THE CELEBRITY SECOND ACT HAS BECOME a staple of pop culture. The press releases almost write themselves: Comedian becomes reality TV host, reality TV host becomes actor, actor releases mediocre rap album. But those second acts don’t always sink to the level of cliché. Take Peter Weller. He’s had a long, meandering Act I. After a vibrant movie career in the 1980s that included playing the lead in cult hits like RoboCop, he fell into the far less glamorous world of direct-to-video and straight-to-cable. Then last year, he came back big, in a riveting turn as a bad guy on 24.
In the interim, though, Weller started getting into character for Act II. He spent much of the past two decades in Italy and, on a lark, enrolled in classes at the Syracuse University program in Florence. He soon discovered he had a thing for the aqueducts of long-dead civilizations, and now he’s working toward a PhD in Italian Renaissance art history from UCLA. This is no vanity degree; Weller teaches courses, writes papers, and is doggedly climbing the academic ladder. Buckaroo Banzai, the polymath who was arguably Weller’s most famous character — acclaimed neurosurgeon, race car driver, particle physicist, and, of course, rock star — would be proud. “I’ve always followed my passions,” Weller says, “even when it didn’t seem to make much sense.”
It’s hard to imagine what freshmen think when they wander into Professor Banzai’s lecture hall. Weller reports that he loses a lot of students after the first class. “They thought they were going to get the easy A from old RoboCop,” he says with a laugh. The 450-page course reader tells them otherwise. Those who stay get a view into Weller’s two worlds. For example, his class at Syracuse on Hollywood and the Roman Empire requires watching toga-and-sandal epics (Ben Hur and The Last Temptation of Christ among them) and reading primary-source Roman authors in an attempt to reconcile big-screen Rome with the real thing. “The Romans were an unbelievably complex people, and we are an unbelievably complex people,” Weller says. “We can learn so much about why things are the way they are by looking at what they did.” He goes on to explain how the absence of the concept of zero in Greek antiquity laid the foundation for Western philosophical thought.
All this boning up on the ancients has paid off for Weller professionally, too. He hosts the History Channel’s Engineering an Empire series, which investigates Mayans, Egyptians, and other ancient peoples. And his latest acting gig is on stage as the brilliant but troubled architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the play Frank’s Home, which opened in Chicago before heading off-Broadway. For an architecture buff, it’s a dream role. “Wright is the one who burst things wide open, really created modern architecture,” Weller says, and then he’s off and running, explaining the connections between Renaissance buttressing, the power of the Church in the Middle Ages, and ancient heathen ritu als still practiced on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. The curtain rises on Act III.
Not really a gloss, but an interesting bit of synchronicity, is the post by Dennis at Campus Mawrtius ...