Alex Rocco talks about Magic City, The Godfather and more
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Arguably still best known for playing Las Vegas “businessman” Moe Greene in The Godfather, Alex Rocco has one of the most distinctive voices in Hollywood, one which he has put to use on repeated occasions as Roger Meyers, Jr. on The Simpsons. Rocco, who won an Emmy for his work on the short-lived but critically acclaimed series The Famous Teddy Z, is returning to regular TV work with a recurring role on Starz’s Magic City.
Magic City (2012-present)—“Arthur Evans”
Alex Rocco: That’s me: the Jewish daddy. [Laughs.] Arthur Evans is an elderly Jewish guy who once was a bookmaker. Very wise. He’s not into the Jewish religion, so you can’t get him to a bar mitzvah or anything like that. He’s never been inside a temple in his life. But his son, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, there’s a lot of love between us, and I’m just trying to keep the sharks away from him, including Danny Huston, who’s so good at playing the bad guy. Y’see, what happened, when Castro took over Cuba, all that Meyer Lansky crowd got thrown out, and now they’re in Miami Beach and want to start up gambling. But the Evans family doesn’t want to do that, so there’s gonna be a lot of fighting and a lot of conflict in this series. I call it Casablanca meets Boardwalk Empire. But Jeffrey Dean Morgan starring, Mitch Glazer writing… I’ve seen a few episodes already, and it’s wonderful. It does a really great job of capturing the ’50s, with Sinatra and all that. That’s kind of my era, you know. I just turned 76 on February 29. I’m a Leap Year baby, though, so I’m really only 19. [Laughs.]
The A.V. Club: So did you audition for this role, or did they come looking for you?
AR: It was an audition. I think I went in on a Friday, I got word on Saturday that the writers wanted me, and I was on a plane on Monday. It’s just the greatest crew and cast. And it’s in Miami Beach. Starz spent something like $8 million on the set. It’s pretty impressive. So, yeah, I did four episodes—I’m a recurring character—and I’m just waiting for them to pick up a second season, which from what I’m hearing already looks like a slam-dunk.
AVC: Had you actively been looking for a series gig, or was the script just too tempting to ignore?
AR: Oh, I’m always looking for work in general. But this works well ’cause I’m lazy and only have to do every other show. [Laughs.] And it’s perfect, ’cause I go down there and they treat me like a king. It’s pretty sweet.
Motor Psycho (1965)—“Cory Maddox”
AR: Oh, my God, yeah! Russ Meyer! My first film. I went in for a small part, and I ended up with the lead. I didn’t know anything about his background, but it didn’t matter. I was just so excited to get the role. And then it was off to the races from that. He was a madman, Russ Meyer. You know, he was General Patton’s top photographer. I didn’t know that. When I was working with him, at one point, he was holding the camera with one hand and taking a dump and wiping his ass with toilet paper with the other hand. I actually witnessed that. I thought, “Boy, this guy’s gritty…”
AVC: So what was it like working on your first film? Was it intimidating for you?
AR: You better believe it was. I was so excited when I got the role. I told my mom and everybody back home. My nickname is Bobo, so it was, like, “Hey, Bobo’s got a movie!” [Laughs.] So it was pretty exciting. Was I nervous? Yeah. I tried to act cool, though, and bluff my way through, so the other actors wouldn’t steal my lunch.
By the way, I don’t know if you know this, but I took Leonard Nimoy’s acting class when I first got out to L.A. You know, Mr. Spock? I wouldn’t spend five bucks to see Leonard in a film, but he was one of the greatest coaches I ever had.
AVC: Is it true that Nimoy told you to take speech lessons to drop your Boston accent?
AR: Oh, you know about that? Yeah. The reason he’s a great coach is that he really embarrassed me. Some people go to acting classes to learn. I just kind of went for the dates. [Laughs.] But Leonard saw, I guess a germ of an idea in me. So I went to Los Angeles City College, to a speech clinic, and I started rounding my R’s or whatever you do. Now I sound like a New Yorker, but that’s totally acceptable in the business. But “pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd,” that don’t work. Either way, I’m probably not gonna do any Westerns. [Laughs.]
Getting back to Meyer, he also did something else I’ll never forget. We’re in the desert, 40 miles out, in Blythe, California, and the lead girl was very—she was something else. Haji. You remember her? He had me go to a motel with her for the night, so we’d be, uh, familiar with the next scene. Boy, I thought that’s what Hollywood was all about. [Laughs.] Can you imagine being broken in that way?
AVC: Seems like there’d be a lot worse people to be broken in by than Haji.
AR: [Laughs.] Oh, God. Say, is she still around?
AVC: She is, actually.
AR: God love her. I haven’t seen her for 30 years or so. I sold her my dog, my greyhound. He was a pain in the ass, but she bought him. She owned greyhounds back in Boston, at Wonderland Track.
The Famous Teddy Z (1989-1990)—“Al Floss”
AR: My favorite character. Hugh Wilson created that, the guy behind Frank’s Place and WKRP. I thought that was gonna be on for 10, 12 seasons. Out of all you writers, we got 50 rave reviews. Better than Cheers, better than Coach, better than The John Larroquette Show. And we lasted 12 weeks and went down the toilet. They pulled the plug. And I asked the people from CBS, “Well, what’s that all about?” And they said, [weasel-y voice] “Well, y’know, sometimes a Hollywood show just doesn’t cut it in the Bible Belt.” That kind of thing. I dunno if you ever saw it, but if you ever get a chance to see an episode…
AVC: Actually, someone’s uploaded the entire pilot to YouTube.
AR: Oh, yeah? On YouTube? Oh God, isn’t it great? Everybody should go to YouTube and see the pilot. In fact, I gotta remember to tell my wife so she can check it out.
AVC: The series may not have lasted long, but you still walked away with an Emmy for your work. That had to have been a bit of a surprise, given the fate of the show by that point.
AR: Well… not really. [Laughs.] I mean, I knew the competition that year was Woody Harrelson and Kelsey Grammer from Cheers, guys from Coach [Jerry Van Dyke] and Murphy Brown [Charles Kimbrough]. I had the toughest competition. You know, it’s funny, but when you open the envelope, you know how they show the five pictures of the nominees, then they say, “And the winner is”? When I got announced, Woody Harrelson looked like he was gonna throw up right in the audience. [Laughs.] Sour grapes…? Hello! But that was sweet. That was nice to get that Emmy. That was fun.
AVC: Have you ever heard any talk about Teddy Z coming to DVD?
AR: No. But that’s a very hip idea. We only did about 24 of those, I think, and the ones that people still haven’t seen are just classic. Oh, they’re so good.
Batman: Year One (2011)—“Carmine Falcone”
AR: I did the Batman: Year One thing last year, right? I gotta tell ya, I haven’t seen it, and I don’t even really know what it was. I did it for the paycheck. [Laughs.] But the first one, that was my first TV role, so it would’ve been what, ’66 or ’67? I got that job in a very strange way, and it’s been in the press, so stop me if you’ve heard it before, but…
I worked in this bar called the Raincheck Room in the ’60s, it used to be over on Santa Monica Boulevard, and, y’know, it was a pretty hip place. Lots of actors hung out there. Anyway, this guy Art always got calls to do Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea or Batman, and he’d get one or two lines, and… I knew the routine. So one day he was in the bathroom, and 20th Century Fox called, this guy named Mike Maclean, and I knew what was up. So when he says, “Is Art there?” I say, “No, but if you’re looking for an actor, I’m terrific! I did a lot of stuff in New York City, and…” I was lying my ass off, of course. [Laughs.] But he said, “Okay, you got two lines. Come on in. It pays $150.” I said, “I’ll be there, sir!” So there you go: I kind of stole my first job.
The Simpsons (1990-1997)—“Roger Meyers Jr.”
AR: Yeah, what’d I do, about six or seven of those? I did a series for Jim Brooks, for Gracie Films, called Sibs. That was a really good show. Marsha Mason was my wife. And because I’m with that family, pretty soon Jim Brooks says, “Play this.” And it’s kind of fun being the owner of Itchy and Scratchy.
AVC: Do you enjoy the opportunity to do voice work on occasion?
AR: Yeah. It really is fun, because you can go in shorts and a beard, you read off a piece of paper, and you're done. It’s like stealing money. [Laughs.]
A Bug’s Life (1998)—“Thorny”
AR: That was my greatest prize ever in life, because I did about eight lines as an ant, and I think I made over a million dollars. See, at that time, I had no idea what those guys were doing with voiceover. But because it was Disney/Pixar, it goes all over the world, then it comes to DVD. I made a fortune! Oh, my God! I mean, I haven’t touched that again, but A Bug’s Life, I’ll always remember that. Isn’t that amazing? You study all your life, you work really hard to do your best work onstage and onscreen, and then you make your best money playing an ant. [Laughs.]
The Stunt Man (1980)—“Jake”
AR: Richard Rush. That’s one of the biggest cult films out there, I think. That, and The Friends Of Eddie Coyle. Steve Railsback, my very good friend, played the stunt man. And I got to hang out with Peter O’Toole on location, who is just a wonderful human being. And funny. Every morning, he would say, [upper-crust British accent] “Rocco, come to me!” With Peter O’Toole, you just had nothing but fun. We were rebels in those days.
AVC: Did you toss a few back with him? It seems like you almost would’ve felt obliged to.
AR: Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] Yeah, but, you know, he was really a strange way. Because I was in The Godfather, playing Moe Green, he kind of in his own screwed-up way thought I was connected to the mob. Truly. He’d just be, like, “Oh, Rocco, I know what you people do...” [Laughs.]
The Facts Of Life (1981-1988)—“Charlie Polniaczek”
AR: A recurring role for about seven years, working with Nancy McKeon. You know, there was a question on Jeopardy! a few years back: “What actress had the same father in three different series?” It was The Facts Of Life, The Division, and Can’t Hurry Love. So Nancy McKeon’s made me a few dollars over the years. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did the girls treat you as a father figure off-camera?
AR: Yeah, and it was kind of interesting. Being the old man, I was kind of a surrogate father, they’d come to me for advice. They’re going through puberty, they’re starting to date, and I would say, “Y’know, I know I might come off as cool, but you should probably go talk to your mom about that.” [Laughs.] But playing the dad, that was cool. I loved it. I had fun.
That Thing You Do! (1996)—“Sol Siler”
AR: By the very sweet Tom Hanks. He liked me from Teddy Z, and he used me. He’s a doll. He says he’s not going to direct anymore ’cause it’s too much work. [Laughs.] His thing was, he’d say, “Okay, Rocco, I want a million-dollar take,” and then he’d say, “Okay, that was $997,000. Gimme another one!” He’s just one of the sweetest guys.
When I did that, I kind of wanted to give the role a little bit of Al Floss, but I didn’t know that Tom was gonna put me in a pink suit. I mean, my God, that’s all people tell me when they see it: “Oh, yeah, the guy in the pink suit!” [Laughs.] I kind of have fun with those roles, ’cause it always seems like if I’m not killing somebody violently, I’m playing somebody’s dad. I think I’ve played everybody’s dad in this town. Nancy McKeon, now Jeffrey Dean Morgan. You name ’em, I’ve been their dad.
The Pope Must Diet (1991)—“Cardinal Rocco”
AR: I thought my comedy chops in that were pretty good. Peter Richardson, the director, was a doll. I went over there with Robbie Coltrane and a lot of guys from the U.K. We did that in Yugoslavia, and it was a real special experience.
AVC: Did you ever imagine you’d play the Pope?
AR: Nah, not really. [Laughs.] My sister, who’s very Catholic, took offense to it. My sister Mary. She said, “Oh, how could you do that?” I said, “Oh, it’s just a movie, sis. Lighten up!”
Detroit 9000 (1973)—“Lt. Danny Bassett”
AR: Another one that has an interesting story. I was a minority in that film, with all the black cops. Quentin Tarantino saw that, and he bought the film and re-released it. Not that I got any work out of Quentin. I wish I did. But it gave me a little staying power. It was like, “Good, I don’t have to play the killer.” I was the weird white detective. [Laughs.]
AVC: That was directed by Arthur Marks. You turned up in a few more of his films over the years.
AR: Oh, yeah. He was a doll. I don’t know if he’s still around. It doesn’t seem possible.
AVC: He is, at least according to IMDb.
AR: God love him. What was the other film I did with Arthur?
AVC: You did two: Bonnie’s Kids, and then A Woman For All Men.
AR: Bonnie’s Kids I remember. I don’t remember A Woman For All Men. Who was in that?
AVC: Well, it’s described as a drive-in drama, and Keenan Wynn was in it.
AR: Okay, yeah, now I remember winning his Stetson hat on the set playing gin rummy. [Laughs.] He had this great white Stetson, Keenan Wynn, and I love action. I’m always gambling whenever I can. So I played him for the Stetson hat and won it. I have no idea where it is today. Yeah, A Woman For All Men, now I remember that. Jesus, you get my age, you forget what’s going on!
The George Carlin Show (1994-1995)—“Harry Rossetti”
AR: Boy, do I miss him. You know how insane he was, but he was so sweet. Sam Simon was our show-runner, and you know, it’s another case of being in the family in this business, because he also worked over on Sibs. So they called me up and asked, “Do you wanna go have lunch with George Carlin?” I said, “Yeah!” And, boy, did we hit it off. After the show, we’d go out and eat and have some laughs. He was a good guy.
AVC: It seems from most reports—Carlin talked about it on his website—that he loved the cast of the show but didn’t necessarily feel the same way about the folks behind the scenes.
AR: Yeah, I wasn’t necessarily gonna go there, but yeah. You know, one of the producers or writers was like, “You don’t really know comedy.” And I looked at him, then I looked at George, and I was like, “Get the fuck out of here!” There was this one guy—I’m not gonna mention his name, but I’m sure George probably says it—used to call the dudes from the Fox network and say, “Where the fuck have you assholes been? You’re two minutes late!” And this guy made all this money on The Simpsons, so he kind of killed our chances with the network. So George was happy to get out of there. He once came up to me and says, “Would you be upset if I walked out the door?” I said, “I’m right behind you.” That’s a true story.
Find Me Guilty (2006)—“Nick Calabrese”
AR: I really got some nice reviews off that. Can you imagine working with Sidney Lumet? That was great. I was in New York, walked into his office, and he didn’t even let me read. He said, “You wanna work with me?” I said, “I’d love to.” And I got the job just like that. And I had a great time on the set. Great director, as you know. I don’t have to build Sidney Lumet up to you. [Laughs.] I had a little problem with a scene, and I asked him for some advice, and he said, “Rocco, just tell the story.” And it worked. “Just tell the story.” That’s what we are, right? We’re storytellers.
AVC: It’s a rare film where Vin Diesel gets to step out of action-film mode and actually act.
AR: Yeah! You know what’s sad about that film? They got it out there, but it was only like, one day of ads. But it was some of the best work Vin Diesel’s ever done. It wasn’t fair to him, it wasn’t fair to me or anybody else. It had no legs ’cause of that. But it’s not a bad little film at all.
Freebie And The Bean (1975)—“D.A.”
Rafferty And The Gold Dust Twins (1975)—“Vinnie”
Fire Sale (1977)—“Al”
AR: You know, Alan Arkin, he’s responsible for a lot of my career, I don’t know if you knew that. Let me give you a little continuity, so you know how it went.
Alan saw The Godfather, and he was doing Freebie And The Bean, another Richard Rush film I was in, and they had trouble casting the part of the D.A. Alan suggested to Richard that they hire me, and I was on the next plane. That’s how that happened, and I got really tight with Alan. We did about eight projects. He directed me in a play for television with Carol Burnett called Twigs. And Joan Of Lorraine, a Maxwell Anderson piece. I don’t generally do plays. I’m frightened of them. [Laughs.] Rafferty And The Gold Dust Twins, that was Alan, with Sally Kellerman and Mackenzie Phillips.
What was the cowboy movie I did with him?
AVC: Hearts Of The West?
AR: Yeah, that’s it. But geez, what else did we do? I know we did some other stuff.
AVC: Well, at the very least, you also did Fire Sale, which he directed.
AR: Oh yeah, that’s right, Fire Sale. Boy, that became a real turkey. [Laughs.]
Party Down (2010)—“Howard Greengold”
AR: Ah yeah, Party Down was with Jane Lynch. I did a couple of shows with her. That was fun. I got a lot of reaction from the young crowd on that one. I guess that’s a younger type of show. I don’t know if they see it on YouTube or whatever, but I’m just amazed when they mention it. I’m like, “Oh, wow!” It’s nice to be in with the youth. [Laughs.]
AVC: When you’re approached by younger fans, which character do you find that they recognize you for the most?
AR: Believe it or not, it’s Moe Greene from The Godfather, which shocks me. I get in an elevator, and it’s college kids, sometimes even high-school kids, and I get dialogue from The Godfather. That’s almost 40 years ago. But the other one I get is for playing JLo’s papa in The Wedding Planner. That was a big hit with the younger crowd. I don’t get much from The Facts Of Life unless they’re up there in age. [Laughs.] But it’s all good. I’ve been very blessed. I keep saying, “I should just retire,” and my wife says, “Oh, don’t be silly, just wait for a call.” And then sure enough, I still get calls, and I still go out. I’m thrilled.
Three For The Road (1975)—“Pete Karras”
AR: Oh yeah, that was my very first series, which was very exciting. God, that was 1975. I’ve got a couple of great stories about that. I pull into the CBS lot, and they say, “Oh, Alex Rocco, your parking space is over there.” Now, you gotta remember, I’m still pretty much fresh outta Boston, at least as far as starring on a show goes, so I’m like, “Wow, my own parking space!” [Laughs.] And then I get to my dressing room, which used to belong to Milburn Stone, who played Doc from Gunsmoke, and they asked me what color I wanted it. I go, “Brown would be nice,” but I couldn’t wait to call my mom and go, “You’re not gonna believe this! They just asked me what color I want my dressing room!” My wife and I, we’re now living in Studio City, so I’m walking the other day, and Studio City has kind of a sidewalk of fame or whatever you wanna call it, and I went down and saw “Three For The Road, 1975.” I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m big in the Valley.” [Laughs.]
Yeah, that was my very first series, and Grant Tinker was my boss at MTM Productions the time. There were three people who were up for the part of Pete Karras: Bill Bixby, myself, and James Franciscus. It was between the three of us, and I was shocked that I got it. One of the producers said, “He’s kind of Italian-looking, isn’t he? I’d buy him as a guy with two kids.” [Laughs.] Vincent Van Patten played one of my kids. I guess now he’s doing the color commentary for the World Poker Tour, isn’t he? And then Leif Garrett was my other kid, and he went on to be a pop star or whatever.
Yeah, I got very fond memories of that show. It was a lot of fun, and what was great about it was that we did it on location. Monterey, San Francisco, a whole lot of places. We had this motor home and took it all over the place. It was such a nice transition from Boston, and after all the trouble I got in there… well, I’m sure you know that I was a bookie and all that.
AVC: Well, there wasn’t really a way to bring it up organically, but…
AR: Ah, it doesn’t bother me. Yeah, I was a young kid, I did a little time in the Billerica House of Correction, and it basically turned my life around, because I said, “Oh, I’ll never be locked up again. They’re not taking away my privacy.” So I flipped a coin: heads Miami, tails California. I came out here in ’61, I believe, and never got so much as a ticket after that. Somebody was looking out for me, I’ll tell ya that.
The Friends Of Eddie Coyle (1973)—“Jimmy Scalise”
AR: That was with Peter Yates, a wonderful, wonderful director. I was at the Ritz Carlton in Boston, and I had a scene the next day with big Bob Mitchum, and I was a nervous wreck. So I said to myself, “Hey, grow a pair a balls: Call him on the hotel phone and ask if you can come down and run lines for tomorrow’s scene.” So he says, “Meet me down in the lobby, at the bar.” I came with all my notes, I came prepared, and he looks at me, laughs, throws away all my papers, and we just got stoned together. [Laughs.] But what a pro. I mean, on the set… Bob started drinking early, and if the camera was turned around on me, he’d tell Peter, “It’s not fair to Alex, we’ll do this tomorrow.” I mean, he was there every minute of the day. He was my hero. He was great. What a party animal.
AVC: There’s been a bit written about the partying on the set over the years.
AR: Oh, yeah. After we finished—Bob took a liking to me, and he turned up at my place once with two bottles’ worth of vodka and mixers, and Sandy, my wife at the time, said, “I don’t know if I’m dreaming, but is that Bob Mitchum coming up the path?” He just liked to drink and tell old stories. And believe me, he had a lot of stories. [Laughs.] He’s the kind of guy you’d see camped out around the keg. That was Bob Mitchum. You know that wonderful monologue in the bowling alley? He said, “Hey, Rocco, you wanna chew my lines with me?” I said, “Sure, okay,” but he was pulling my leg. He already knew where every “and,” “the,” and “but” was supposed to be exactly. He had a photographic memory, that guy. He’d give it back to you every time, every single word. Isn’t that amazing? He’s the only guy I ever ran into who could do that. He was a one of a kind.
Dream A Little Dream (1989)—“Gus Keller”
AR: Well, I liked that one, of course, because my son directed that one. Marc Rocco. He’s since passed on. Yeah, we lost him early. But that sure was a lot of fun, getting to work with him on that.
Return To Horror High (1987)—“Harry Sleerick”
AR: Oh yeah, the one with George Clooney. He was a good guy. When I was shooting The George Carlin Show and he was on ER, we TP’ed each other’s dressing rooms, like frat boys in a dormitory. That was funny, ’cause it was him and Anthony Edwards, who I knew from Gotcha! There you go, that’s another whose dad I played. What’d I tell you? [Laughs.]
The Godfather (1972)—“Moe Greene”
AR: Without a doubt, my biggest ticket anywhere. I mean that literally. When I got the part, I went in to Francis Ford Coppola, and in those days, the word was, “Read the book,” which I already did, and then the actor would suggest to him which part they would like. Well, I went for… I dunno, one of the Italian parts. Maybe the Richard Bright part [Neri]. But Coppola goes, “I got my Jew!” And I went, “Oh no, Mr. Coppola, I’m Italian. I wouldn’t know how to play a Jew.” And he goes, “Oh, shut up.” [Laughs.] He says, “The Italians do this,” and he punches his fingers up. “And the Jews do this,” and his hand’s extended, the palm flat. Greatest piece of direction I ever got. I’ve been playing Jews ever since. [Laughs.]
Al Ruddy was the producer on that film. Moe Greene was originally supposed to be Bugsy Siegel, which you probably already know. I mean, that was his life, building up Vegas. But the Siegel estate wanted something like $25,000 in those days to use that name, and Al Ruddy said, “Forget them. You’re gonna be Moe Greene.” And I was a little heartbroken, ’cause everybody wants to play Bugsy Siegel, right? I had no idea what Moe Greene was gonna do for me. There was an off-Broadway play, Who Shot Moe Greene? There was a Moe Greene’s Bakery. Alec Baldwin did Moe Greene on Saturday Night Live. Billy Crystal opened up the Academy Awards once, saying, “I just ran into Moe Greene outside.” It became an amazing… I don’t know how to describe it. It just doesn’t die down. And people on the golf course will say, “Hey, Alex, would you call my dad and leave a line from The Godfather?” I say, “Okay. ‘I buy you out, you don’t buy me out!’ ‘He was bangin’ cocktail waitresses two at a time…’ ‘Don’t you know who I am?’” [Laughs.] But I enjoy doing it. It’s fun. I’ve been leaving Moe Greene messages for 40 years. People’s dads, girlfriends, whoever.
That became bigger than I think anybody ever thought it would. I mean, Brando didn’t show up for the first day of shooting. He said he couldn’t catch a plane because he had to go see his son in Georgia. Whatever! They weren’t paying me that much, of course, so they said to me, “Alex, do you know anybody in New York?” I said, “No, but my mother lives in Boston.” They said, “Well, go down there see her, and come back in a couple of months,” ’cause they wanted to shoot around Brando and get rid of him, and I didn’t have those scenes with Brando. I’m telling ya, my life changed. I paid every bill I had, because I was on it or sitting around waiting for it for, like, five months. So I thank Brando, and every time I ever hear the theme from The Godfather, I always say, “Thank you, God.” [Laughs.]