The Time Between
Armed with his usual positive outlook on life, actor Michael Nouri heads for Broadway.
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95
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Sometimes, however, before he has even lighted a cigar, he encounters complaints from people who are anticipating that he will do so. "I use the occasion to try to enlighten them about the glory of cigars," he says. "I assure them I'm not going to light one up, and I tell them something about how long it takes to make one. And it's interesting to find out that the phobia so many people have about cigars has nothing to do with firsthand experience of smelling cigars. It's as irrational a prejudice as any other. Most people, in fact, are pleasantly surprised at how good a fine cigar smells. They say they hated cigars, but this one really smells good; it doesn't smell like a cigar. And I tell them that this is what a real cigar smells like."
Nouri smiles again. He rolls the Montecristo No. 2 appreciatively between his fingers. He looks, and talks, like someone who is very happy with his life. And indeed he is. It is, he says, "like waking up into a dream every day."
That dream of becoming an actor began four decades ago in Alpine, New Jersey. "Though I didn't know it was my dream until my junior year in high school," he says. "I was at a boys' boarding school and I was in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial by Jury. I played the judge. I just loved it. I discovered I had a voice, a big voice, and that my hamminess could make people laugh. And I love making people laugh."
There was at first, however, not much support from his family. "My role model, my dad, was a businessman," he says, "and his definition of practicality was a nine-to-five job and supporting a family. So he did not encourage me to pursue my dream. With the best of intentions, he encouraged me to be practical, though now there is nobody more proud than he is that I pursued that dream and succeeded."
The turnaround came when Nouri briefly went to work for his father. "I showed up late every day," he says. "I'd wait for the coffee wagon to come around. I couldn't wait for lunch. I would live from break to break. Then I would leave early. Finally, I went into his office. It was no secret to either of us that this wasn't working. I think I was an embarrassment to him with his employees."
Nouri left and made for the streets of New York. He got a job as a waiter at Churchill's Restaurant, "a nice little burger bar on Third Avenue; I don't remember how much I was making, but it was clean money, because I wasn't giving up my soul." He started going to auditions, even though he had no formal training. He made his first trip to the West Coast, looking for movie work. And, he says, "I conned my way into the business.
"I lied my way into the office of Freddie Fields, who at the time was one of the most powerful agents [in Hollywood]," he recalls. "I had heard his name, that he was one of the best. So I lied about having an appointment with him, and somehow I got into his office. He let me know that he knew I didn't have an appointment, but he gave me five minutes. And I, with all the bravado of someone totally ignorant of the obstacles and difficulties in this business, announced that I was going to be a big star and make both of us a lot of money."
Fields was amused. "He actually assigned me to a rookie agent, and we drove over to Paramount Studios that afternoon to meet with a director named Larry Peerce, who was going to direct Philip Roth's book Goodbye, Columbus, which was going to star Richard Benjamin and an unknown actress named Ali McGraw. I auditioned and flew back to New York. A couple of days later I got a telegram saying they wanted me to play Ali McGraw's boyfriend. It paid $750 a week for two weeks' work. It was heaven. It showed me that what it all comes down to in this business--or in any other business--is chutzpah, just chutzpah. If you're passionate enough and you want to do it badly enough, then you become resourceful, you find a way to do it even if it means breaking the rules. Very often it's the rule breakers who make the biggest impression."
After his first movie, he went back to waiting tables. But then came his first Broadway appearance, in 1968 in a comedy called Forty Carats. His part was small, but he also understudied the male lead and, later in the run, took over the role, playing opposite a Broadway legend, Julie Harris.
Then, however, came a crisis. In the early 1970s, he says, "I set out on a spiritual quest in search of myself and became involved in meditation for three years." He lived on ashrams, pursuing self-knowledge. "It was a very rich time in my life. I discovered serenity within myself. I had been going through a tough time. I had had my heart broken in a relationship. I was disillusioned. I had experienced a modicum of what to me at the time was fame: being on Broadway, having my picture out in front of the theater, making real money. I knew that wasn't the answer. So I became a troubadour of sorts, living out of a funky old Volkswagen bus. To make a living, I sang, wrote songs, played the guitar. Then, gradually, I made a reentry into the world, started pursuing my career. I resumed acting with the understanding that I didn't have to renounce the world to have peace of mind."
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