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"Bill's philosophy onstage is: You're always trying to make the other person look good," observes one student, John Stumpf. "And he can really teach the non-actor." The MasterCard exec says he signed up for one of Chott's classes three years ago because he couldn't speak in front of more than two people at work without "breaking out into cold sweats."
Those days are over. Stumpf performs twice a week now with the Improv Trick. He's gone to Kansas City and the Second City in Chicago for classes and performed in New Orleans with Chott and other Tricksters. "I think the key is, you're never up there [onstage] alone," says Stumpf. "[Bill] always says making a mistake is funny, so now I live by that rule."
A St. Peters resident, the 49-year-old Stumpf says he had no idea who Chott was when he enrolled.
Stumpf's the exception, says Improv Trick's producer, Marc Pruter. "I'd say at least two-thirds of people coming for classes are coming because of Bill."
Chott is a freak for retro-kitsch — his cell phone jingles like an old rotary unit — and a nut for the fantasy-themed rides at Disneyland. He can finesse his way out of an entire bag of magic tricks, yet finding a route from Cherokee Street, to, say, the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton, is a hopeless task — even with the help of his GPS.
"Only a year ago he was leaving town again for LA," says his father, "and he finally left — you see we enjoy having Bill here, but we also breathe a sigh of relief when he's gone — and we're finally sitting down having breakfast, and I say how nice and peaceful it is, and not twenty minutes after he leaves, the phone rings. It's Bill. He says, 'I'm lost!' I said, 'Where are you?' He said, 'I'm on Highway 40!' I said, 'Oh, Bill, you don't get on Highway 40 to get to LA!'"
Chott's mom and pop say directions are about the only thing their son asks for help with. Confides his father: "We never see the downs. He has so much faith in himself and is so committed that he always seems to be thinking about the next role."
Which is not to imply that Chott, who recently learned he suffers from depression, doesn't have his doubts at times, knowing he's often one among thousands contending for a part. "Usually when I hit the bottom is when the next big job and the next big check come in," he says.
His most devastating disappointment came in the mid-1990s when SNL called him to New York from Chicago to audition for the ensemble.
"I was told in advance not to expect any laughter, and when I started doing my characters, I was killing. I opened with my Rush Limbaugh. It was killing. So I'm thinking, OK, I'm getting laughter, I've got the job! I said, 'And now, ladies and gentlemen, Jackie Gleason taking a difficult shit!' And they clammed up. I do the Gleason bit and the room was suddenly quiet."
Chott didn't get the job.
"That was the big heartbreaker for me," he says, "because SNL was my ultimate destination when I started doing comedy."
These days Chott typically pursues roles as teachers, serial killers and pedophiles — and, yes, nerds. He has a recurring role as a dorky high school administrator on the Disney Channel's Wizards of Waverly Place. Earlier this year he shot some scenes in The Rum Diary, which is based on a novel by Hunter S. Thompson and stars Johnny Depp. Chott's character? A bowling expert.
And he may have a renewed chance at a big part in the Farrelly brothers' Three Stooges pic. The Farrellys passed Chott the script during filming of The Ringer (which their company produced). The brothers initially cast Benicio Del Toro as Moe and Sean Penn as Larry. Chott auditioned for Curly — but lost out earlier this year to Jim Carrey.
Penn dropped out in June, however, and, Carrey withdrew in early August. Paul Giamatti has taken Penn's place. Chott has commenced a letter-writing campaign in the hopes of nabbing Carrey's slot. And he's optimistic.
"Peter Farrelly personally called me when Jim Carrey got the part to tell me I had been at the top of their list and they hadn't looked at anybody else besides me and Jim Carrey," he says.
(To see video of Chott's original audition, as well as Improv Trick vignettes, visit www.DailyRFT.com/bill_chott.)
In the meantime St. Louis makes a great part-time home. "I don't need to perform in front of 250 people at once," says Chott. "Here I get to perform in front of just the amount of audience I need — just enough to hear the laughter, and float on that."
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