered, ‘I’d like to be an actor or a writer.’ It was almost like he couldn’t bring himself to say it right out loud.”
Forte tutored kids (including Faye Dunaway’s son) to make the rent and joined the Groundlings, the L.A.-based improv troupe that helped launch the comedy careers of SNL alums Will Ferrell and Mike Myers. While spending several years working his way through the Groundlings’ competitive hierarchy, Forte found that his creative passion was writing. “The first job I got in the business was as a writer [for MTV’s Jenny McCarthy Show],” he says. “I discovered that I loved it more than anything I had ever done in my life.”
In the late ’90s, Forte wrote for Late Show With David Letterman, 3rd Rock From the Sun, and That ’70s Show, which also gave him his first producer credit. He continued to perform with the Groundlings, and after nearly a decade of hard work, SNL came knocking in 2001.
“By the time I was invited to join Saturday Night Live, I was in my thirties. I thought the chance to be a performer had already sailed.”
Not so much. Forte joined a Saturday Night Live cast that included Tina Fey, Darrell Hammond, and Walnut Creek native Jeff Richards. During his eight seasons on the show, Forte has been a solid Not Ready for Prime-Time Player in the show’s political parodies, skewering everyone from George W. Bush to John Edwards to Joe “You lie!” Wilson. He has also created a range of memorable original characters, such as mumbling politician Tim Calhoun and the mysterious Falconer, a former businessman who left his career to live in the woods with a pet falcon.
And, of course, MacGruber.
Usually, bomb is a bad word in the movie business. For MacGruber, bombs are his bread and butter. And the detonator of big laughs.
Forte’s most famous SNL creation is a former Army Ranger, Green Beret, and Navy SEAL soldier with 16 purple hearts, who is always trying to get characters out of a jam by defusing a ticking time bomb. Inevitably, MacGruber gets distracted by a personal issue: his racial insensitivity, his crashing stock portfolio, or his heroin addiction.
Then, he blows up, exploding in a screen-filling fireball. Every single time.