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Joe Mantegna

Joe Mantegna
The actor: Joe Mantegna first burst into the public consciousness as the favorite leading man of playwright/screenwriter David Mamet, who gave Mantegna a career-making role in Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway, then cast him as the lead in Mamet’s first two films: the 1987 cult classic House Of Games and its well-received 1988 follow-up, Things Change. Mantegna continued to work with Mamet, most recently in 2008’s Redbelt, but he also found considerable success outside their partnership. He earned a place in the hearts of Simpsons fans as Fat Tony, Springfield’s Mafia don, and played less-comic mobsters in The Godfather: Part III and the Mario Puzo-derived television movies The Last Don and The Last Don II. On television, Mantegna starred on the beloved cult drama Joan Of Arcadia,and he can currently be seen on Criminal Minds. In 2003, Mantegna starred in the gentle family comedy Uncle Nino, which just came out on DVD.
Uncle Nino (2003)—“Robert Micelli”
Joe Mantegna: Uncle Nino, it’s kind of funny how that came about. A friend’s ex-wife calls me from Chicago that I hadn’t heard from in probably 25 years. Tracked me down through mutual friends and said “As you know, I’m divorced from your old friend, but I’m remarried to a guy who’s a film producer, and he has another partner who’s a writer-director, and they’ve written this script, and they basically wrote this part for you. You inspired them to write this role. Would you consider looking at the script?”
So it was like one of those phone calls I get on Friday night, didn’t come through an agent or anything like that, and was totally out of the blue. And since I did know this girl and had known her for many years prior, I said, “Look, sure, send the script.” But I really didn’t think anything of it at the time. I thought “I’m just being courteous. I’ll give this thing a read and probably just have to call back and say, ‘You know, thanks, but it’s just not going to pan out.’” But when I got the script, there was just this very sweet kind of—I don’t know, it touched me. I related to it because it very much paralleled many things in my own life. And then ultimately my daughter wound up playing my daughter in the film, because when I got to page three, there was a daughter named Gina who was within a year of the real age of my own daughter, whose real name is Gina. And these people didn’t know that I even had a daughter Gina, or anything like that. I had lost contact with them. And in talking to the guy later, I thought, “Well, maybe he just kind of snuck that in there to kind of hopefully…”
AVC: Sweeten the deal?
JM: Sweeten the deal. I mean, he didn’t promise my daughter would play the role. But he said, “I honest to God didn’t know,” and explained the genesis of the name and all that, and I believe him. It’s just a coincidence. I didn’t suggest that she necessarily play the part, but my daughter is an actress, and I said, “Look, if you want to look at her…” I said, “It’s too ironic that she’s a year different from your character, and there’s just so much—I can relate to this movie so much.” And he read her along with girls from California and New York and all over, and he told me, “Look, it’s a no-brainer. She looks like you, she’s the best person who read for the part, let’s do it.”
So it became a very personal movie on that level as well, because my own daughter worked with me on the film. And it was just—we shot it in my hometown of Chicago, and it was about family, and about having this uncle who comes over from Italy and changes this family’s life, and it was like art imitating life and life imitating art. Because for a lot of the scenes, I brought in relatives from Chicago to be extras. In one scene, there’s a concert, and they had to have a couple hundred people as extras, and I think a hundred of them, I’m related to. You don’t often get those opportunities, so it was one of those things where my life and my occupation crossed.
I was just very happy with it. It is what it is. It’s a sweet little movie, and it wound up playing in this one theater in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for a year. A year straight at this one theater, you know, releasing it as a small independent thing. The town of Grand Rapids, I guess, has a very strong Italian population. And they embraced the movie and kept it in this one theater for a whole year, so the fact it’s now finally coming out on DVD—I get requests on my website every day for it, probably through word of mouth for when it played in Michigan or at film festivals. But anyway, Uncle Nino is a little different from a lot of the stuff I’ve done, just for those reasons.
Towing a.k.a. Who Stole My Wheels? (1978)—“Chris”
JM: Yeah. I think there was also a third title, Garage Girls, from what I’d heard in some sections of the country.
AVC: So what do you remember about Towing?
JM: I was still pretty active in theater in Chicago, hadn’t done really any film work at all. It was a big deal to be making a movie in Chicago, because nobody was really doing it much then. And this girl Maura Smith, who wrote and directed it, was casting this movie. She went to different theater companies around town looking for actors and saw me, asked me to be in it. And I remember Sue Lyon was going to be in it, and I was like, “Wow, Sue Lyon. She played Lolita.” You know, she worked with Peter Sellers, so it was like “Wow!” Of course, there’s a little water under the bridge since then, but bottom line for me, being a stage actor in Chicago, this seemed like a no-brainer. And back then, they were paying me more in a week than I probably made that year. It still was an infinitesimal amount of money, but when you’re doing theater in Chicago, you’re basically working almost for nothing. If somebody’s going to give you anything, you’re like “Wow, I’m being paid to be in a movie.”
AVC: What was the film about?
JM: I’m trying to remember. The film was basically about Sue and this other girl, Jennifer Ashley. She was in a movie called Pom Pom Girls at the time. I ran into her about two years ago. I hadn’t seen her in, like, 30 years. But anyway, it was built around them, it was one of those—I don’t know, what do you lump it in with, those kinds of movies? I mean, the title says it all. Garage Girls, Who Stole My Wheels? I think these two girls get their cars towed by somebody—you know, Chicago was known, in those days—Steve Goodman wrote the song “Lincoln Park Pirates” about these towing companies that would just tow your car indiscriminately. So I think it was a comic revenge movie, with boys and girls falling in love and helping each other get revenge on the towing company. What I thought was ironic about it was, at the time, J.J. Johnston, another actor in the film, he and I both had very much been stalwarts of working with David Mamet over the years. We suggested—because the script was constantly being revised and changed—that this up-and-coming young writer we knew named David Mamet might come in and write a couple of scenes for the movie. And I think he tentatively did write a scene, and it was rejected.
AVC: Wow.
JM: It was like “Nah, nah, this isn’t going to fly, this isn’t going to fit in this movie.” It was like, “Okay! We just thought we’d suggest this guy.”
AVC: It’s crazy to think of Mamet in that context.
JM: Yeah, that was one of Dave’s first rejections as a script doctor. So he never made it into Who Stole My Wheels?, but I think he might’ve made a couple hundred dollars.
AVC: And never recovered from that setback.
JM: Yeah, well, it might’ve spurred him onto other things.
AVC: You’re very intimately associated with David Mamet, onstage and then in film. When did you guys meet?
JM: Sometime in the mid-’70s. I was doing theater in Chicago, and he was starting to do that as well. He had come back from teaching, I think at Goddard College in Vermont, and was coming back to his hometown to try to get some of his plays done. As I recall, we met on the steps of the Goodman Theatre. I was going there to visit for some reason, and he was there to peddle some of his stuff, I think, and we ran into each other on the stairs. He stopped me and says, “Oh, you’re that actor Joe Mantegna. I’m David Mamet, I’m a writer, you know, maybe someday we can work together, I like your acting.” I said “Oh great, sure,” you know, thinking “Cool, that’s nice.” From that point on, I don’t know what exactly the genesis of our working together is, how it really ultimately happened, but he did do a play at the Organic Theater, the world première of Sexual Perversity In Chicago, which they wanted me to do, but I already had another job at the time. So I didn’t do that one, but I did wind up doing the world première of A Life In The Theatre. That was like a Goodman second-stage production or something. And that started my relationship with him. He would ask me to do readings of his stuff, and if I was available to do them, I would. I remember we did the first reading of American Buffalo for him—I was with the Organic Theater Company at the time in Chicago—and we did a reading of American Buffalo just so he could hear it.
AVC: Mamet’s dialogue has a very distinctive rhythm. Did it take some time to get comfortable with that?
JM: You know, I would say not so much, because the rhythm he was writing in was rhythms I knew. He writes in a very much Chicago kind of way. I mean, I can’t explain it, but I didn’t find it so unfamiliar. Which was kind of fun. It’s been fun for me. Because you read so much literature, especially in a theater—so much of it is East Coast-written or British, so you’re always having to adapt to that. This stuff, his stuff, I felt like “Oh, I get it, I get what he’s saying here.” And as it bore out, he seemed to think probably so as well, because we wound up doing a lot of stuff together.
Xanadu (1980)—deleted role
JM: Yeah, that’s right, I still get residuals for that. I still get like 10 bucks a year from that, because I’m still in the credits.
AVC: What did you play in Xanadu?
JM: There was a scene where he was looking at some people putting posters on a wall or something, and I happen to be standing there. “Guy Who Comments On Posters” would probably be my credit. And I think he walks up to me and says, “What’s going on?” and I say “Ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba, ba ba ba ” and that was it. I said maybe two lines. It was enough to qualify myself for a little unemployment that year in California, so it was well worth it. I probably made $200. Whatever. I had been doing theater for almost 15 years in Chicago, but coming out here to California was starting over, so it was one of those things—you go out to an audition and they say “Yeah, you could be the third guy on the left and say this line,” and that was that.
Soap (1980-1981)—“Juan One”
JM: That was a breakthrough kind of thing, because I was doing a play here, Bleacher Bums, which I co-wrote and conceived. It was actually a very successful play. It ultimately ran in L.A. for 10 years. But while I was doing that play, some casting people saw it and liked what I was doing in it, and that helped me get a few more TV-show auditions. And it ultimately got me this audition for Soap. It really started out as just one line in one episode where I was this character Juan One. Gregory Sierra’s character was El Puerco, kind of this revolutionary loosely based on Castro or Che Guevara, or somebody like that. And I was his aide de camp, his head guy. You never saw—well, ultimately you saw Juan Two and Juan Three, but I was Juan One. And it started with just one line. [Cartoony fake Hispanic accent.] I used a voice like this. You know, came up with this whole thing. Apparently the writers liked it, so they brought me back and I wound up doing seven or eight episodes. I’m in the very last episode of Soap, because we did something like the last eight episodes of the series. And it ended with a cliffhanger, so we would’ve come back the next season, but the show got cancelled.
AVC: That had to be frustrating.
JM: Yeah, because it was a great show, I loved doing it. It’s where I became friends with Billy Crystal, Katherine Helmond, Richard Mulligan, all these wonderful actors. And the show was successful, but at that time, the Moral Majority was really in its heyday, and they were coming out strong against Hollywood. They made Soap number one on their hit list, because they felt it just went too far. They went after the advertisers and all that.
AVC: Presumably they were particularly displeased with Crystal’s character being gay.
JM: Yeah, exactly. That and a lot of things they went after. So the show was like a top-20 show, and for a top-20 show to get cancelled was kind of unheard of. But it did. So yeah, it was frustrating, because I loved the character and I really felt like “Wow, a one-line, one-episode thing has turned into something.” But I was able to do other things with the people who produced Soap. It led to an association I had with two writers, Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett, who had a series called Open All Night, which I wound up doing a few episodes of. I had a short-lived writing deal with Tandem Productions because of Bleacher Bums. So it was like the typical thing—if you pay your dues, you do the work, and one thing hopefully leads to another, and I was starting to get a little somewhere.
I mean, doing the play Glengarry Glen Ross in New York in 1984, that’s what really kicked my film career off. That’s almost like a line of demarcation between everything prior to that and everything after that. My career took a huge leap after that because I won a Tony, the show won the Pulitzer Prize, and that kicked me off.
AVC: What character did you play on Broadway in Glengarry Glen Ross?
JM: I created the role of Ricky Roma, which Al Pacino ultimately did in the film version. Of course, they’ve done a revival since—a couple of years ago, Liev Schreiber did it and won the same Tony that I did 20 years later. So that was a career-changer. If I had to name one character that affected my career more than any in my life, it would’ve been that. And that really set me off into the movies. The first film I did—I was still doing Glengarry at the time in New York—was Compromising Positions, with Frank Perry directing and Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia. It was a small role, but it was the beginning of my smaller supporting major-film roles that ultimately led to bigger things.
AVC: Your early film and television roles are slanted heavily toward comedy.
JM: Yeah, a lot of them were. A lot of the theater I did was comedy, and I’ve done a lot of musical comedy. I used to do even more blatant comedy, like the stuff on Soap. Soap was outrageous. But then it started to jump around. Some of the Mamet stuff got a little more serious, and of course, roles like in Godfather III, that kind of stuff.
The Three Amigos (1986)—“Harry Flugelman”
JM: That was a lot of fun, as you can imagine, working with Steve Martin and Chevy Chase and Martin Short and John Landis. Yeah. That was a pretty fun experience, as I recall. I remember Gail O’Grady, it was her first film job ever. She played my secretary, and had one line. She went on to do other things, obviously.
AVC: Because of the people involved, it seems like the expectations were sky-high.
JM: Yeah. It was great to work with those guys, because all of them had such a great ability to improv and just kind of have fun. And Landis had a great track record with Animal House and all that. I was really busy at the time. I was still doing Glengarry Glen Ross. I was getting ready to do the road company of that for six months. As I recall, that happened right in the middle, so there was a lot of stuff going on.
House Of Games (1987)—“Mike”
JM: House Of Games really has become a special kind of movie. It’s almost a cult film now. Criterion Collection did a pretty fantastic edition of it, which is nice, because they really do it right. They did a lot of research to put that together. I think they spent almost two years trying to make a perfect copy of it, and doing all the interviews and trying to get the extra footage and stuff they add to it. So it’s nice to see that happen, to have a film that’s obviously been thought of well. I remember Siskel and Ebert in 1990 listed it as one of the 10 best films of the decade, which I thought was pretty cool.
AVC: Its screenplay has been heralded as a model in terms of structure.
JM: Yeah, it really was. I’ve had very successful film directors tell me they use that film, they keep it in their trailer. That sometimes when they’re directing a film, they’ll throw it on and look at it just to give them a primer again as to how a film should be constructed. Almost like an A-to-Z tutorial, which is kind of cool. Those are the kinds of things you can’t manufacture. It just happens. Obviously if you work with somebody of Mamet’s talent, you’ll improve your odds that it’s going to have some quality, some longevity. So yeah. It was his first film directing. It was my first real starring role, too. I’d just done Suspect with Cher prior to that, and had done a couple other films. Lots of smaller supporting roles, but that was the one. My first real help-carry-the-movie kind of role.
AVC: Did you do much research into con artists for the role?
JM: Well, luckily, I grew up in Chicago. With some of the relatives I have, it wasn’t… I’ve been a little bit in that world, and was familiar with it. Not that I had any experience with it, but I knew people. And also, Mamet was good about it, and Ricky Jay was just a font of information. Jay was also in the film, and has been a very close confidant of Dave’s ever since. Ricky is a master of the con, of the worlds of gambling and cards, sleight-of-hand on many different levels. So I think a lot of us got a crash course in that while doing the film.
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