An Actor's Mind

Joe Mantegna is at the top of his game and aims to keep playing Hollywood's Major Leagues

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Developed from Mantegna’s concept, the play was a hit, playing at the Organic before expanding to theater companies around the country, including more than a year in Chicago, and being taped for public television.
“That was all Joe’s doing,” Franz says. “We found the characters as a group. It was great because, for homework, we’d go to Wrigley to see games and search out interesting people. We just thought it was going to be another play. But I was in it for nearly a year.”
Working on Chicago stages, Mantegna developed a reputation as an actor to watch—someone who not only did a great job but who seemed to be enjoying himself doing it.
“I always thought he gave a comedic bent to everything,” says actor Dennis Farina, another longtime Chicago friend. “When Joe was onstage, he was having a good time, no matter what he was playing. Whatever humor was in the play, he found it naturally, not in a contrived way.”
Adds Franz, “When he was onstage, you always wanted to be watching what Joe was doing. He would immediately grab your attention. He had this special relationship with the audience. He just endears himself so easily to people in general because he’s just such a people person.”
While working with the Organic Theater Company, Mantegna and Franz toured Europe and then did a residency in Los Angeles. Mantegna came away from the two trips with one firm idea: He had to move to California.
“We went to Italy after that tour in Europe and I found some of my relatives,” Mantegna recalls. “I fell in love with the place. I mean, I love Chicago, but I’ve never liked the weather. And it was in Italy I realized that I was genetically geared for this. I’m not supposed to be in ice and snow; I’m supposed to be somewhere warm.
“When I first came to California for a tour at the end of 1977, I saw the palm trees and I fell in love with it. I’m a firm believer that you’ve got to be happy with your environment if you’re going to like your job. I could be an actor in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, but I love living here.”
In L.A., Mantegna began looking for film and TV work, but continued commuting to Chicago to work in theater, where he had developed a friendship with playwright David Mamet. Still, Mantegna was frustrated at not being able to truly break out of Chicago theater.
“He kept leaving and going back to Chicago,” Franz recalls. “And when they’d do a show in New York, they’d recast the roles Joe had created. It was very frustrating for Joe. He finally told me, ‘I’m going to give it one more try.’ And that turned out to be ‘Glengarry Glen Ross.’ ”
The play by Mamet, about a group of real-estate salesmen struggling through a cold streak selling housing developments in Chicago, not only took Mantegna to Broadway, it won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award as best play and a Tony for Mantegna as best featured actor in a play.
“In terms of me being an actor, that was the moment that spun me off from Part 1 to Part 2,” Mantegna says. “It was my 15-year-overnight-success moment. On Monday, I was this guy; on Tuesday, I was that guy. And it was perfect the way it happened; I’m glad I had those 15 years. When ‘Glengarry’ happened, I said, ‘This is like winning the lottery. But I bought a lot of tickets.’
“I tell young people you have to pay your dues one way or the other: on the front or the back end. I paid on the front end and I think it’s easier that way. You can make your mistakes while you’re not in the eyes of the world. When you get to the bigger stage, you’ve got the background behind you. The timing was great: I was able to do the play for another year and a half. I was able to wring out a great role in a great show and you don’t always get that. It was a magical year. If I could have scripted how I’d like the year to go, I couldn’t have orchestrated it better.”
Though he went back onstage with another Mamet play a few years later (in “Speed-the-Plow”), Mantegna has worked almost exclusively in film and TV for the past two decades. He’s played everything from crazed gangsters (Joey Zasa in Francis Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III) to suburban dads (Searching for Bobby Fischer), from cops and con men (in Mamet’s House of Games and Homicide) to Dean Martin (“The Rat Pack”) and George Raft (Bugsy) to a Hollywood studio smoothie in “The Starter Wife.”
“The thing about the stage is that’s all I did for the first 15 years of my career,” he says. “You play the cards you’re dealt. When that was all I knew, I loved it. But I thought that about living in Chicago, too.”
Mantegna’s spare time is devoted to what he refers to as “shooting sports”: “I shoot skeet. It’s my only hobby beside being a bad golfer,” he says. “Look, I’m not a political person. I’ve been an independent my whole life. My fondness for shooting sports is the same as my fondness for cigars. My motto is: Everything in moderation, including moderation. I’m not a hunter—I just like to shoot clay pigeons. And I’m a moderate cigar smoker. I don’t constantly have one going because I don’t need to. And these days, it’s difficult to find a place to smoke. You’ve got to be selective about where you do it and who you do it with.”
Mantegna started smoking cigars in high school: “We weren’t the hard guys, the jocks or the greasers. My friends would just get together to play cards and smoke cigars. We’d smoke Swisher Sweets, Muriel Coronellas—the stuff you could buy in the grocery store.”
Gradually his tastes evolved but Mantegna always assumed he was part of a small group of people who appreciated finer tobacco: “I had started dabbling, smoking on the golf course or a movie set. Then I read that they were coming out with a magazine—Cigar Aficionado!—and I thought, wow, that’s bold. Up to that time, guys who smoked cigars were guys like my Uncle Danny, who smoked five White Owls a day. Now it was hip to smoke cigars. I bought the first issue—and every issue since—and it opened me up to a whole community of people who felt like I did.”
Mantegna has, over the years, tried all kinds of cigars. But he earned the eternal gratitude of a certain Dominican cigar-making family when he was asked what his favorite brand was, for a small Cigar Aficionado feature around the time of the release of his 1994 film, Baby’s Day Out.
“Back then, people couldn’t wait to tell you how much they liked black-market, illicit, Cuban cigars,” Mantegna says. “There was this pride, like, ‘Look what I can get.’ But when they asked me, I thought, well, I’m not going to bullshit them. So I told the truth—that I liked Hemingway Classics from Fuente. A few months later, I was at a cigar event and Carlito Fuente came up to me. I had no idea who he was, but he was beside himself: ‘You had the balls to say how much you liked our cigar.’ It was like I was his long-lost son.”
“The best thing about Joe is that he really is an aficionado—but he’s not a snob,” says actor-comedian Paul Reiser, a pal since the two of them acted in a 1993 film, Family Prayers. “He knows the good stuff but he’s not a slave to it. When you sit down with Joe, it’s not about the cigar, it’s about sharing the experience. Joe is my go-to guy for business questions, kid questions—he’s an easy laugh and a really generous person.”
Mantegna owns a variety of humidors because “when people find out you smoke cigars, they say, ‘Please, let me give you a humidor.’ ”
His enjoyment is both psychological and physical: “Maybe part of it is the ritual, but so many senses are affected: the taste, the tactile thing, the chemical components. I can feel every muscle relax; it’s just this feeling of contentment. It’s a primal thing I can’t fully explain, but I know it when I feel it. I can go weeks without a cigar and then there are days when I will smoke three or four.
“I also like the fact that you have to take care of cigars—like wine, which is something that has to be properly cared for. If you take care of cigars, you can keep them for years. I seldom smoke a cigar that has not been in my humidor at least six months.”
In the past few years, two of the Mamet plays Mantegna helped originate—“Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Speed-the-Plow”—returned to Broadway in major revivals. Which inevitably brought comparisons to the original productions from the 1980s, which starred Mantegna.
“Now I know what Lee J. Cobb feels like,” Mantegna says with a laugh and a shrug. “It does give you pause. I’m that guy.  I’m a veteran of the original. It’s the evolution of things. Hey, I’m 63. It happens in the blink of an eye. That’s just the way it goes.
“There are those actors who have a plan: ‘I’m going to write this for myself and then I’ll do this,’ but I never did. I don’t chalk that up to a lack of ambition. But the same thing that scared me about acting also excited me: the unknown. No matter how successful I was, the whole thing could end tomorrow. While I was fearful, there was also excitement because there might be something out there, something that, two seconds ago, I didn’t know was going to happen, and now it’s changed my life for the next six months—or 10 years.
“I tell young people that, to use a baseball analogy, all I aspired to do was to play in the Major Leagues, to work at the highest level with the best possible people. And I’ve been able to do that. I made it to the Majors. What I aspire to do now is continue in the Major Leagues. What I aspire to do is the unknown.”
Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website,
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