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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.

Ed Bernaro, executive producer of “Criminal Minds,” says, “Gideon was a damaged sort of character. So the team around him functioned to support him. But David Rossi—Joe’s character—is very self-assured. He’s able to let the rest of the team step forward and shine. And that’s solidified what the show is.”

That also means the show is more about the team than the man who leads it, which is how he likes it, Mantegna says: “When I was first looking at it, I thought, ‘This is a strong ensemble.’ It was the kind of situation I was hoping for: They didn’t want a show that was a one-man band, like ‘Magnum, P.I.’

“I come from a background of ensemble theater. And all of the great TV shows have had great ensembles. ‘The Honeymooners.’ ‘M*A*S*H.’ ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’ They’ve got great ensembles that an audience embraces.”
Mantegna and Bernaro hit it off immediately, a pair of Chicago expatriates who speak the same language: “He makes me sound like I’m from London,” Mantegna jokes about Bernaro’s accent. “Oh yeah, and on the day I met him, he was wearing a White Sox shirt and I’m a Cubs fan. That’s the only blemish on our relationship. But we talked and he had that Chicago thing.”

“Chicago’s a big city but our families are from the same area on the west side,” Bernaro says. “It’s a very Italian neighborhood. So Joe is like someone I grew up with. People from Chicago are very laid-back and easy-going, and Joe fits the mold.”

Reared on Chicago’s west side, Mantegna knew that being an actor was not a career path anyone followed in his neighborhood. But he blossomed in Chicago at a moment when a new theater scene was growing up around him.

“Nothing pointed me toward it,” Mantegna says. “If I’d told my family I wanted to be an actor, it would have been like telling them that I was going to become a Martian. Like, why would you pick that? After I won the Tony Award, I called my mother and offered to fly her to New York to see the show. And she said, ‘Won’t you be doing it in Chicago?’ ‘Well, yeah, but—’ ‘I’ll come see it then.’ ”

Mantegna’s portal to the world of acting? The 1961 film of the Broadway musical hit, “West Side Story.”

“I saw 'West Side Story' when I was 15 or 16 and it had this incredible impact on me,” Mantegna recalls. “I felt like I was living that lifestyle of the characters. I lived in an apartment; I mean, we weren’t a poor, starving family, but we always had to live within our means. My father was chronically ill and my mother had to work.

“Anyway, here was 'West Side Story' and it was this fantastic musical-comedy—and yet it was serious. The streets of Chicago and the streets of New York were not much different. I ended up seeing that movie, like, 11 times, because this was back in the days when you could buy a ticket and sit there and watch it over and over.”

Shortly afterward, at the high school he attended in Cicero, Illinois, he saw an announcement for auditions for a school production of “West Side Story”: “I didn’t even know it was a play,” Mantegna recalls. “I knew nothing about theater. On a dare, me and this other guy went in to the auditions.

“It was like this mystery world, on the third floor of the high school, in the Little Theater. There were people in leotards; I didn’t know this even existed. And the teacher in charge ran it like a professional theater. Well, my friend took one look around and said, ‘I’m outta here.’ It was too foreign, too weird for him.”

Mantegna, however, decided not to bail. He’d been rehearsing his song—the ballad “Maria”—all week. So he gathered his courage and took the stage.

“I was small for my age. My mother changed my birth certificate so I could start school earlier, so she could work,” Mantegna recalls. “So I was young and had this high tenor voice. And I sang the song and, out of the blackness of the empty auditorium, there came this applause. Maybe nobody had ever applauded for me before, but this thing just washed over me. It was like a lightning bolt hit me in the chest. At that moment, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

“I lay in bed thinking that I wanted this more than I’d ever wanted anything. And only a few days before, I didn’t even know it existed.”

Just one problem: He wasn’t chosen for the cast. “I was devastated. It had this importance to me that I didn’t understand.”
A few weeks later, Mantegna heard that one of the cast members had hurt his foot during rehearsal and made a point of tracking down the director and offering his services.

“That director said, ‘I do remember you. I liked your moxie. But you were too small. But I want you to join my advanced theater class.’ And that had an incredible impact on my life,” Mantegna says. “It was just this high school in Cicero but he ran it like it was Broadway. I did musicals and plays for three years.”

From there, he went to the theater school at the Goodman, Chicago’s major institutional theater. After two years, he auditioned for and was cast in the Chicago company of “Hair”: “And I never looked back. When I finished singing that song at the audition for ‘West Side Story,’ the die was cast. Nothing has altered for me from that night. It’s been a long road— and that’s where it started.”

The 1970s established Chicago as an epicenter of theatrical innovation. David Mamet was writing new plays for the St. Nicholas Theater, while a group of recent Southern Illinois University graduates joined pal Gary Sinise in Chicago to create Steppenwolf Theater. And Mantegna and actor-friend Dennis Franz became stalwarts of the Organic Theater, working for director Stuart Gordon.

“It was this period in U.S. theater where there was just an explosion,” says Jim Belushi, a Chicago native and longtime friend of Mantegna who was working at Second City at the time. “It wasn’t cultivated. It was just out there. Joey was one of the leaders. We had a great reverence for what Joe and Dennis were doing, writing their own stuff. It was this beautiful creativity.”

Adds Franz, “It was an extremely creative time when a lot of creative people were getting started. It was the chance to display our wares and get a start. A lot of creative juices were flowing; it was an exciting time for all of us.”
There was a DIY ethic at work, part of which grew out of Chicago’s own “second city” mentality of always being slightly behind New York (and Los Angeles).

“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.”

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, www.hollywoodandfine.com.

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