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Hitching a Ride on Batman's Box Office Wings, Comic Robert Wuhl Soars Beyond the Stand-Up Scene

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Jack Nicholson spends his screen time chortling and braying with white-faced merriment Michael Keaton responds with secret weapons and a sexy smile beneath the mask. But as Batman enters its blockbusting fourth week, Robert Wuhl may be getting the last laugh—and a lot of fodder for his stand-up routine. “I was on the movie for four months, and I only worked for 20 days,” Wuhl, 37, tells a packed house at Caroline’s, a Manhattan comedy club. “I learned the most wonderful words in the English language: per diem. God bless the Bat.”

Wuhl has been in hit movies before—as Robin Williams’s fellow revel-rousing deejay in Good Morning, Vietnam and Kevin Costner’s fast-talking baseball coach in Bull Durham—but it was in Batman that he made an indelible imprint with his amazingly malleable mug. And to think that the guy didn’t even like the Batman TV show. “I was offended by it” he says. “Batman was a hero. He didn’t go around in tights.”

Director Tim Burton’s darker interpretation—though it still puts the superhero in spandex—is more pleasing to Wuhl (pronounced “wall”). He describes his own character, Alexander Knox, as a journalistic Everyman, “a reporter with sources who won’t confirm anything, colleagues who make fun of him and editors who come down on him.” Wuhl’s screen moments are limited, but he says his character’s appeal is irresistible: “Knox gets a crush on Vicki Vale [Kim Basinger], and she goes off with the rich guy. How can you not root for him?” Especially when he oozes a naiveué reminiscent of Woody Allen—an early influence on Wuhl. “He was this nerdy average guy,” says the actor, “who still got the girl.”

As an upper-middle-class boy in Union, N.J., Wuhl had the nerdy and average parts down, but the girls eluded him. “I was part of the gang with the guys, but not with women,” he recalls. “I didn’t date at all.” He saw a lot of dates, though, while pursuing his love of movies at the drive-in next to his home. “Every night I’d sneak in,” he says. “Sometimes they’d put me to work collecting for the Will Rogers charity fund. You have no idea what it’s like, banging on windows while people are making out in their cars.”

As the middle child in a family of three—his father, a produce distributor, died in 1979—Robert was a self-confessed “smart ass” who was never cast in high school plays. He entered the University of Houston “because they accepted me.” Although he hated college, he liked drama class, where he directed—and was directed by—schoolmate Dennis Quaid. For pin money, Wuhl peddled comedy bits to a local radio personality.

After graduation in 1976 (it took him seven years to rack up a sufficient number of course credits) Wuhl moved back to Manhattan and worked on his stand-up routines. In 1978 he sold Rodney Danger-field some jokes, and that same year, while doing a show at the Improv, he met Barbara Capelli-Koldys, a manuscript reader for Simon and Schuster who was moonlighting as a bartender. Wuhl moved to Los Angeles in 1979, Barbara followed, and they married four years later. They now share a two-bedroom home in Westwood. “I always felt Barbara had great taste,” Wuhl says of his initial attraction. Barbara, who sometimes joins Wuhl on location, does not return the compliment. “He wore polyester shirts and leisure suits and had an orange velour sofa,” she says. “He was completely uncool. Totally tacky.” Still, she was drawn to his talent: “When I walked through the Improv, the audience was on the floor, laughing.”

Wuhl still has the same onstage effect, but it’s his film career that is taking off. He recently finished playing a “smooth-talking sleaze-bag shark” with Paul Newman in Blaze, due in December, and is hoping for a part as an assistant D.A. in the film version of Bonfire of the Vanities. As for the future, he’s grateful Knox was not killed off as an early Batman script dictated. “If I’d died,” he says, “I couldn’t be in the sequel.”