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Lights! Camera! Cigars!

Actor Michael Lerner makes certain that in his many character roles, a cigar is often at hand.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

Sitting near the pool of West Hollywood's Mondrian Hotel, sharing an outside table at the stylish Italian eatery Coco Pazzo, the actor Michael Lerner is finishing a terrific lunch. Best known for his Academy Award-nominated portrayal of a megalomaniacal studio head in the Coen brothers' Barton Fink, the gray-haired, booming voiced, heavyset Lerner is in constant demand.

He played the comic role of Mayor Ebert in Roland Emmerich's Godzilla ("One of the real pluses of working on Godzilla was Roland's generosity with cigars," Lerner recalls fondly), will appear in the upcoming remakes of Mod Squad and My Favorite Martian ("They paid me a lot of money to work a couple days," he says of Martian. "So I did it.") and played the lead Mafioso in the 1998 film Safe Men (an independent film that drew raves at Sundance).

But the most telling smoke signal rising from the heat that radiates around Michael Lerner's career is that he is in Woody Allen's new movie, Celebrity, which was due out this past fall. "I was a little intimidated walking onto the set; I'm such an enormous fan of his," admits the 57-year-old Lerner. "Woody leaves you alone. He doesn't talk to you. He lets you do your thing. But then I had a disagreement over how a scene should be played. And, boy, did he talk to me. I talked to him. We talked a lot, and then I did the scene the way he thought it should be played because he is Woody Allen." Was he right? "I don't know. But he shot it both ways. I won't be surprised if you see the movie and the scene winds up being the way I wanted to do it."

A big man in every sense of the word--physical girth, taste in food, stature among Hollywood casting agents--Lerner suggests we finish the meal in the only suitable manner. From a pocket cigar case, he pulls out a couple of his beloved Montecristo No. 2s. "A Cuban cigar is the wonder of the world," Lerner says before launching into a brief diatribe against cigar smokers who get too hung up on "velvet aromas" and "chocolate highlights." He runs the cigar beneath his nose, inhales greedily, then proclaims, "One of the reasons why a Cuban cigar is great is because of the manure. When you hold a Montecristo No. 2 to your nose, you smell shit. That's what makes it great."

That said, Lerner clips his cigar, lights it, and lets loose with a plume of aromatic smoke. I follow suit. But there is one glitch: in the course of speaking with him and checking my notes and maintaining a flow of questions, I forget to clip the cigar, put it into my mouth backwards, and attempt to light the unclipped head of the cigar. I immediately try to hide my gaff by discreetly snuffing out the Monte in my cloth napkin, figuring that I'll be able to start over again and he'll never be the wiser. Then Lerner notices smoke rising from my lap. "You lit the wrong end?" he asks, not sounding altogether pleased.

"Yeah," I admit, totally embarrassed. "I've never done this before," I truthfully add. "This was the stupidest thing."

Claiming that he's done the same thing himself a time or two (he's probably being gracious), Lerner takes the cigar, inspects it and proclaims, "Good cigars can be saved."

Just as the whole cigar is about to unravel, Lerner performs a weird version of mouth-to-mouth on the Monte. Through a combination of licking, prodding and clipping, he manages to bring the cigar back to a smokable state. It's clearly the coolest thing I've ever had an interview subject do for me. I tell him as much, and Lerner shrugs it off. "The important thing is that we saved the cigar," he insists.

Explaining his nimbleness around Cuban smokes, Lerner says, "I've been smoking cigars for 30 years. So I was pissed off when cigars became trendy. Prices went up and people started talking about cigars who knew nothing about them. But now people are more knowledgeable and the phonies have begun to drift away. I love thinking about George Burns, Milton Berle, Winston Churchill--all people who have reached their 90s who smoked cigars all their lives." Taking it to a personal level, he adds, "There is a strong argument to be made about the physiological and mental peace" that comes with smoking cigars. "Nobody comes to my house between 5 and 6 o'clock. That is when I swim naked, read the trades and smoke cigars."

What does Lerner smoke? "I love Cuban cigars," he declares. "In a pinch I like Don Diegos. I like them as morning cigars or else as the last cigar of the night. I like Montecruz, the No. 4 size. Of the large cigars, Montecristo No. 2, hands down, and the Romeo y Julieta Churchill, which is a mild cigar. Do you know Sancho Panzas? Most of the time you get them in Spain. They're wonderful."

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