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.
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.
Things Change (1988)—“Jerry”
JM: That was a unique film, partly because it was co-written by Shel Silverstein. Anyone who sees the movie can tell it’s a Mamet film. It definitely has that Mamet stamp. But it also has something else going on, and that’s what Shel brought to it. There’s this kind of humor that’s different than Dave’s. It’s hard to describe.
AVC: Maybe a little more whimsical?
JM: That might be a good way to put it. I think Shel brought a certain whimsy to it. But Shel was an incredible human being. I remember that time very fondly as well. I remember all the times I work with Dave, because so much of it is like going to camp. A lot of the same people are always around, and we have a grand old time when we all get together.
AVC: He definitely has a repertory.
JM: Yeah, he does, and I feel blessed to have been part of it. And those years back then in the ’80s with Shel were a great time. So doing House Of Games and then Things Changeshortly thereafter was kind of a good one-two punch.
Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1989)—“Bandini”
JM: I loved doing that too, because that was one of the first John Fante films. You know, Fante was actually getting a lot of popularity in Europe. When we were shooting the film, it was mostly a European production. It was French, Belgian, and Italian producers, and Zoetrope was also involved, so Coppola was involved. So you had four different countries producing, and a Belgian director, Dominique Deruddere. And in Utah while we were shooting it, a lot of foreign press were coming out, because one of the co-stars was Ornella Muti, who was a big star in Italy at the time. Faye Dunaway was also in the film. So it was as close to doing a foreign film in the States as one can do, I felt in many ways.
AVC: Have you seen Ask The Dust?
JM: No, I haven’t seen that one. But I’d like to.
AVC: When it came out, some people had a problem with Colin Farrell, who’s Irish, playing a role as quintessentially Italian as Bandini.
JM: I can’t have a problem with that, because I’ve crossed that line in roles I’ve done, as have many actors over the millennia. I don’t buy into that. The point is it’s a portrayal, it’s a fictional account, it’s acting. You either buy it or you don’t. Brando wasn’t Italian either, but the Italians are quick to embrace him. There’s always gonna be someone who’s gonna say something. But bottom line, at the end of the day, if the guy does the job, he does the job. If he doesn’t, all kinds of things will rear their head.
The Godfather: Part III (1990)—“Joey Zasa”
JM: That was quite a year too, because I wound up doing that role, and I also worked for Woody Allen on Alice. I was shooting both films almost simultaneously. Literally, I would work on Alice, then fly to Italy to work on Godfather, come back to New York, work on Alice again. Then Godfather came back to the States and I worked on that again. So that was a real productive year, 1989-1990.
AVC: How did you get the role of Joey Zasa?
JM: It might’ve helped that I had done Bandini at the time, because Coppola co-produced that film, so undoubtedly he knew what I was doing. I was on his radar. I think he had seen Glengarry—I wound up doing that play for basically, between Broadway and the road, something like a year and a half. So a lot of people got to see it—a lot of directors, writers, producers.
I think that role helped me in many ways with other things afterward. I know it helped me work with Coppola and Woody Allen and Barry Levinson, ’cause these were all guys that knew me more from the theater than they did from my film work. So both those roles, in Godfather and the Woody Allen role, were based more on the work I’d done in Glengarry. And so with Coppola, having done Bandini I think helped. What’s funny is that I found out I was cast from a guy who owns a restaurant called Vitello’s in Studio City, California. I lived around the corner from that restaurant, and I knew the guys there very well. My picture probably still hangs up in the restaurant. It’s like one of the first actor pictures they hung up in there.
I happened to go there to get some pizza or something. This was years before the Robert Blake incident there. But one of the owners says to me, “You son of a bitch, Joey, you’re gonna be in Godfather III!” And I knew I was being considered for it. But I asked him “What are you talking about?” He says, “You’re in it, you son of a bitch! What are you being silly about? My brother-in-law works in the casting office, and he told me just today they’re puttin’ your picture up on the wall under the character Joey Zasa. Right next to Al Pacino and blah blah blah.” They put your picture up when they’re making up their board, you know, for the costumer, so everybody knows who’s cast in what. I didn’t want the guy to think he knew something I didn’t, so I’m sayin’ “Oh yeah, well, I know,” and he’s congratulating me, won’t let me pay for the pizza. And of course I run home and quickly call my agent—it’s after hours, I’m calling him at his house—saying “What the fuck! The guy who owns the pizza joint’s telling me I’m in Godfather III!” And he says “Oh, I just got the call, I was just gonna call you.” So I found out from the pizza guy before I found out from my agent.
AVC: Francis Ford Coppola is known for having a very involved rehearsal process for his films. Was that true with Godfather III?
JM: Yeah, it was great. I’ll give you an example. When we were shooting the movie, there’s a big scene where I’m walking around the table admonishing all these gangsters, then two seconds later, all these helicopters come in and kill everybody. Coppola had cameras hidden all over the place, behind the sets. So after we did the scene a couple times, he said, “Why don’t you try ad-libbing it, just make up a scene, you know what the gist is, you and Al Pacino make up what you want.” And you do it in theater too, it’s like a rehearsal technique to free you, loosen you up. An acting exercise.
So we did that, total ad-lib, stream of consciousness, whatever came into my head. Then he said “Okay, let’s shoot it again, ’cause maybe that’ll help get you to another place.” So then he rolled cameras and we did it again, and I thought, “That was good, it was fun, maybe it did free me up to do something different in this take.” Now of course, when I go see the film, I realize he had kept the cameras rolling through all of that without telling us, and wound up cutting some of that dialogue into the scene. So if you see that scene, there are certain lines in there that were part of my ad-libbed dialogue that had nothing to do with the script. And that was Coppola. So it was great, you’d learn a lot from working with him. I thought, “I should remember that in case I get a chance to direct a film, I might want to do that someday.” It’s just another way to prime the pump, tap the source, get what you need.
AVC: Were you anxious about how the film would be perceived given its predecessors’ pedigree and place in film history?
JM: Well, I didn’t worry about that end of it, ’cause I didn’t care. For me, there was more anxiety because, “Oh my God, I’m in the Italian Star Wars!” I remember the first day I showed up at Cinecitta Studios, I get there and I go through my wardrobe fitting, and they say “Report to that soundstage for rehearsals.” And I remember these huge soundproof doors, they have them at a lot of the major studios. I pushed through the one door, and the orchestra is rehearsing for this party scene. So all of a sudden I hear a live orchestra playing [Hums Godfather theme.] I swear to God, the hair stood up on the back of my neck, ’cause I thought to myself, “Jesus Christ, it’s the fucking Godfather. This is it. This is not a joke, like I’m at somebody’s Italian restaurant or some party where they’re playing the Godfather theme. This is it.” And when I did my first scene, I’m looking around the room and I’m thinking, “There’s Al Pacino, and there’s—” you know, all the different actors from the past. I’m thinking, “Wow, I just have to suck it up and realize—it’s like winning the lottery, but I bought a lot of tickets.” You think “Am I worthy?” and then a second later you say to yourself, “Yeah, I am.”
AVC: You have to trust Coppola’s instincts.
JM: Well, of course. I’m thinking “He put me here, so he must feel like I can do the job. So let’s go, Joe, this is what you’ve been working toward all your career. So let’s go.”
JM: Well, it was my first time with Woody Allen. It was a great experience. I worked on that film for almost five months. He works a whole other way, his own unique way of working, and a lot of it is re-shooting, at least it was back then. Since he shoots so much in master, and he doesn’t like video on the set, he has to look at the dailies, and if he doesn’t like what he sees, you go back and re-shoot the whole scene. And you do that numerous times. I found out that that was just—you know, the first time it happens, you think “It was my fault,” but you find out later, no, it’s just how he does things. It’s trial-and-error.
AVC: He’s also known for having secretive working methods.
JM: Yeah, you get the script with no title page on it. I actually got the whole script—I was flattered, because most people just got pages. But since my character was throughout the whole film, I think he felt he should give me the whole script.
Bugsy (1991)—“George Raft”
JM: I did a lot of research when I did roles like that—when I played Dean Martin in The Rat Pack, or Bugsy, or when I played Castro in My Little Assassin. All those roles, I did much more research than I would normally do, because you’re playing a real-life character, so you have the research available. There’s a scene in Bugsy, the film within the film, a black-and-white film that Raft had done early in his career. There’s a scene with myself and Marlene Dietrich. So I did a lot of research just on that movie, the history of him making that movie, so I could try to emulate what he did when he did the film. And his relationship with Siegel. There’s a couple biographies on him I read. So you do what you can, you’re not trying to do an impersonation, but I just wanted to be—you don’t want to do a caricature, but you want to create as much the essence of who that person was as possible.
The Simpsons (1991-present)—“Fat Tony”
JM: Yeah, I’ve been doing Fat Tony for 17 years now. I just did a little thing for it last week, for the DVD. I think that one might’ve come partly due to Godfather III, which had opened just prior to my getting that role. That’s my guess, I never really asked them, ’cause I thought it was just gonna be a one-shot deal. I read the script, thought it was funny, I loved The Simpsons, I think they were in their third season at the time. What I’d seen of it, I thought, “This is real smart, this is clever. I like what they’re doing, so I’d love doing this.” So I went in and did it, but who knew that Fat Tony was gonna resonate in the hearts and minds of the Simpsonites out there? Apparently they’d gotten enough feedback as to how the character was liked that they wrote it in again and again, and I was kind of a recurring guy that they’d tap into at least a couple episodes a season. And I was more than happy to do it, because it’s my longest-running character, and one that I think the quality of it has been maintained. I like it as much today as I did 17 years ago.
AVC: Do you have a favorite Fat Tony episode?
JM: Well, I’m partial to the opening one, ’cause it’s the first one, and there was another season-opener I did a couple years ago. The one about my son, where it was like The Godfather, with my son being the Michael Corleone character, but he just wants to be a chef. Since it opened the season that year, I was kind of flattered. I felt like they were giving Fat Tony a little respect. So I just like the whole thing. I love the fact that I’m part of the Simpsons family, that the character has done so well.
I mean, there’s a doll, there’s a talking doll of Fat Tony. I think Green Day, Tom Hanks, myself, and Albert Brooks are the only non-regulars in the film. Sideshow Bob didn’t even make the movie.
AVC: One of my favorite Fat Tony moments involves the head of the Italian Anti-Defamation League. Did you get any criticism from those kinds of groups?
JM: Well, what’s funny is that the two biggest Italian-American organizations in the country, I’m connected to. Sons Of Italy—I host their national convention every year in Washington D.C., and in the past, I was a celebrity spokesman for NIAF, the National Italian-American Foundation. Now both of them know very well what I do for a living, and the roles I’ve played, and I make no bones about it, and I tell them that. And what they also know is, it’s not a coincidence that my last name in Alice is an Italian name, or that my last name on the series First Monday was Novelli, which is my grandfather’s name. Or my current series, Criminal Minds, the character’s name is Rossi, or on Joan Of Arcadia… Every single one of those characters, I chose the last names, and I told the directors, including Woody Allen, and they went for it. I like to make them Italian-Americans when they’re positive role models, to balance off the Fat Tonys and the Joey Zasas. Not because I’m embarrassed by those characters. I’m not. I’ll play them ’til the day I die, I’m glad to do it. I don’t find it to be a defamation, because these guys weren’t named Smith and Johnson and Jones. Who are we kidding? So I love the fact that Simpsons throws it up there, they’ll really go overboard with the Italian thing. But I have to trust, hopefully, the intelligence of the populace. If you’re gonna take it literally, if you’re gonna say “These guys are all Italians, they must be gangsters in real life”—then what kind of fuckin’ idiot are you? I can’t come down to that level. So what I can do is try to balance the scales. When given the opportunity, I try to show that Italian-Americans can be Supreme Court justices, work for the FBI, can be doctors, lawyers, whatever.
So yeah, there has been, I’m sure, some Italian-American backlash against not just Fat Tony, but any sort of caricatures or characters like that. But I will rebut that to anyone, anyplace, anytime. As I said, the organizations know my stand on it, and I think I’ve helped sway them a bit. Helped them point their frustration in a different direction. If you’re gonna be pissed that the Godfather movies show Italians in a certain way, look who’s making the movies—Francis Coppola, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro—guys you embrace as being great Italian artists. I mean, if they don’t do it, who do you want to do it?
AVC: One reason The Godfather was so successful is that unlike previous Mafia movies, it was made by Italians—there was an authenticity lacking in earlier films.
JM: Well, going beyond the authenticity, it was a movie about a family. And maybe that’s what they brought to it. Gangster movies are gangster movies, but to me, that’s not what made the Godfather movies successful. They’re successful because they’re about families, and about the things families do.
AVC: And the United States, and capitalism. There’s a lot more going on.
JM: Yeah, and if you read the book, stuff that happens in the book kind of cements it for me. And I got to know [Mario] Puzo a little bit—I did The Last Don, a miniseries based on one of his books. And I got to know him a little bit, he wrote the screenplay. If you read his book The Fortunate Pilgrim, that’s the book he really loved—it’s about Italian immigrants in turn-of-the-century New York. And that’s the stuff in Godfather II. All the stuff with De Niro, that’s almost like a microcosm of the stuff in that book. The Mafia stuff in that book is maybe 1 percent, but Puzo realized he had to expand upon it to make a buck, because nobody bought The Fortunate Pilgrim. It’s this beautiful book about the Italian immigrants coming to America and all the great stuff about it, but as a movie, it wasn’t gonna sell. So he had to take that 1 percent of Mafia stuff and turn it into The Godfather, and the rest is history.
The Rat Pack (1999)—“Dean Martin”
JM: Oh yeah, might be in my top five characters I’ve played. I had such admiration for him and respect, and loved the era and that music. When I was offered that, it was similar to Godfather, in that my initial feeling was almost intimidation, like “Oh my God, can I really do this? He’s such an icon. How do you do this and get anybody to buy it?” But HBO was great, I think they did it right. They spent enough money to do it right. Had a wonderful screenplay, and it was good people involved. Ray Liotta, Don Cheadle, Bill Petersen, everybody just down the line. Well-directed. The cinematographer was the same cinematographer who Christian Bale recently went fuckin’ nuclear on. We didn’t have that problem—he’s a pretty good cinematographer, actually.
AVC: Would you describe him as “fuckin’ distracting?”
JM: No, no, no. He was great. In fact, if you look at The Rat Pack,the look of the film was a very big part of the film. It was beautifully shot. But anyway, I loved doing it, and I became dear friends with a few members of Dean Martin’s family, his daughter Dina in particular, who actually has been wanting me to help her get a book she wrote of her life story into a film. So it was my introduction into that world, and it was great, we had great times on it. To this day, Ray and Cheadle and I are friends, especially Don, ’cause I see him more often. But it was just fantastic to play those guys, and the fact that Don won the Golden Globe and I was nominated with him—we both were nominated for Emmys as well—it was a satisfaction. For me, it was a payoff for all the work I did. Because I did do a lot of research, and I did work really hard to play Dean Martin, ’cause I didn’t want to do him half-assed. I knew I couldn’t exactly look like him, or sound like him, or sing like him, there’s just no way. But I thought if I could just get the essence, if I could just for a couple hours have the people watching this film forget that it’s an actor, you know what I mean, which can happen in any biographical film… At least I get enough comments about it that I feel, “Okay, I have nothing to be embarrassed about.”
AVC: A lot of guys have Rat Pack fantasies. Were you ever that way?
JM: I’m still that way! Are you kidding? I mean, everybody does. It was like, what could be better? They were kings or princes of Hollywood. What a time that was, they were like masters of the universe.
AVC: There’s something timeless about them as well.
JM: Yeah, they lived in a time when it was good to smoke and good to drink, nothing was politically correct. We know it’s a time and an era and a lifestyle that you can’t go back to. That page has been turned, but I think people look back on it fondly, just like they look back on the Old West fondly.
Joan Of Arcadia (2003-2005)—“Will Girardi”
JM: I had a development deal with CBS at the time, ’cause I had done the series First Monday with James Garner. It was my first foray into series television. But I had been looking for it. I’d been doing mostly films for the previous 10 years plus, and it was great. But the lifestyle was wearing on me, ’cause I have children, they were growing up, I couldn’t travel with them as much as I used to. It was mostly Daddy going off alone to do a movie at locations here, there, and everywhere, and it was starting to impact my life. So I thought, “What’s my priority here? Is it to be the most-working actor in Hollywood and go anywhere, everywhere, and see my wife and kids when it’s convenient?” And I realized, “I’ve done this long enough, I need to make some changes.”
And my good friend Dennis Franz, who had been so successful with NYPD Blue, had always told me “Someday you’re gonna really embrace that lifestyle.” He said “It’s like working in a theater company: seeing the same people every day, working in an ensemble, coming home at night, and knowing what you’re doing for nine months out of the year.” And that started to look very appealing to me, and that’s when I decided to do First Monday.
I had a good relationship with CBS because I had done the miniseries The Last Don for them, which was very successful. They wound up doing two, I was in both of them, and got nominated for an Emmy for that. I had a good relationship with Les Moonves at CBS. So they offered me this thingwith James Garner, and I thought it was a no-brainer, it was everything I’d been looking for. So I did that, I found out what it was like to carry an hourlong drama. It was as difficult as they said it was, but I found out I could handle it. The show wasn’t successful, we did 13 and we were out, out of the box. But it was a great experience. I loved working with Garner, we had Charlie Durning on the show, I had a lot of input on the show—in fact, Charles Durning was my suggestion. It was wonderful. Don Bellasario was terrific to work for.
But the show didn’t work. But it was okay, ’cause out of it I got a development deal with CBS. So I came up with writers—at one time I was thinking of maybe Mamet writing something, but he was on other things. Then I came up with Rick Cleveland. I’d done this movie with him called Jerry And Tom, which we’d developed from a play into a screenplay into a movie, and it went to Sundance. Sam Rockwell and I did the parts. It’s a film I feel very proud of. Never got a big release—Miramax bought it and never released it as a feature. It came out on cable and video and all. But I think it’s a great film. And it did a lot for Rick Cleveland, the writer. He ultimately wrote for Six Feet Under and became one of their main writers, he wrote for The Sopranos, he did a lot of stuff and is still doing stuff. He’s a fairly well-known writer in the TV world now. But anyway, I went to him, and he was gonna develop a series for me. CBS was excited, I was excited. And then all of a sudden it turned out his contract with HBO was such that he couldn’t do a pilot outside HBO. It was a small-print type thing that he wasn’t aware of. So all of a sudden my idea kind of went away, and I was prepared not to do a series that year, not to use my development option that year.
And then CBS said “Well, if you’d like to look at scripts that we have lying around that we haven’t greenlit yet ’cause they’re cast-contingent, do it. And I thought it couldn’t hurt. So I read all these scripts, and some I liked more than others, but nothing really rang my bell, and then I read Joan Of Arcadia. And even though I knew I would not be the central character in this piece—because it’s called Joan of Arcadia—I read it and thought “This is a special script.” It reminded me—ironically, last night I was at a thing and Steve Zaillian was there, who I know because we did Searching For Bobby Fischer together, which is I think a great film—the pilot script of Joan Of Arcadia struck me very much like when I read Searching For Bobby Fischer, a film that I just thought, “Fuck, this is great.” So I said to myself, “Even though I won’t play the central character, I just want to be part of it.” I liked the relationship she had with the father, and still felt it was an integral character. I felt the father-daughter relationship—I have two daughters myself—I just felt this was important, just thought the show had something to say. I felt it was different from a lot of the shit that was on television, anyway.
So I went to CBS and said, “You know what, I’ll do this one.” They said “Great!” And then Mary Steenburgen agreed to do it as well—she felt the same way I did. And I was involved with the casting, since I was there from the ground floor. I saw Amber Tamblyn’s audition and I said “That’s the girl, without question.” And Jason Ritter, Michael Welch, whatever. Ultimately, we ran two seasons, and it’s one of the proudest things I’ve done.
I regret that it couldn’t continue—I mean, it gets into business reasons why sometimes shows don’t go on. But I think those two seasons—they weren’t perfect, and we stumbled a little on season two, which was part of the reason why it got cancelled. But that often happens on series television. You start to experiment a little, and you find your way, and if given the chance, you figure it out and you go on to new heights. We never got a chance to get past the rough point. But that’s okay. We shot 45 episodes, and I just think it was good for television. I still get letters from people all over the country who say how their families would sit around the TV together and watch it and then discuss it. It wasn’t a religious show, but it was a spiritual show. Different church groups around the country would get together and watch it and discuss it, and talk about religion, and what is God, what is life. You know, the metaphysical aspects of it just made it unique. I was just glad to be part of it. If given the chance, we could’ve really explored that thing, gone into some interesting metaphysical areas and spiritual areas and still tie it around entertainment, that would’ve been of real benefit. That’s what was great about the show, you often learned something by the end of the episode. Which, you know, why not?
The Kid & I (2005)—“Davis Roman”
JM: Yeah, yeah. That was interesting because it was a real-life story. It’s like a movie about a movie about a movie. Tom Arnold literally did live next door to this guy whose son idolized Tom Arnold because he had been in this movie True Lies, and the kid does have this learning disability, and the father is very wealthy, and the kid, all he wanted for his 17th birthday was to be in an action movie. And Tom Arnold was smart enough to realize, “You know what? This is a movie.” So he made a movie about what was actually happening with him living next door to these people. So this guy actually did finance a movie about making this movie about making this movie.It could have been a documentary. We were all playing these real people, and the kid actually was the real him, but I was playing the father who really did finance the movie.
AVC: Did you base it very clearly on the boy’s father?
JM: No, I based it on the script. I based it on the character that Tom Arnold wrote. But Tom wrote it based somewhat loosely on him. I don’t look like the father, I don’t act like the father. But the actions really happened.
AVC: Was the idea always that it would be released theatrically?
JM: I think so. I think at the end of the day, this guy had enough cash that he could’ve done anything he wanted with it. I think he could’ve, if he wanted to, just bought a chain of theaters and stuck it in there. I don’t know. But to me, it doesn’t matter. Actors are journeymen. We show up for work. We do the job and then we go. What goes on behind the scenes is what goes on behind the scenes.
Edmond (2005)—“Man In Bar”
JM: Well here’s one of the early Mamet plays, there’s a connection there. The gentleman who played the black pimp in it, Lionel Smith, is a dear friend of Dave’s as well. He just passed away last year. It was his idea to make it, and Dave was kind enough to let Lonnie run with the idea and get Stuart Gordon, who I had worked with at the Organic Theater for so many years, to direct the film. So many of the actors in the film were guys—beyond Bill Macy—I’ve known and worked with forever. To do another one of Mamet’s things—it’s what we do, that little group of us. So it’s fun to get another opportunity to do that.
AVC: It’s a very dark film, your character in particular.
JM: Oh yeah, kinda kicks things off into a dark area right from the jump.
AVC: Does that get under your skin at all? Is it disturbing?
JM: You know, it isn’t. I get asked that a lot now, because of Criminal Minds. My take on it is, first of all, it’s make-believe, and second of all, it’s based on what real people do for a living, so they’re the ones who should be disturbed. So I would be doing a disservice to the ones who really do that if I’m gonna say it bothers me to look at pictures of a rubber arm. Because there are people who do this for a living, who have to look at the real stuff. And God bless ’em, because they have to do that, EMT workers, people in the military, firemen, soldiers, FBI, police. Part of their lives is to look at the most gruesome kind of shit that we all try to avoid. Now, those people may have nightmares and get disturbed, and I understand it, and God bless ’em for doing the work that they do, but Joe the actor? Do I get disturbed by it? Hell no. For Edmond, it’s a different but similar answer to that question. No, I don’t find it disturbing. The words are disturbing, the thoughts are disturbing—the fact that there are guys that think that way, like my character. In other words, that twisted kind of logic, which through the beauty of Mamet’s writing is so captured, whatever that is. And what makes it scary is that we all know it exists. But me, Joe Mantegna, doesn’t find it disturbing to do, no. I’m a medium for the writer’s words, I’m a conduit, that’s how I think of it. So in other words, my job is to take that stuff and do it as effectively as possible.
Witless Protection (2008)—“Dr. Rondog ‘Doc’ Savage”
JM: That was written by a student of mine. I taught acting for directors at Columbia College in Chicago in the ‘70s. And my prized student actually was this guy Charlie Carner. He’s done a bunch of stuff since, he did The Fixer with Jon Voight, Jesus And Judas, I think he’s done a miniseries for ABC. But anyway, he calls me, and he says, “Joe, what would you think about coming to Chicago for a day and playing this fuckin’ whacked-out character…” I didn’t even know who Larry The Cable Guy was. He sends me the script and says I can play anything I want in the film, he says “You were my teacher back in the ’70s, I’ve never had you in one of my films.” I did like a student film for him back when he was a student. But once he became a writer-director out here in Hollywood, I had never done anything with him. He said “If there’s anything in here you’d like to do, just let me know.” And I read it, and I said to Charlie—’cause they were gonna shoot in Chicago, it was a way to come home, see my mother, whatever—I said “Charlie, there’s one character, Doc Savage, if you let me just do this guy totally whacked-out, I think I can have fun with this character.” And he said “Great, absolutely.” So it was one of those—every once in a while you’ll do one not for the money, not the career, just “You know, I got the time, this guy’s a friend, this’ll be fun to do, let’s do it. Let’s just have a good time, let me do a character that’s so far afield from a lot of the stuff I’m doing currently that it’ll just be kind of fun.”
Criminal Minds (2007-present)—“David Rossi”
JM: It’s my third series, and I finally got one that seems to be successful, with some longevity to it. It’s a great group of people, great group of writers. Again, it’s based on real people. I spent some time at Quantico, went down to FBI headquarters in Washington, and met some of the real people and some of the guys who work with us as technical advisers. I have tremendous respect for what these people do. I think of being an actor as a blue-collar profession. In other words, you just get out there and do it. And very often, even in movies, you can spend a lot of time sitting in a trailer waiting for them to set up, you know, a special-effects shot. When I did Baby’s Day Out, it was a lot of fun, but with those kind of pictures, it’s almost the more money they spend on them, the more time you wait to do the work. It’s just the nature of the business. So the actual time you’re acting is miniscule compared to the time you’re getting ready to do the work. The big difference on series television is, there’s not a lot of hanging-out time. You’re pumping those pages out, you’re doing six, seven, eight pages a day. And I like that pace. It’s a little more what I’m used to, it’s a little more like the theater. I feel like “This is what I’m being paid to do, let’s do it.” I’m not being paid to sit around and chat, you know, have coffee, and then just say four words and come back tomorrow and do take two. So I kind of like that.
I look at Amber Tamblyn, who was so brilliant on Joan Of Arcadia, and I figure where she probably got her chops was working eight years on a soap opera, where she had to learn reams of dialogue every day and run through every kind of emotion at the drop of a hat. And it gave this girl such depth as an actress, you know, so that’s an example of that. If you can do series television well, and not walk your way through it, do it as high a level as you can, and if the writing is good, if the people running it know their shit—which in this case we do, Ed Bernero who runs the show, and everybody involved—it’s very rewarding. And I like it. I got a chance to name this character after a real person, a policeman named David Rossi who was the first guy to testify in the O.J. Simpson trial. I thought he got piled on by O.J. Simpson’s lawyers at the time. So I thought “Someday I’m gonna name a character after this guy.” He went up in his dress blue uniforms and testified for two days. And I thought “What integrity.” For two days, this guy just got beat up—and all he did was answer the phones—and it’s obvious the defense is just gonna beat this guy up and try to hang the LAPD over the fact that this fuckin’ idiot murdered his wife. To me it was a joke. And so because of it, I named him after this guy, and he found out through surreptitious methods, and we became great friends. ’Cause he was so flattered that I had done that.