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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 4)

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.”

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