New York During his nine-year run on "Saturday Night Live," Tim Meadows poked fun at Clarence Thomas, wore padding to play Oprah Winfrey and pasted on a mustache to get laughs as Johnnie Cochran.
But it wasn't until he donned a giant Afro and polyester clothes and created a linguistically challenged Ladies Man known as Leon Phelps that he finally had a hit signature character.
"The first time we did the character, it was in the second part of the show (when) viewership drops off," said Meadows. "We sort of knew it was funny and that it was successful when the next time we did it, we were in the first commercial break."
When Julianne Moore came to guest host, she asked to be in a "Ladies Man" sketch. "And that was when we knew that people liked it," Meadows said. The true test of how much people like Leon Phelps may come at the box office. He's the latest "SNL" character to get the big-screen treatment, with the debut of "Ladies Man," opening Friday.
Some of those feature films have succeeded: "The Blues Brothers" and "Wayne's World" were huge hits that spawned sequels. Others have flopped: "Superstar," featuring Molly Shannon as nerdy Mary Katherine Gallagher; "It's Pat," based on Julia Sweeney's creepy androgynous character; "A Night at the Roxbury," with those head-shaking, disco-loving morons, Steve and Doug.
For Meadows, "Ladies Man" is an opportunity to finally be the star after years as a secondary player on the long-running TV show with sensations like Chris Farley, David Spade and Mike Myers.
"All I wanted to do is show off Tim, because Tim has been our treasure for a long time, and now everybody gets to see him," said Lorne Michaels, creator of "SNL" and the film's producer.
Meadows started on "SNL" after Michaels spotted him in the famed Second City comedy troupe. Through the years, the likable actor was a stabilizing force on "SNL," which seemed to add new faces every season to replace established stars who left.
Now, the 39-year-old is married, with a baby due around Christmas. And he has moved to Los Angeles to join the cast of "The Michael Richards Show," the new NBC sitcom from the former "Seinfeld" star.
Although Meadows says he'll miss the shenanigans on "SNL," it was time to move on.
"I was getting burned out. And after last season, I pretty much knew that that was going to be it," he said. "It was just a little sad during the last few shows, because I just kept thinking, 'I'm not going to be doing this anymore."'
At least he'll always have the Ladies Man. The character, whom Meadows introduced on the show in 1997, had been in the making for years as a voice that the comedian would spring on friends for a laugh.
"It really is an amalgamation of a bunch of different people. It's a lot of people and I think it's more of a lifestyle that I knew existed ... this guy who sort of had his best days in the '70s is still successful meeting women in the style that he has. Even though it's not really that acceptable, it's like all he knows."
In the movie, beautiful women continue to fall for Leon, including Karyn Parsons ("Fresh Prince of Bel Air") and Tiffani Theissen ("Beverly Hills, 90210"). "SNL" cast mate Will Ferrell plays the head of a group of angry husbands out to get revenge on Leon.
The challenge for Meadows, who co-wrote the script with "SNL" writers Dennis McNicholas and Andrew Steele, was to find enough material to turn a four-minute TV sketch into an almost two-hour film. He thinks he has avoided the pitfalls that have caused some other sketch-based films to flop.
"We had all of these different things that we hadn't really discovered yet," he said. "We could discover his friends, we could discover his history, we could discover how he got started, we could discover why women like him, what does he actually do when he is trying to seduce a woman.
"So that in itself was enough material to sort of stretch the sketch ... make the story itself more complex."