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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

(continued from page 1)

A lover of film and history, Lerner acknowledges that he was inspired to begin smoking cigars because of Edward G. Robinson. "He's one of my favorite actors and a Romanian Jew like me," says Lerner. "He smoked cigars in his movies and I was always impressed with him. I started with pipes, back when I was living in London [during the late 1960s], but it's too much work. I had to smoke cigarettes in The Postman Always Rings Twice and I don't smoke cigarettes, so I didn't know how to smoke them. I was holding the cigarette like a cigar. It was bizarre."

In at least one other instance, Lerner's stylish way of smoking cigars helped to accent a character he was playing. This happened while shooting Eddie Murphy's Harlem Nights. "Eddie wanted me to go through my ritual with a cigar and have me finish it just as a building blows up," says Lerner, who played a crime boss in the movie. "He saw me going through this in the scene, and he said, 'Michael? What the fuck are you doing?' I said, 'Eddie, this man is a cigar smoker, and he's a rich guy. So he knows what he's doing.' "

Not only did Lerner get to smoke his cigar his way in the film, but he also insisted that he be given top-of-the-line cigars to work with. It's his usual strategy when he needs to enjoy a smoke before the camera--"I try to make sure that the director can get me really, really good cigars"--but there was a recent instance when he felt compelled to remain true to his character--even though it meant compromising his smoke standards. In the upcoming Mod Squad, in which Lerner plays a drug-dealing rock-and-roll manager, the very notion of smoking a Montecristo might have hampered his ability to portray the guy convincingly. So he made a sacrifice. "I smoked these 79-cent Brazilian cigars," Lerner recounts, making a nauseated face that suggests that every moment of the characterization has just come back to haunt his tastebuds. "God, it was agony. But I was trying to be true to the character. It was method cigar acting."

It's almost a fluke that Michael Lerner became an actor at all. Many fledgling thespians set out for the West Coast's shimmering city because they have limited options: either they will act or they'll sell shoes. Lerner was in no such situation.

Raised in the rough-and-tumble areas of Brooklyn known as Bensonhurst and Red Hook, Lerner received his undergraduate education at Brooklyn College. He initially planned to become an English professor, until he landed a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship. He was intrigued enough by the notion of acting that he chose instead to study theater at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. The acting seed had been planted when he played Willie Loman in a high school production of Death of a Salesman.

His decision to pursue acting didn't exactly thrill his unschooled parents. They would have liked nothing more than to see their son--who was married at the time but soon to be divorced--at the highest reaches of academia. But being in London exposed Lerner to a world of intellectual stimulation and show biz exotica--both of which he loved. Besides attending the same school as such actors as Donald Sutherland, John Lithgow and Stacy Keach, he was also briefly a housemate of Yoko Ono's shortly before she hooked up with John Lennon.

Deeply involved in experimental theater and film, Ono did stage productions that, for example, involved cutting the clothing of audience members with scissors, and she shot chicly incomprehensible films. "She made a movie comprised of bare asses walking on a treadmill," Lerner recalls. "I'm in it and so is Paul McCartney. Plus I'm doing narration about censorship and all that crap."

Lerner found Ono to be a strange woman. "One night we were having Chinese food together and she was talking to me about the moon being a grapefruit," he says, leaving it unclear as to whether this line of conversation can be attributed to 1960s' excesses. "But I always thought she was a very smart woman. I could never tell if [her personality] was an act or a business persona." Following a brief pause, Lerner adds, "I've decided she was a very smart businesswoman."

Lerner spent two years at the academy, where he attracted the attention of an adviser on the Fulbright committee who suggested that Lerner work with a San Francisco theater company with which he was involved. Lerner took him up on his offer. He played numerous roles in San Francisco and was eventually spotted by a Los Angeles agent, who helped him land a role in Jules Feiffer's 1970 play, Little Murders. The play, a huge hit, drew audiences that included such well-known film directors as Paul Mazursky and Michael Richie. Mazursky cast Lerner in 1970's Alex In Wonderland (Lerner's first film) and Richie cast Lerner as Robert Redford's speechwriter in 1972's The Candidate. Suddenly Lerner was living in Los Angeles and making a go as an actor.

He became a busy character actor with appearances on more than 200 television shows--"I played Fat Rolly on 'Starsky and Hutch,' on 'Vegas' I was the bad guy running past the Stardust Hotel, in 'Hart to Hart' I was the Jewish cop"--and developed a financially rewarding career. But it was a strange career, the kind without a leading man's glory or a consummate film actor's accolades. "My father never thought anything of me being an actor until he was in his hospital bed, watching me on 'The Rockford Files,' " says Lerner. "Then he thought I had made it. Isn't that strange? Weird. It's a sad thing, but he never took me seriously as an actor until he was in his hospital bed."

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