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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

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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.
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