Nathan Lane has spent the majority of his career on Broadway and the New York theater, but he has also had a good run on television and in film.
Lane worked his way up through the ranks of off-Broadway and regional theater prior to making his Broadway debut in 1983. The actor was born Joe Lane, but he changed it to Nathan because another actor had already claimed his birth one in the unions. He chose the name because one of his favorite roles was that of Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls,” a part which would earn him his first Tony nomination in 1992. He would go on to win three Tony Awards in his Broadway career: two as Best Actor in a Musical for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 1996 and “The Producers” in 2001; and a third last year as Best Featured Actor in a Play for a revival of “Angels in America.”
Lane’s television career started with a long running Nyquil commercial in which he played a sick apartment dweller knocking on his neighbor’s doors looking for cold relief. He has tried a number of times to launch his own sitcom over the years but those shows were always short lived. In spite of that he has managed to earn six Guest Actor Emmy nominations for his work on “Frasier,” “Mad About You,” “Modern Family” and “The Good Wife.”He finally won that category for “Only Murders in the Building” in 2022.
He has also earned two Golden Globe nominations for Best Comedy/Musical Actor for the films “The Birdcage” and “The Producers.” One of his most memorable films was working with Disney on the animated classics “The Lion King.
Tour our photo gallery of his 10 greatest film performances, ranked from worst to best.
10. JEFFREY (1995)
Director: Christopher Ashley. Writer: Paul Rudnick. Starring Steven Weber, Michael T. Weiss, Patrick Stewart.
Based on a hit off-Broadway play of the same name, this film takes a comic look at a gay man who becomes frustrated with the dating scene and decides to become celibate. Lane has a small role as a priest Jeffrey goes to see for confession, but the priest has more of an interest in discussing musical theater than he does hearing Jeffrey’s sins.
9. ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES (1993)
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld. Writer: Paul Rudnick. Starring Angelica Huston, Raul Julia, Joan Cusack.
“Addams Family Values” is one of the rare sequels that is actually better than the first film. “The Addams Family” brought the popular newspaper and television series characters to the big screen with moderate success. The sequel, written by playwright Paul Rudnick, added a camp sensibility and Joan Cusack in a scene stealing role as the comic serial killer Debbie Jelinsky. Lane makes a cameo appearance as a police desk sergeant who has to deal with the strange events the family finds themselves in. Lane would go on to star as Gomez in the Broadway musical version of “The Addams Family.”
8. IRONWEED (1987)
Director: Hector Babenco. Writer: William Kennedy. Starring Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Carroll Baker.
One of Lane’s first screen appearance came in this dark drama that earned Oscar nominations for Jack Nicholson as Best Actor and Meryl Streep as Best Actress. “Ironweed” is a very downbeat look at two alcoholics living on the streets in the early 1900s. The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name.
7. HE SAID, SHE SAID (1991)
Directors: Ken Kwapis, Marisa Silver. Writer: Brian Hohlfeld. Starring Kevin Bacon, Elizabeth Perkins, Sharon Stone.
The gimmick of “He Said, She Said” was that it was basically two separate films telling the same story, with one part directed by a man and the other directed by a woman. Each part tells the story of two political television pundits (a conservative man and liberal woman) who fall in love. One part is told from the man’s perspective and one part from the woman’s perspective. Lane plays the boss of the two combative but really in love lead characters.
6. JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO (1990)
Director and writer: John Patrick Shanley. Starring Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges.
Expectations were high for this film since the director/writer John Patrick Shanley was coming off an Oscar win for penning “Moonstruck.” Tom Hanks had just established himself as one of film’s most likable comic leading men with “Big” and Meg Ryan had become America’s new sweetheart with the success of “When Harry Met Sally.” The film didn’t quite live up to expectations though. Hanks plays a man who thinks he is dying and through a complicated series of events ends up on an island in the Pacific where the natives hope to sacrifice him to a volcano. Lane plays the spokesperson of the island natives and his first appearance in the film is a great sight gag since he is dressed like an extra from a “King Kong” movie complete with spear and tribal grass skirt.
5. FRANKIE AND JOHNNY (1991)
Director: Gary Marshall. Writer: Terrence McNally. Starring Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kate Nelligan.
Lane had collaborated quite often with playwright Terrence McNally in the New York theater, appearing in many of his plays. This film is an adaptation of McNally’s two-character play “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” which has been opened up and had more characters added to it. Lane plays the best friend of Michelle Pfeiffer, who is a depressed waitress stuck in a dead-end job due to trauma from her past she can’t get over.
4. NICHOLAS NICKLEBY (2002)
Director and writer: Douglas McGrath. Starring Charlie Hunnam, Jamie Bell, Christopher Plummer.
This Charles Dickens novel has often been adapted for stage and screen, most successfully by the Royal Shakespeare Company in a famous stage production that won the Tony for Best Play and the Emmy for Best Limited Series when it was done for television. This version features “Sons of Anarchy” star Charlie Hunnam in the title role of Nicholas, who tries to support his mother and sister after his father’s untimely death. Lane is warm and ingratiating as a theatrical troupe leader who casts Nicholas in one of his plays when he is in need of a job.
3. THE PRODUCERS (2005)
Director: Susan Stroman. Writers: Mel Brooks, Thomas Meehan. Starring Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman, Will Ferrell.
The original film version of “The Producers” starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder won Mel Brooks an Oscar for his screenplay. Over thirty years later, Brooks adapted the film for the stage casting Lane in the lead role of Max Bialystok, a desperate Broadway producer who intentionally stages a Broadway flop about singing Nazis. The stage version was a smash hit and won a record-holding 12 Tony Awards. This film version didn’t meet with the same success but it is a nice record of Lane’s most acclaimed Broadway role.
2. THE LION KING (1994)
Directors: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff. Writers: Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton. Starring Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, Whoopi Goldberg.
One of Lane’s most beloved roles is the voice he provided for this immensely popular Disney animated feature. He plays Timon, a meerkat who befriends and watches over Simba, a lion cub who will grow up to be the king of his pride. Lane got to join others in singing the song “Hakuna Matata,” which was one of three songs from the film that were nominated for Best Original Song at that years Oscars. (Another one of the Elton John and Tim Rice penned songs, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” took home the Oscar.)
1. THE BIRDCAGE (1996)
Director: Mike Nichols. Writer: Jean Poiret. Starring Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Diane Wiest.
Based on the 1978 French film “La Cage aux Folles,” — which was also turned into a Broadway musical in the eighties — this American adaptation cast Lane as one half of a gay couple and the star of a drag show whose son is about to get married but is ashamed to have his fiancé’s conservative parents meet his unconventional ones. Lane earned a SAG Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his role and the film won the SAG Award for Best Ensemble.