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An Actor's Mind

Joe Mantegna is at the top of his game and aims to keep playing Hollywood's Major Leagues
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Joe Mantegna, July/August 2011

"I don’t buy into astrology or anything like that and you know why?” Joe Mantegna asks. “Because I think the most boring thing in the world would be to know what’s going to happen next.”

And still, here sits Mantegna, an episode-and-a-half away from wrapping his fourth season as the star of CBS’s “Criminal Minds”—which means he’s been scheduled rigorously for the past four years. And he definitely knows what comes next: more seasons, hopefully. He’s learned to love the rigors of series TV, having discovered the advantages of staying home to work.

“Dennis did say that,” Mantegna says. “He’s the king of series TV and he said, ‘Someday, you’ll do one and I know you—you’ll love it.’ And I do.”

Mantegna never had aspirations—specific roles he wanted to play, professional mountains he wanted to climb—beyond the chance to work steadily and do good work. He learned his trade on the fertile stages of the Chicago theater scene in the 1970s and broke out on Broadway with David Mamet in the 1980s. Then Mantegna used those seeds to cultivate a movie career that included award nominations, work with major directors and a reputation as an actor who could play anything from the smooth con man (David Mamet’s House of Games and Redbelt) to the comic sidekick (Billy Crystal’s Forget Paris) to the understanding Jewish father (Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights) and everything in between (including the recurring character of mobster Fat Tony on “The Simpsons”).

But after a couple of decades running around the globe to make movies, Mantegna knew his daughters were too old to take out of school and take on location. In 2002, as they were both about to enter their teens, Mantegna decided a TV series seemed like a good idea.

“I remember I was in Vancouver in January making a movie, freezing my ass off, and my agent called with two offers,” Mantegna says, relaxing in the living room of the bungalow in Burbank where he houses his production company, Acquaviva Productions. “One was for a movie that would have me flying back and forth to New York. The other was a new TV series with James Garner.

“Look at the two options. Here’s Door No. 1 and here’s Door No. 2. What’s the downside? I was working with James Garner, had an incredible role in a show built around my character and a financially great offer.”

That was 2002. The show, “First Monday,” only lasted 13 episodes. But Mantegna learned how much work a series was, decided he could handle it and signed on for another new show, “Joan of Arcadia,” which debuted in 2003 and lasted two seasons: “I adored that show. If that could have continued, I’d have been happy as a clam,” Mantegna says.

Then Mandy Patinkin, who was the star of “Criminal Minds” when it debuted in 2005, left the show at the start of its third season. Mantegna’s character David Rossi replaced Patinkin’s Jason Gideon as head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit a few episodes into the show’s third season. The series, which hadn’t caught on as quickly as such CBS stalwarts as the “CSI” series at first, found its legs with Mantegna. It’s now one of the top-10-rated shows in network primetime.

Part of the change in the show since Mantegna’s arrival is the kind of stories the series could tell. The dramatic tension in the series’ original pilot—and the series itself—had to do with the fact that Patinkin’s Jason Gideon had just returned to duty after medical leave, creating uncertainty about his psychological fitness in the high-stress world of criminal profilers chasing serial killers.

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