I met Joe Mantegna at Taste Chicago, the restaurant owned by Joe and his wife Arlene, at Verdugo and Hollywood Way in Burbank. Mantegna, an actor for more than 40 years, was born on November 13, 1947 in Chicago, Illinois, and was raised in Cicero, IL. Mantegna has worked for some of the great directors including Francis Ford Coppola (“Godfather III”) and David Mamet, and was personally selected by author Robert Parker to play his private eye, Spenser, in three movies. He is in his eighth year as a co-host of the National Memorial Day Concert put on by the U.S. Government and broadcast nationally by PBS. Since 2007, he has been a regular on the top-rated CBS show, “Criminal Minds.”
Tony: How did you become an actor?
Joe: I became an actor on a dare in high school. Somebody dared me to try out for “West Side Story.” We had all seen the movie (I saw it 11 times). So, on a dare I tried out for the play. I didn’t get cast but I thought it was an exciting experience. I didn’t even know there was a drama department in the school until I tried out for that play. The whole process was so exciting to me that I never looked back.
I wound up doing several plays in high school and some in Morton Junior College. After that I went to the Goodman School of Drama, which at the time was a well-known, prestigious actor’s school. (Now it’s become the Theatre School at DePaul University.) At the time it was one of a handful of professional acting schools in the country. There was the Pasadena Playhouse out here, the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago and the American Academy in New York.
Tony: What was your big break?
Joe: My first professional job was the play “Hair” in 1969. That was kind of a big deal at the time to go right out of acting school to the Chicago Company of a Broadway play. I didn’t even finish my third year because I tried out for this play over the summer and got cast. The dean told me, “Look, you’re going in to your third and final year. You might as well just take the job.” The show ran a year and a half there, and then I did the national tour as well.
Tony: That was just from an open casting call?
Joe: Open casting. 4,000 people auditioned and they wound up casting 28.
Tony: Were you a singer?
Joe: I was. I had been in a band in the ‘60s as well; in a group called “The Apocryphals.” We were pretty successful in the Midwest. We opened for Neil Diamond once. We used to tour with a group that ultimately became “Chicago” (they were called “The Missing Links” back then). Whenever they are in town, they always come here to the restaurant because I’m still very close friends with all of them.
After “Hair” I did “Godspell,” and then Studs Terkel’s “Working.” In fact, I have two songs on that album. So I really thought musical comedy was going to be my ticket to show business. Then I conceived the play “Bleacher Bums,” and it ran here in Los Angeles starting in 1980. I wrote it along with the original cast. I have them all credited because they all contributed.
In 1983, I was asked by David Mamet, who was just starting out, to come to New York to do a new play he had just written called “Glengarry Glen Ross.” That was my big break. I had been a struggling actor for 15 years. I was lucky enough to win the Tony Award for the role, and the play won the Pulitzer Prize. That opened up the doors a lot wider.
Tony: Were you disappointed you weren’t cast in the movie?
Joe: Of course. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to recreate the role in the film but as a testament to what a noble human being he is, I was still in the role. David came to me and said, “I want you to know I sold the rights to the play but Al Pacino is already attached to it.” (Al Pacino had been offered the play first. He was wise enough not to turn down the film.) I understood it; he was a huge star at that time, and I still had a long road to go.
So David Mamet said to me, “Look, Al Pacino is already attached to it. You’re not going to play the part in the film.” He handed me two scripts and said, “I won’t make these two films without you,” and they were “House of Games” and “Things Change,” with Don Ameche. They were the first two films that David Mamet directed, and I did wind up doing both those films. So it would be hard for me to feel bad about a guy who was being so generous and noble. We’ve been friends and associates ever since.
Tony: For me, the role that you really nailed was Dean Martin in “The Rat Pack.”
Joe: Oh, well, I loved doing it. If I had to pick my three most favorite roles of all time, that would be one of those top three. I had such respect for him and love for that era. Just driving up here right now I’ve got “Seriously Sinatra” on my radio.
Tony: Sinatra’s “Songs for Swinging Lovers” is my favorite album.
Joe: That’s a great album. I was a kid during the heyday of it but I remember it well. And being an Italian-American from Chicago, I was able to experience that kind of lifestyle. So to play that role was a real gift.
Tony: Did you audition for it?
Joe: I didn’t audition. It was an agency-HBO package deal. Ray Liotta was already attached to it to play Frank. They were thinking of Don Cheadle to play Sammy Davis, Jr. They were undecided who would play Dean. Thank God the director, Rob Cohen, as well as Ray Liotta, were both pitching for me, unbeknownst to me.
Tony: It surprised me. I thought, “Wait a minute. This guy’s playing Dean Martin? That’s not the way I think of Dean Martin.” Then you nailed it.
Joe: Well, I did a lot of research. I worked very hard on that because I knew a lot of people would think that. “Joe Mantegna playing Dean Martin? Isn’t that a stretch?” I’m Italian-American. That’s about all I had in common with him. Nobody’s that good-looking or can sing that well. My goal wasn’t to mimic him, it was to capture him. It was a wonderful script that Kerio Salem had written. I had done biography before; I played Fidel Castro (“My Little Assassin,” 1997). You learn in doing biographical pieces that the goal is to get the audience to buy you for the first ten minutes; if they do, they’ll take the whole ride with you.
(To be continued next week.)