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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

(continued from page 3)

“When you thought of actors then, you thought of New York and L.A.,” Mantegna says. “Yet obviously we were there, in Chicago, this group of people like me who had this jones to do this thing. It was like the Jamaican bobsled team. You have the urge to do this thing, but you’re not in a place conducive to it. But you do it anyway. There was no support. No one cared. So we had to create it ourselves. And since nobody cared, there was an open field, with no rules and no constraints.”

There was, however, one catch: what Mantegna refers to as “the Second City Shuffle.” Anytime Chicago actors came up with something that worked well in Chicago, the commercial impulse was to move it to New York and recast it with New York actors.

“But it gave us a certain freedom,” Mantegna says. “In New York and L.A., everything is done for an ulterior motive: to take it to Broadway or to be a movie star. But in Chicago, there was no ulterior motive. I’m forever grateful for being part of it; it’s like being part of the New York scene off-Broadway in the 1950s. It was an exciting time to do Chicago theater because we didn’t care that there was no basic payoff in the end.”

That lack of commercial success, in part, was the genesis for “Bleacher Bums,” a comedy set in the bleachers of a Chicago Cubs home game. As a member of the Organic Theater and a lifelong Cubs fan, Mantegna was struck at the lack of overlap between the two audiences.

“It was based on the fact that I was sitting at Wrigley Field and there were thousands of people watching a losing team,” Mantegna recalled. “And I thought, ‘Geez, and we can’t get 150 of them to see a play with good reviews? What if we combined the two?’ ”

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.”

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