American Splendor

And the Oscar goes to … Veal Chop.

While few would remember Paul Giamatti’s turn as a food-named tough guy in the indie comedy “Safe Men” five years back, it would be tough to dismiss his portrayal of comicbook author Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor.”

Giamatti’s career has been full of supporting perfs in some of the most acclaimed films of the past decade: “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Truman Show” and “Donnie Brasco.” But “Splendor” marked fresh territory — his first film as a leading man.

“I thought of it more as a central role and never felt like I was carrying the movie,” says Giamatti, the son of former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti.

There’s little question, however, that the success on the pic depended on his impersonation of the curmudgeonly Pekar and critics quickly heaped praise on the 36-year-old actor’s transformation.

Even more impressive, he did it with just two weeks to prepare before the 22 day-shoot began.

“I only met him a few days before we started,” Giamatti explains. “I watched tape of him too. They shot film of him quite a while ago eating breakfast and reading books.”

Giamatti admits to what many actors fear: That whatever he’s working on now may be his last job. His respect among the industry’s top directors, however, should keep him in front of the camera for a while.

Along with Steven Spielberg (“Ryan”), Peter Weir (“Truman”) and Mike Newell (“Brasco”), Tim Burton employed him as an orangutan in “Planet of the Apes” and Milos Forman saw him as Bob Zmuda in “Man on the Moon.”

On the helmer side, that’s impressive company. And if “Splendor’s” reception is any indication, their confidence was well-founded.

“More scripts are coming to me now,” says Giamatti of his post-”Splendor” career, “but I still feel like I have a lot of downtime.”

Coming attractions: “Sideways,” “Robots”

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