“Believe me, I did not see ‘game show host’ coming,” says John Michael Higgins ’85, “but here it is.” Higgins has been an actor for almost his entire life, starting in stage productions at 9 years old and continuing through a long and prolific career as a character actor in movies and TV, with the kind of face and voice that people recognize on the street but can’t always place. “I see somebody approaching me, and you see it physically on them when they recognize me,” Higgins says. “They don’t know why they’re having that sensation. They just know they know me.”
Maybe they know Higgins from his latest project as host of the Game Show Network’s America Says, in which teams of contestants attempt to guess the answers to survey questions posed to a cross-section of Americans. In the midst of a successful acting career, Higgins hadn’t been aiming to host a game show, but he’s taken to the job quickly and eagerly: “There’s some kind of host gene in me somewhere, and it sort of got pulled off the shelf.”
Higgins’ best-known work is with filmmaker and actor Christopher Guest, whose improvisation-heavy movies—including Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind—are some of the most influential comedies of the last 25 years. Higgins believes that his talent for improv is one of the main reasons he got the America Says gig, and his experiences working on four Guest movies are some of the most cherished of his entire career.
“The beauty of Chris’ work is that the actor has some skin in the game,” says Higgins, whose years of stage work (he didn’t start working in movies and TV until his 30s) accustomed him to having more control over his performances. In Guest’s films, he had the chance to guide the creation of his characters and improvise all of his own dialogue, in the process contributing to some of the most acclaimed comedies ever made. “It’s very gratifying to know that perhaps I’ve bumped into film history somewhere along the way,” Higgins says.
An English major and former child actor, he came to Amherst to broaden his horizons.
Other notable on-screen roles include Chuck Pierce on the short-lived but beloved NBC sitcom Great News; voice work on such animated series as Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law and The Legend of Korra; and John, half of the a cappella commentating duo in the Pitch Perfect series. The latter role introduced him to a whole new audience. “Now I’ll get mobbed by a group of 12-year-olds in a grocery store,” he marvels.
Still, the stage is his home. “It’s what I’m set up to do,” he says, and when asked about his favorite role, he doesn’t mention any popular movies, instead citing a trio of Marivaux plays he worked on in the ’90s with theater director Stephen Wadsworth. “That was sort of the high point, I think, of the whole shebang,” he says.
Anyone who’s seen him onscreen knows Higgins for his improv and comedy, but that’s not where he expected to end up. “Neither of those words would have been very interesting to me when I was playing Hamlet in college.”
Although he performed in Hamlet and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Amherst, Higgins was an English major, and he deliberately chose Amherst in order to broaden his horizons following his time as a child actor, before pursuing acting as a full-time profession.
“The best thing Amherst ever taught me was curiosity,” he says. “I’m still an actor, and I’m still doing all kinds of different characters and jobs and things, and I think that’s because I’m curious.”
Bell is a Las Vegas-based TV and movie critic.