A nearly 50-year friendship between director Mark Cendrowski and actor/comedian Dave Coulier survives and thrives in the Valley.
- Written byMichael Goldman
Photographed by Melissa Bring
As Mark Cendrowski and Dave Coulier usher you into Mark’s cozy Studio City living room, ostensibly to discuss their almost half-century friendship, it doesn’t take long to realize that the two Michigan transplants and sitcom veterans enjoy reminiscing primarily because it gives them a chance to crack each other up.
For example, after revealing their secret handshake—they slide two fingers together whilst saying, “give me some ski”—they giggle upon realizing the handshake’s origins have disappeared into the haze of their relationship’s early years.
“I don’t really know how ‘give me some ski’ started,” admits Dave, a standup comedian and actor who starred for years as Uncle Joey Gladstone on the ABC sitcom Full House (1987–1995). He is currently reprising the role for the upcoming Netflix sequel, Fuller House, set to debut in early 2016. “The expression was ‘give me some skin,’” he muses, “but Mark’s last name is Cendrowski, so I guess …”
“Instead of a whole hand, it was half a hand, and the fingers look like skis,” offers Mark, a highly-regarded TV director who is now the primary helmer on CBS’ huge hit Big Bang Theory. (He also recently directed the first two episodes of Fuller House and was stage manager on the original show during its second season.) Mark quickly gives up on his explanation when it dawns on him he and Dave really can’t explain it. The handshake has always been there, just like their friendship.
The men, both 56, are understandably proud of their successes in Hollywood, their families and good fortune in life. But they are equally proud—perhaps even more proud—of their enduring bond. And the truth is, their professional success is directly interwoven with the friendship’s trajectory. At its core, it’s a relationship that hasn’t changed much since they first started palling around together as third-graders at St. Isaac Jogues Catholic Elementary School in St. Clair, Michigan.
“We always kind of knew each other,” says Dave, who lives in the hills of Encino. “We played hockey as kids, and St. Clair is such a small town, a hockey community, and everybody knows everybody in that little world. We played hockey against each other when we were squirts, and Little League baseball.”
By third grade they grew close, drawn together by the same interests that still keep them together. In school, Dave quickly noticed that Mark “could draw stuff. That told me this kid had a sense of humor.”
By fourth grade they were close to inseparable, and although they didn’t realize it at the time, the nature of their shenanigans would begin pushing them onto parallel paths that would eventually direct them into their respective careers—Dave in front of the camera and Mark behind it.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT Dave and Mark performing at an Ann Arbor comedy show in 1981. Right: the two doing a sketch during a high school comedy show in 1977. Dave is on the left; Mark is on the right. Mark’s brother, Dwight, is in the middle.
“We started doing song parodies,” Mark remembers. “‘Hey Jude’ was ‘Hey Poo’—things like that, like they were doing in Mad Magazine, making fun of things. We said, ‘We could do that.’”
Pretty soon they realized that what Mark calls “comic sensibilities” was an obsession with both of them. “It certainly wasn’t a love of science or math,” he says as Dave nods in agreement. “It was more about fooling around, trying to get other kids to laugh. The whole key was that Dave was the class clown through grade school, and I was the instigator, the one behind scenes saying, ‘Do this, do an impression of the teacher.’”
Dave’s skills as an impressionist began percolating during this era. He admits that “doing something funny, getting a reaction” was the daily agenda for both of them through middle school and on into their all-boys Catholic high school. During that era, they also made a series of 8mm movies using Mark’s father’s camera, which Dave starred in and Mark directed.
But eventually the two became best known around their community for staging a series of fundraising events for their school in the form of variety shows featuring Dave’s standup comedy and Mark’s writing and direction. That came about after their school principal wisely decided to put Dave’s propensity for publicly making fun of him to some higher purpose.
“I could do a pretty dead-on impression of the principal in high school, so he pulled me aside one day and said , ‘I know you do this impression of me, David. Why don’t you get that Cendrowski fellow you are always clowning around with and do something for our fall drive?’”
They did, and the resulting ticket sales from their shows blew them away. Those events “essentially were the start of my standup career,” Dave explains. “Before that I was getting up on picnic tables in somebody’s backyard, doing impressions of coaches at hockey banquets, or telling stories in the cafeteria.”
“A lightbulb went off for us, thinking, ‘Hey, we could make money doing this stuff,’” Mark adds.
And that is where their paths, ever so temporarily, diverged. Mark headed off to the University of Michigan to study film and TV production, while Coulier moved to LA to test the waters as a standup comedian.
After graduation Mark migrated to Los Angeles, moving in with Dave in Studio City for about five years. They formed a comedy team with another friend called The Shibbletops, worked standup and wrote jokes together, and teamed up on a syndicated radio series called Cartoons of Our Lives, which was a soap opera featuring cartoon characters. All the while, both guys were having some success—getting decent gigs—in their respective fields.
Then Full House struck. Dave was cast on the show while, unbeknownst to him, Mark was turned down for a stage manager job because producers worried he was too friendly with Dave and Bob Saget, another standup comedian whom Mark knew. For the show’s second season, they finally hired Mark.
“I had no idea,” Dave remembers. “I showed up for work one day, and he’s there and says, ‘I’m your new stage manager.’ I was like, ‘OK.’ But it wasn’t really weird. I was already used to him yelling at me anyway. Actually, it was fun—we had a good time.”
“ Dave and Bob Saget and John Stamos are still good friends, and they were then,” Mark recalls. “They were fooling around all the time. Technically, my job was to try and keep them in line, and it was kind of hard because I wanted to have fun too, and screw around. I tried to crack the whip a little bit on them. But it wasn’t any different than back when we were doing high school shows and in college, to be honest.”
In fact, Uncle Joey’s signature line on the show—“Cut it out”—came from Mark.
“I told him I was going to steal it,” Dave chuckles. “He used to do a character called Mark Suave, who went in the front row and if there was a lady there, he would unbutton his shirt, and go, ‘Hey, cut it out.’ It was funny, so I told him when he is not doing standup anymore, I’m stealing that. Later, I hosted a show on Nickelodeon called Out of Control, and one day, I looked into the camera and went, ‘Cut it out.’ The producer loved it and said, ‘That’s the hook for the whole show.’ Then, I did it again during Full House, and it stayed with me after that.”
“I saw him doing it on TV, and I went, ‘Wow, he said he was going to steal it, and he stole it,’” Mark adds. “He still owes me five bucks.”
Mark only stayed on Full House for one season, as other opportunities arose; by the late ‘90s he was directing sitcoms. Eventually Mark was selected as the primary director on one of the biggest sitcom hits of recent years, Big Bang Theory, which Dave is only too quick to point out he has yet to be summoned to guest star on.
“Not one episode, I’m just saying,” he points out. “Don’t any of those kids need a father who is funny?”
Kidding aside, in a town and an industry known for pulling relationships apart, the old friends say they are still just “two guys from St. Clair Shores, Michigan,” as Dave puts it. They insist they have never even had a serious argument. When asked how that is possible given the length of their friendship, they remind that they are, like many residents of the Valley, transplants to LA. Perhaps, they imply, jointly importing their lives, friendship, values and sophomoric hijinks from Michigan has something to do with the relationship’s unusual stability.
“I think it’s part of those Midwestern values,” Mark suggests. “Living out here, when you run into people, you can often tell when they are from the Midwest because there is a different mindset—it’s not that ‘get ahead at all costs’ mentality. We have been supportive of each other when there have been problems. He was there when my father passed away.
We see each other at Christmas. I make sure to stop in and see his dad whenever I’m back in Michigan. I attribute that to a Midwestern value thing.”
“Mark’s mom always called me son #4,” Dave remembers fondly. “She would send me a birthday card every year that just had ‘#4’ written on it. So there is a lot of history there, you know?”
Today both men’s success continues unabated, as Dave is often on the road for standup gigs and Mark juggles his demanding TV production schedule. Plus they have families to attend to. Dave is remarried and has a 25-year-old son, while Mark has been married 27 years and has a daughter who recently graduated college and a son at Duke University. It is more complicated to hang out together than it was in the old days. However, they have a subconscious protocol for rebooting their friendship when … well, let’s just say it: they miss each other.
Rarely will more than a month pass before one of their phones will invariably ring. Whichever man picks up the phone will be informed that “Danny Klauza” or “Joanne McNulty” is calling, or any of dozens of other obscure names from their childhood.
And when such calls happen, “We head to game or we play golf and just pick right up where we were,” Mark explains. “If we haven’t seen each other in a while, there is a recognition of that. There will be a call, and we have to go do something, maybe just go have a beer at a little sports bar we like in Van Nuys—the Barrel.”
Bottom line at such get-togethers: “We haven’t matured at all,” Dave says.
“In grade school, any good day was a day when we could get Elizabeth Cololuca to spit milk out her nose,” Mark adds.
“Not much has changed in that respect.”
The food is only part of the charm.