For seven years they searched for the right role for him and never found it. With the revival of Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino penned a role with him in mind. With that perfect role in place, Lauren Graham’s best friend Sam Pancake joined the cast of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life as Donald, a new Stars Hollow townie.
I spoke with Sam Pancake this week about what it was like joining his friends for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, the story behind his journey to Gilmore Girls, and a few small hints about what we can expect from Donald. If my conversation with Sam is any indication, I think you’re all going to love Donald!
Sam Pancake grew up in Romney, West Virginia, a very small town where the name Pancake was common, his family’s settlement dating back to the 1730s. Sam grew up dreaming of being an actor, ever since he was very little, though it wasn’t until after he got his degree in theatre from West Virginia University that he got his first on-screen role, a part in the movie Shag. “I always felt like I was born to be in LA or New York,” shares Sam, who fulfilled his dream by moving to LA with just $200 in his pocket. Of course, pursing a career in comedy with the last name Pancake drew attention, “It wasn’t until I came to LA and became an actor and did mostly comedies that people, understandably, assumed that I changed it to be wacky, but I did not.” Still, Sam chooses to believe his stand-out last name has been helpful, “God knows with my sensibility and my looks I was not destined to be the next Tom Cruise or the next Laurence Olivier, I think the fact that I do a lot of comedy and stuff, I think it did help. People do remember it. And pancakes, people do love them!”
In the early 90s, Sam did a lot of commercials, supplementing his acting with a day job in commercial casting. By the end of the 90s, Sam was able to quit his day job and has been acting ever since. Known for his character roles in films such as The Hungover Games and many comedy shows, Sam has also had guest roles on shows including Curb Your Enthusiasm, Friends and Arrested Development.
“Sometimes I like to pretend in my mind that I’m 32, but it’s like ‘No, no, it’s on the Internet. You’ve been around since like ’90 on your IMDb and you weren’t a baby, you weren’t a child actor, so own up to it Pancake!”
Sam Pancake became friends with Melissa McCarthy in around 1996 or 1997; in 1998, the pair worked together in the short film God by John August, who went on to write Big Fish and The Nines, the latter which also starred Melissa. “Melissa and I were friends,” shares Sam, “I was in the comedy world with lots of friends in common. We became really close.” Sam shares that he met Lauren Graham at Melissa’s house in 2000, becoming instant friends. “I knew who Lauren was, but we met and just realized we were… brother and sister separated at birth!”
Sam describes Lauren as ‘his best girl friend,’ noting that the pair have always been on the lookout to work together, including during the first 7 seasons of Gilmore Girls.
“The whole first 7 years, we were always looking for something for me. All through the first Gilmore Girls, I was working a lot in sitcoms and movies and commercials and stage things. The whole first run of Gilmore, I knew everyone because we were always at parties together. I met Yanic and Sean Gunn and Alexis, obviously, because I knew everyone just from being Lauren’s friend and Melissa’s friend. And I knew Dan and Amy, through Lauren. But it never quite worked out, the part that I thought would be right for me; that would be fun and good enough that I would do, that wasn’t like ‘Here’s your salad, ma’am.’ Not that I’m above that! But if I’m going to play with my best friend…”
And so, they waited for the perfect part, but it never came up. Gilmore Girls completed its first 7 seasons. Sam would visit, including memorable times he was able to walk over from the nearby Friends set, “You just walk off Central Perk, walk past two stages, turn the corner and there’s Stars Hollow. So it was so cool to be able to hang with my friends while doing Friends.” Still, Lauren and Sam were always looking for something they could work on together.
“So, when this all came together… Dan and Amy were so cool to write this character and cast me in it. It was a dream come true.”
Sam shares that Amy and Dan had him in mind when writing the character of Donald, who Sam describes as being new to Stars Hollow since the end of Season 7 (so new to us, but he may have been in town for up to 9 years!).
“He’s a gay guy. And he’s new in the town since it ended… It’s not a huge part, but I got to do and watch a lot of really fun things with some really amazing people.”
Sam shares that we will see Donald in two episodes, Spring and Summer, but he’s being careful not to ruin any surprises for us! “I’m so chatty and talkative, like a true Gilmore, that I have to be careful what I say! I don’t want to ruin anything for the fans!”
“He’s similar to me,” says Sam of his Gilmore Girls character, Donald. “A little bit similar to me. He dresses nicer than me. And he wears a lot of pastels and I don’t, I wear black a lot. But he’s a gay dude, so am I, so there’s that. It’s Stars Hollow, look at it, and he’s a gay guy! It’s adorable, there’s festivals, there’s antique shops, there’s Carole King and Sally Struthers! Come on! I get to very happily be a new guy who happens to be gay in the town.”
Although viewers of Gilmore Girls have had suspicions about Michel (played by Yanic Truesdale) being gay, and Rose Abdoo has shared her own theories about Gypsy, at the time the original run of Gilmore Girls was on, it was only two years after Will & Grace broke ground on having openly gay characters on television. It was still new. Nine years later, much has changed and I know I am excited to ‘meet’ Donald in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.
After being friends with so many cast member over the years, I wondered what it was like for Sam to join the cast. “The fact that it’s my best friend, it felt great. I had met everyone before. It was good. It was really fun. We had a great time. And Eric was new also, and we’re in a lot of scenes together and we’ve become friends, such a great guy. It was really fun. The food, I know Rose talked about this, the food was amazing. We had such good snacks in the Snack Hole.” Sam mentioned that being on set for such a long duration was dangerous, snack wise!
Sam says that his time on set included scenes with Lauren (“That was a dream! She’s really fun”), but also with Sally Struthers, Scott Patterson, Alexis Bledel, Michael Winters, Rose Abdoo and newcomer Eric Henry. His favourite person to work with remains a secret, however, likely because there are guest stars on Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life who have not been announced yet (as Eric also alluded to). Sam hints for us, “you will be delighted and surprised,” and that we, as fans, are going to enjoy the whole series.
“So much stuff happens! And it’s so good! Oh my God, it’s so rich and creamy and delicious and I’m getting chills just thinking about it. Dan and Amy and Lauren, of course, knocked it out of the park. And I’m not saying that just to be hyperbolic. It’s just true. It’s good. It’s good.”
As a fan of the series himself, having watched most of it and also being privy to all that goes on ‘behind the curtain,’ being friends with the cast, Sam says that the end result is amazing, but the process too also sets Gilmore Girls apart:
“I got to see a little tiny bit of it a couple of weeks ago when I did ADR and it looks amazing, just in terms of the cinematography. It’s very beautiful, the parts that I saw. People are going to be really really happy.”
Sam notes that working on Gilmore Girls requires a precision you don’t see often. Sam describes Lauren, who once confessed to being fastidious about the “minutiae” of words, as having a photographic memory:
“Maybe she does or doesn’t get enough credit for this, but Lauren has a photographic memory. She can look at that stuff and can just do it. I marvel at her facility. I can’t do that. Dan and Amy and the writers write that way for Lorelai with all of these long and tricky ‘walk and talk’ and Lauren can do that easily and naturally, which, Ladies and Gentlemen, believe me, not that many actors can do. It’s word perfect, and you have to hit it, because they have a very distinct and unique rhythm and you can’t change it. And a lot of sitcoms or other shows I’ve done, from Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is completely improvised, to a lot of other shows, you can ‘make it your own,’ as they say. But that’s just not how it goes in Gilmore Girls, or like with Aaron Sorkin. I remember doing West Wing and having this really long monologue which, thank God, my character was on the phone and I got to read, but it was that same thing: you can’t change a single thing. And then I got to see it in the flesh, I had the personal experience myself on set, with A Year in the Life. It’s not ‘a’ for ‘an,’ or ’the’ for ‘a,’ it’s right on the money. And I totally respect that. And that’s why it works and that’s why it’s so good.”
Being friends with Lauren for so many years, Sam was aware of the dedication of the fan base, although now he’s experiencing first-hand what it’s like to be at the receiving end of our amazing community. Following the announcement of his guest role on Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, Sam has had many fans add him on social media, though only one “sassafras” who criticized his off-camera look for trying to be too much like Luke! If you can allow for a man who also enjoys wearing a backwards cap from time-to-time, Sam invites you to stay tuned to his Instagram and Twitter after the release of A Year in the Life on November 25th for more behind-the-scenes photos and experiences that he’s been waiting to share with us all.
And of course, what would an interview with a fellow fan of Gilmore Girls be without asking if Sam was Team Dean, Team Jess or Team Logan?
“Ooooh! See, I know things from having read the scripts! I think that… Oh my god, Milo looks so good. He has become quite a man. Speaking as a character, that’s for Rory, in my opinion… I have to go with Team Logan. I’m not giving anything away! It’s literally really hard to pick. If I were her, I would be like, ‘How do you pick? How do you pick?!’ But, let me tell you something, if it were Sam picking… Milo, oh my god, he looks so good. He was always adorable, but he’s a MAN now. It’s just ‘Boy!’ So… that’s all I’ll say.”
And with that hilarious note, I asked Sam just one final question. If the rumours of the potential for more Gilmore Girls revivals hold true, Sam says it’s likely we could see a return of his character, Donald:
“I think so, yes. I think that’s possible. I don’t die!”
While we all wait for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life to come out on November 25th to meet Sam’s character Donald, we can catch Sam before then in Fall episodes of Major Crimes, Transparent, on SeeSo’s improv show Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, on Documentary Now on a recurring role on MTV’s new Acting Out. If you’re in LA, Sam also does a one-man show called Sam Pancake: Hot, Sweet and Sticky that will be returning on October 18th, so stay tuned to his Instagram for details!