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."
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."
The rest of Hollywood caught up with Lerner in 1991, when he appeared in Barton Fink. The character he plays--a hot-headed, boisterous, bullying, larger-than-life studio mogul in 1930s Hollywood--was based largely on legendary studio boss Louis B. Mayer. "They said the character was a Michael Lerner type but they didn't have me come in until the last minute," Lerner recounts, pointing out that the Coens originally considered casting an actual studio executive. "I came in and fucking blew them away. I auditioned in character, talking a mile a minute. Joel and Ethan Coen were on the ground, laughing and crying in hysterics, and I just walked out of there. I came in, I did the first big speech, and I walked out."
Fink transformed Lerner into a recognizable actor and led to better roles and perks. "Fuck the flowers and boxes of candy," he has told at least one producer who might be apt to give him a gift after he signs on to or completes a film. "Get me Cuban cigars."
Being a well-known cigar smoker who relaxes with his Cubans during a film shoot can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, directors like to share their Cubans with him; on the other, his Havana habit makes him a target for unscrupulous dealers of contraband cigars. "I once got a box of Montecristo No. 2s where the box was slightly thicker than it should have been. By the second cigar, I knew that these were not the real thing. Then this cocksucker in the San Fernando Valley--he has a cigar shop that I turned James Coburn on to--he told me that he had Cuban cigars and he sold them to me. Then it turned out that his father was rolling imitation Montecristo No. 2s. I was suspicious because the box was never sealed."
Lerner tries to stick to the real thing during his weekly poker game, hosted by an agent named Norby Walters and frequented by such celebrities as Charles Bronson, Richard Dreyfuss, Jason Alexander, Ed Asner, Milton Berle and Richard Lewis. "Norby doesn't let us smoke in the house, so we have to go on the patio," says Lerner. "Milton Berle, who's 90, is sharp as a tack. He's always carrying these huge cigars and offering them to you. He says, 'From Fidel.' You're going, 'Yeah, right, Milton.' Like he's going to be giving those out. He smokes cigars that have no labels on them that he says are from Fidel. Maybe the ones he's smoking are; the ones he gives out aren't. I don't know what they are. They're all right, but they aren't Cuban cigars."
Considering that Lerner is a New Yorker and a book lover at heart--he has a very valuable collection of rare books--you would expect him to loathe L.A. You'd expect him to automatically deride the stereotypically shallow, fake, pop-cultured sensibilities that New Yorkers of an intellectual bent are always bitching about whenever Tinseltown comes up in conversation. You would be wrong.
Sitting in the comfortably cluttered living room of his small Hollywood Hills home, Lerner sounds as if he's cheating on a wife named New York. "I shouldn't like L.A., huh?" he asks. "But I like L.A. a lot. I like the open space. I like driving in my car. I like that I live a block from Sunset Boulevard. There is a city life that is getting better and better. And there is a very important cultural life in L.A. that people don't know about."
He ticks off a number of cultural institutions, including the Huntington Library, home of a Gutenberg Bible, Gainsborough's "Blue Boy," a Shake-speare first folio, the Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales and Audubon's Birds of America, among other works.
Sitting in his living room, his shirt open, a view of downtown L.A. unfolding in front of him, Lerner expounds on the glories of his adopted home. "You go down to Orange County with this preconception that it is boring and right-wing. But then you go to book row in Quentin Tarantino territory and there are great used-book stores. You drive east on Olympic Boulevard and all of a sudden you are in Korea. Drive along the freeway and you are in Vietnam. Go to Monterey Park and you can have the best Chinese food." This sinks in for a moment before he booms out what to a New York foody would be the equivalent of cursing Vatican City: "Fuck Chinatown."
Lerner then disappears into a small library that is wall-to-wall books. He returns with an armload of oversized volumes that are centuries old. They are beautifully bound, musty smelling (Lerner inhales a page's scent as if it is the whiff of a Montecristo), loaded with gorgeously rendered illustrations of birds. Lerner's voice softens and the historian in him comes out as he explains the fine points of the binding and the paper that publishing's early craftsmen employed.
He turns the pages slowly and carefully, soaking in their contents as if the images are perishable. "The books relax me," he says, seeming to decompress as he speaks about their histories. "I am a big reader. I always have been. But I must tell you that these books are not easy to read. Much of the text is in old English. I dabble in the books. But the plates are what excite me. They relax me, calm me, cool me out. Also, book collecting gives me an interest and it's a very good investment. Plus it gets me away from the craziness."
Considering Lerner's intellectual curiosity, it's no surprise that he's a history buff. And that adds richness to his portrayals of real-life characters like Jack Ruby, whom he played in the 1978 TV docudrama Ruby and Oswald. Pointing out that Ruby's brother and sister served as technical advisers on the film, Lerner recalls, "I walked around Dallas with my head shaved, and they thought it was scary. Earl Ruby said, 'You look just like Jack.'" In the 1970s made-for-television movie about the Cuban missile crisis, The Missiles of October, Lerner played Pierre Salinger. After it aired, Lerner was at a Jerry Mulligan concert in New York and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis came over. "She told me that I out-Pierred Pierre. That was a compliment."
It is late afternoon, and the L.A. sky takes on a dusky quality. The time nears for Lerner's afternoon swimming, reading and smoking ritual. He sees me out the door. Walking past his black Mercedes Benz 420-E, thinking about all that his career has given him, I ask him if he ever feels cheated by his status as an actor's actor who plays character roles rather than being a leading man. Lerner thinks about that for a beat, then responds, "Every role is a character role."
Michael Kaplan is a freelance writer based in New York City.