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The Lion in Winter
F. Murray Abraham, with a kingly bearing and determination, returns to the New York stage
February 15, 2007
By Andrew Salomon
F. Murray Abraham has a cold, has had one for the better part of a month now, but not even that can trim the grandeur and majesty of his voice. It is the finely tuned instrument of a veteran actor, one that starts deep within the well of his body, a low thrum, like the sound a cello makes when the bow is first pulled across the strings. The tone and timbre carry an air of importance, and when he opens his mouth one leans forward in anticipation that something profound is going to be spoken, no matter how quotidian the circumstance.

"I'll take some of that coffee," he says, standing in socks, gray sweatpants, and a long-sleeve thermal undershirt with another shirt on top, in the hallway outside a rehearsal studio. It is mid-December and Abraham is preparing for a historic turn, playing Barabas and Shylock in Off-Broadway productions by Theatre for a New Audience of The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice. It is the first time these plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare have been presented in repertory in this country, according to the actor.

Abraham takes his coffee and heads to a small room at the end of the hall. The swirling winds outside buffet the floor-to-ceiling window, but the radiator and that voice warm the space. Like many actors, Abraham can fill a room with more than the sound of his speech. But his is a refined presence, one that commands attention without pleading for it, and thus he fits exactly the dimensions of whatever room he inhabits. It's a bearing borne of time and a few defeats along the way, some of them, by his own admission, self-inflicted. Abraham is a man who speaks his mind and wants what he wants, sometimes to his benefit -- landing the role of a lifetime in Amadeus after walking away from negotiations -- and sometimes not: demanding that his name be taken out of the credits of The Bonfire of the Vanities because it wasn't going to run above the title (though, given the movie, maybe that wasn't such a bad thing).

Nevertheless, Abraham, 67, has self-awareness and a sense of humor, poking fun at himself for complaining to his wife of 45 years about his current ailment. "Oh, shut up," he tells himself. "It's a cold. C'mon."

Get him talking about acting, these roles, and the theatre, however, and Abraham resumes a fervent, almost imperial mien -- not out of an exaggerated sense of self-importance but from a passion and fierce belief that dramatic artists should always measure up to the capacity of the craft. "I happen to believe in melodrama," he says. "I like that kind of broadness. I think it's the only way the theatre will survive -- to examine that kind of big gesture and big idea, the kind of thing that movies and television cannot do. We've been going, I think, through a long process of trying to compete with them…. It's terrible. You can't compete with a close-up. And why try?"

Given that Broadway encompasses 39 theatres, some of them with 1,500 seats or more, Abraham wonders why the themes of the works that are routinely presented there don't fill every nook and cranny of its houses. The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, by comparison, could seem outsized in the 199-seat Duke on 42nd Street.

No matter. Abraham welcomes the opportunity to use the plays to explore people's perpetual inability to reach for their better selves. Though some have derided the plays as anti-Semitic, Abraham rails at what he calls a narrow definition. "It's much bigger than that," he says. To such critics, he replies, "It's like being ill. You tend to think only about your illness. There are other illnesses." He believes the plays are larger than any flaws they may contain. "Some people say [Shakespeare] is the greatest genius who ever lived -- in any field," he protests.

Jeffrey Horowitz is the artistic director of Theatre for a New Audience and a longtime friend of Abraham. Horowitz states on the theatre's website that the theatre's season -- which also includes Oliver Twist -- will examine the idea of the Jew as outsider. As someone who has been, willingly and unwillingly, separated from various tribes throughout his life, Abraham is perfectly suited for the task.

'A Place of Salvation'

Based on his name, his Semitic features, and the frequency with which he tosses around the word "schmuck," the casual observer might assume Abraham is an American Jew and native New Yorker.

In fact, "F" stands for Fahrid, and the name Abraham is an Anglicization of Ibrahim, and his father was a Christian Syrian who emigrated with his family around 1920 because of famine. "Literally, a plague of locusts," the actor says. "It was biblical." Abraham's paternal grandfather had been a chanter in the Syrian Orthodox Church, one who calls the locals to prayer with his singing. "Have you ever been in the desert?" Abraham asks. "The voices travel for miles. You can hear conversations from miles away. People would come for miles to sit in these great rows, these circles, sitting around him while he sang." Abraham's mother was an Italian American, and her father also immigrated to the States, where he worked as a coal miner in western Pennsylvania, had 14 children, and made wine in his basement.

Abraham was born in Pittsburgh but raised along the Mexican border in El Paso, Texas. His father was an auto mechanic, his mother was a homemaker, and Abraham was "a little hoodlum," he says. His parents' immigrant experience led to an "overprotective, fearful" environment at home. "It's an Old World mentality," he says. "Keep your trunks packed -- anything can happen.... But also the regard for life is extremely powerful…. That's how I grew up. It had nothing to do with what I became. Other than the tenacity."

In the mid-1950s, by the time he was 16, Abraham was running with one of the local gangs, which have a long tradition in El Paso. "That's where they began," he says, "among the border states. The Crips and Bloods are an offshoot of that." He was in and out of school, stealing cars, and getting into fights with rival gangs. "Guns were not a big part of our lives," he says. "Knives and chains and stuff like that. You'd walk away from a fight in those days. These days they're killing each other."

A speech and drama teacher, however, noticed Abraham's penchant for telling jokes and stories. She gave him Marc Antony's "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech to read in class, and in an instant, he says, he was changed. Asked what it was that hooked him, he says, "It was the event, the doing, the acting." He stopped seeing his friends and he began to read. "It was like coming to a place of salvation," he says. "I don't mean it any less than that. I mean, I had no future. I was going to become a guy who's just a working stiff, drinking too much and fighting too much."

His teacher helped get him into an acting contest, in which he won a scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin, where he continued his dramatic pursuits. "I went to school for a while and I realized it was time to try my fortune," he says. "I hitchhiked to L.A." He ended up in Venice, Calif., parking cars, "anything to make a living," he adds. "But mostly it was just having a great time. It was the '60s in L.A., man. You can't know. Venice, California -- it was practically free to stay there. You could sleep on the beach."

A New York Actor

It wasn't all the life of a vagabond. In 1962 he married Kate Hannan, and after a few years of nibbling around the edges of L.A. theatre, working almost exclusively in backstage jobs, Abraham sat himself down for a serious discussion. It was his 25th birthday. "I said, 'You either do this acting thing' -- 'cause I was just having fun, playing around with it -- 'or you shut up about it. Because you say it's your salvation, blah blah blah.' " He then went to an audition for the lead in Ray Bradbury's The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit. He got the part in the play, which ran for eight months, but Abraham quickly grew restless. While in the show, fellow thespians would introduce him to other actors who had first worked in Manhattan. "They would say almost reverentially, 'He's a New York actor,' " Abraham recalls of those introductions. "I thought, 'Well, fuck this. You're gonna dedicate yourself and think of yourself as second-rate, second-class? Bullshit.'" After the play closed, he moved with his wife to Manhattan. It was 1965.

Then, as now, it cost a lot to live in the city. Abraham worked as a waiter, his wife as a secretary, and he insisted that they spend no more on rent than the two of them brought home in a week. The couple made it with a dollar to spare, living in an apartment on the Upper West Side for $149 a month.

Soon after arriving in New York, Abraham began studying with Uta Hagen and, according to the actor, became one of her favorite pupils -- at first. "I was with her for little over a year," he says. "The more I was with her, the worse I got." Abraham says the problem is not uncommon between actors and their teachers, particularly the charismatic ones such as Hagen and Stella Adler. Students become entranced and start to purge their unique qualities and talents, trying to swallow whole their teachers' philosophies in an effort to please them. "If you don't watch out," he says, "you will destroy yourself in a minute…. In fact, what you should do is temper what you know by what they know, and that's a hard thing to do for a young actor who's trying to learn." Eventually, Hagen became so exasperated that she threw him out. "She said to the class, 'He has this great talent and he pisses all over it. Get out,' " he recalls. "I wept, heartbroken."

Still, Abraham had to keep working, and he appeared in many Off- and Off-Off-Broadway plays, getting parts in The Fantasticks and early works by John Guare, A.R. Gurney, Tony McGrath, and Terrence McNally. He also did a lot of street theatre, "a political children's show, anti-war stuff," on the Lower East Side, in Harlem, and in Queens. By the mid-1970s, Abraham had had small parts in Serpico and All the President's Men -- a cop both times -- and guest appearances on Kojak and All in the Family. In 1976, McNally broke through with his first Broadway hit, The Ritz, in which Abraham had a featured role.

As for national recognition, that came from an unexpected source: an underwear commercial. Abraham played a bunch of grapes, one of the original Fruit of the Loom characters. In those days, he says, almost all commercials were shot in and around Manhattan. "You could make a living," he says. "Not a great living, but you could support your family." By then Abraham had firmly established himself as a New York actor.

Dangling on a String

In the early 1980s, Peter Shaffer's Amadeus was a smash hit in the West End and on Broadway. Milos Forman, the Academy Award-winning director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, would direct the film version. Everybody, Abraham says, wanted the part of Salieri. But who, exactly, was "everybody"?

"Give me a name, they auditioned," Abraham says. "They came with their own makeup people." Forman wanted Abraham, but the journeyman actor doubted that. At the same time, around 1983, Abraham was offered the part of Omar Suarez in Scarface. He had worked with Al Pacino on Serpico, and both Pacino and director Brian De Palma wanted him for Scarface. Abraham asked for more time because of Amadeus. De Palma, knowing the role's importance, easily acquiesced.

But the audition process was growing tedious. Abraham refused to go see Forman unless he got to audition for Salieri. Abraham's agent assured him he would, so he went to meet with Forman. "I remember sitting there, trying to talk, and the phone kept ringing and they kept ignoring me," Abraham says. "I'm a schmuck. I'm sitting there, I'm a schmuck, I know what's gonna happen." He eventually talked with Forman for a bit, left, bought a six-pack, and went to the house of a friend, who listened patiently while Abraham fulminated about his treatment between swigs of beer, railing, "This is the same bullshit -- ," only to be cut off by his friend, who was familiar with the process. "They want to screen-test you," his friend assured him.

The friend was right. At the screen test, they gave Abraham a wig and a makeshift costume. Everything fit perfectly. Afterward, Forman told him, "You are my first choice." Abraham recalls his reply: "'That's nice, Milos, but what does this mean, I'm your first choice? Do I have the job?' He said, 'I have to talk to the producer.' "De Palma couldn't wait anymore, so Abraham flew to L.A. to take the part in Scarface: "I gotta pay my bills, man."

They rehearsed the movie for two weeks. Halfway through the rehearsal period, Abraham got the call and the part in Amadeus. Overnight, the other actors on the set began treating him differently. "Robert Loggia suddenly was giving me rides," he says of his Scarface colleague. "I mean, he's the nicest guy, but suddenly it was, 'I'll give you a ride.' His car was on the lot. The other actors were like" -- here Abraham whispers conspiratorially -- "'Congratulations, man.' It was almost awe. Because who expected it?"

The Perfect Match

Playing opposite Abraham was Tom Hulce, who likewise went through an arduous audition process with Forman. "I had had two really unsatisfactory meetings on Ragtime," Hulce says of another Forman film. "I really wanted to play Younger Brother." The part went to Brad Dourif.

In 1983, Hulce was working at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut in a role that was "a little on the punk side.... My first meeting with Milos was -- how do I put this delicately? I might have been a little bit of an asshole. I had nothing to lose." Hulce says the process took six months, with continual readings and screenings at Forman's apartment on Central Park South. He began to notice that Forman was really tough on the people who were doing well and perfectly kind to those who were overmatched.

In Prague, Czechoslovakia, where much of Amadeus was filmed, Abraham kept himself apart from the rest of the cast, which he says was essential. Hulce recalls that the two would see each other only on set, but "he and I would go out together every four to six weeks, get shit-faced drunk." According to Hulce, the physical and social distance they maintained during filming "allowed us to make these discoveries in front of each other moment to moment."

By the time Forman filmed the climactic scene, in which Mozart lies dying and Salieri is transcribing his famed "Requiem," the two had developed a superb working relationship, Hulce says. At one point in the film, when Mozart's mind is whirring, the music playing in his head as he describes it, Salieri implores him to "wait, slow down." But that line wasn't written by Peter Shaffer. Hulce had intentionally skipped a section of dialogue, hoping to reinforce the fact that Mozart was going faster than Salieri could follow, and Abraham responded perfectly and in character. "It was a glorious experience in having the most superb person on the other side of the net," says Hulce.

A Lot of Brass

For all his trouble, Abraham earned the Academy Award for best actor. According to a recent article in New York magazine, Shirley MacLaine whispered in his ear before handing him the Oscar, "Don't take the first thing they offer you."

He didn't. In fact, Abraham says, he developed something of an attitude when he was offered parts that weren't leading roles. "Because of the way I got the job, I refused to do anything except that part," he says. "I said, 'That's the mentality I have to maintain.' So I made the mistake of pushing for that always. There were a lot of supporting roles I should have taken." Other than mentioning a part in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Abraham is vague about others he mistakenly turned away. "I'm not going to blame anyone except myself," he says. "It was a big ego problem…. It took me a year and a half before I said, 'Shut up. Have you forgotten your work? Schmuck.' "

In 1994 he stepped into the enormous shoes of Ron Leibman, replacing the Tony-winning actor in the role of Roy Cohn in both parts of Angels in America, which were running in repertory on Broadway. He had 17 days to prepare, and he didn't get to rehearse with the other principals. "It wasn't for Murray the ideal situation," says Kathleen Chalfant, who, as Ethel Rosenberg and the doctor, had many crucial scenes with Abraham. Nonetheless, she says, he did "superbly."

As for films, Abraham did take a co-starring role in The Name of the Rose (1986), a critically acclaimed performance that, combined with his work in Amadeus, has made him a bankable star in Europe. Last year alone, he starred in four Italian films. "But you've got to cultivate your garden," he says. "If you're not working in Hollywood, there must be a reason you're not working. And after a while, the offers stop coming. I'm still having a good time…. The point is, I really have no complaints. I really mean that."


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