John Hildreth had always loved performing when he was growing up in Streeter, but when it came time to go to college, he chose the University of Chicago - a school without a theater program - and a very academically challenging pre-med curriculum.
He earned great grades and even took the MCATs for admission to medical school. But by the time he had graduated in the mid-1980s, he knew his heart was elsewhere.
"I discovered improv in college," Hildreth says. "After I graduated I was still working in a lab on campus, I did that for three or four years, but that was just my day job. The rest of the time I was taking classes at Second City."
His career blossomed from there, and Second City has given Hildreth his latest role - as Sen. Roland Burris in "Rod Blagojevich Superstar" at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights.
Hildreth - once a member of the now-gone Second City Northwest in Rolling Meadows - is a fixture on the Chicago theater scene, writing and directing for one company, Lifeline Theatre, acting in Second City and teaching improv at Columbia College.
How did his parents take the loss of their son the doctor?
"My parents were very supportive," Hildreth said. "They basically said whatever I wanted to do. Plus my sister took the pressure off; she went to Harvard Law School."
Hildreth has been part of the cast for "Rod Blagojevich Superstar" since it opened in February of 2009, but always as an understudy for the role of Roland Burris originated by Sam Richardson.
The show, written by Ed Furman, was based heavily on newspaper accounts of the former governor's colorful political career and corruption case, including charges that he tried to cash in on President Barack Obama's vacant senate seat.
From the start, tickets for the show were hard to get.
In fact, the show was so successful it moved to Chicago Shakespeare on Navy Pier. This was good news for Hildreth because by the time the show moved to Navy Pier it was clear Richardson was going to perform on Second City's main stage, where he is appearing now. Hildreth was increasingly being called in to play Burris.
He was even part of the company when they took the show to Springfield for a limited engagement. "The audiences there were great; they loved it." Hildreth says. "We called them our laugh track, they were so great. It was a blast."
When the powers that be at Second City decided to move the show to Metropolis in Arlington Heights, Hildreth was invited to come with.
The timing is perfect, with final details coinciding with jury deliberations on Blagojevich's fate.
"The show has been updated a bit," Hildreth says. "Everybody is waiting for the big verdict. And every time something happens, they update the script."
How did Hildreth learn to impersonate the appointed junior senator from Illinois? "I watched the DVD of the show about a million times," Hildreth says. "And I went on line and looked at pictures of Roland Burris and read up all the stuff I could on him."
While Burris is not a central character in the show, Hildreth's portrayal is important. The actor says Burris is "used as a kind of comic foil," with the longtime politician's ego playing a key role.
Is this a problem?
"Oh, no," Hildreth says. "It is very fun to play someone who is full of himself and self-centered and pompous."
• The Second City's "Rod Blagojevich Superstar" runs through Sept. 18 at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell, Arlington Heights. For tickets call (847) 577-2121 or go to www.metropolisarts.com.