When Harry Shearer was growing up, he had no relatives at all apart from his parents.
No aunts or uncles, no cousins, no grandparents – because they had all been wiped out by the Holocaust.
Now he is reopening the deep wound in his family history by starring in a new play about the effects of the genocide.
In Daytona, he plays Joe, who lives with his wife Elli (Maureen Lipman) in Brooklyn in 1986. They live a quiet life, enjoying ballroom dancing, until the unexpected arrival of Billy (John Bowe), the brother Joe has not seen in 30 years.
It becomes apparent that Billy has encountered a familiar face from their past life in the occupied Europe of the Second World War.
The production comes to the Birmingham Rep next week.
It’s a personal subject matter for Harry, as his own Jewish parents managed to flee the Holocaust – his father from Austria, his mother from Poland – and escape to America.
Harry, 69, says: “It’s one of the things that attracted me to the play, as I recognised its theme.
“I was aware from an early age that something terrible had happened to my relatives, but we didn’t talk about it.
“My parents got out but everybody else died, on both sides of my family. I was an only child and had no relatives at all.
“It was clearly painful for them to talk about. It was a door that was shut a lot more than it was open. I realised that discussions on that subject only got so far and no further.
“My family were like the characters Maureen and I play, in that they make a choice to leave the horrors in the past and build a new life. They don’t talk about the awfulness and my folks were of that ilk.”
Daytona is Harry’s first British stage role, his first time in Birmingham, his first theatre work for 20 years and his first serious role, as he’s best known for working on the comedies The Simpsons and This Is Spinal Tap.
“I had been looking to come back to the stage and considered a couple of musicals.
“But then I was sent the script for Daytona and it was so remarkable, I had to do it.
“The casting is fantastic too, it is such a treat working with Maureen and John.”
Harry and his British wife Judith spend half their time living in London and half at their home in New Orleans.
Apart from Daytona, his latest work was also made in Britain. He has filmed five episodes of a new drama for Sky Arts called Nixon’s The One, to be screened in January.
“I co-created it with Stanley Kutler, the leading expert on the Watergate and White House tapes.
“It’s based on all the tapes that Nixon recorded of his conversations in the Oval Office. I realised that there’s amazing dark comedy gold buried in there.
“I play Nixon and perform it as if he had videotaped himself as well. I hope people will find it funny, scary and bizarre.”
Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the cult rock film This Is Spinal Tap, in which he plays fictional Midland bassist Derek Smalls, and the 25th year since The Simpsons began.
Harry lends his voice to Montgomery Burns, Principal Skinner and Ned Flanders.
Recently there has been much speculation about which of the major characters will be killed off in the forthcoming series.
Harry pretends to have forgotten which character is for the chop, but he does drop one major hint.
“I would bet serious money against it being Mr Burns,” he reveals.
* Daytona plays Birmingham Rep from October 21-26. For tickets ring 0121 236 4455 or go to www.birmingham-rep.co.uk.