Wallace Shawn is best known as an actor, having appeared in such hit movies as Clueless, The Princess Bride, and Radio Days, as well a making frequent television appearances on Sex in the City, Murphy Brown, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and contributing his voice talents to animated projects such as Toy Story, The Incredibles, King of the Hill, and Family Guy. But Shawn is also an acclaimed playwright and essayist whose politically charged work is a far cry from the lighthearted fare most often associated with his name. Shawn was born in New York City on November 12, 1943. His father was William Shawn, an editor at The New Yorker, and Wallace went on to study at Harvard (where he received a B.A. in history) and Oxford (where he majored in history and philosophy). Shawn also taught English in India as a Fulbright Fellow, and completed his first play, The Hotel Play, in 1970; that same year, Shawn first met fellow playwright and stage director Andre Gregory. In 1975, Shawn's play Our Late Night opened off Broadway under Gregory's direction, and the production earned them an Obie Award (the Tony for off-Broadway theater). In 1977, Shawn made his debut as an actor, appearing in his own adaptation of Machiavelli's The Mandrake staged by the New York Public Theater.
At this time, Shawn was still working in a copy shop to make ends meet, but that began to change in 1979, when Woody Allen cast him in a small role in Manhattan. In 1980, Shawn and Gregory collaborated with filmmaker Louis Malle on My Dinner with Andre, an unusual and engaging film based on a performance piece by Shawn and Gregory in which the two friends discussed their philosophies and very different life journeys for close to two hours. The film was a major critical success and a modest hit on the art house circuit. My Dinner with Andre gave Shawn a much higher profile as both an actor and a playwright, and over the next several years successful productions of The Hotel Play, Aunt Dan and Lemon, and The Fever were staged in New York, while Shawn was in demand as a film and television actor. In 2004, Shawn teamed up with Gregory again as the latter directed a production of Shawn's The Designated Mourner, with Shawn in the cast. That same year, a film adaptation of The Fever was produced, starring Vanessa Redgrave, while in 2006 Shout Factory released a recording of Shawn reading the piece, taken from a performance recorded in 1999.