One-on-One with Joe Mantegna


 Tony Medley

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 raised in Cicero. 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 Goodwin School of Drama, which at the time was a well-known, prestigious actors school. Now it’s become the Theater 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 Goodwin 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. I was 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.

                    But 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 gave them all credit 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 Glenross.” 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 and 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 and had turned it down, luckily for me.  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 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-Amercan. 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 got lucky that it was on the page. It was my job to convince people. 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.

 TONY:        You were so understated.

 JOE:           I worked at that. I felt that was the key to Dean. The image I always kept in my mind was that the movie’s called “The Rat Pack.” I think of it more as a dog pack. Frank is the lead dog. There’s a pack of dogs always nipping at his heals, following him wherever he goes. Whatever he wants to do, they’re with him. Dean Martin was the cat that ran with the dogs. When push comes to shove and the leader of the dogs goes, “Come on; we’re going to do this now,” every once in a while the cat says, “You know what? I’m going to go my own way. I’ll be over here. You guys go ahead.”

 TONY:        Did you know him?

 JOE:           I didn’t get to know Dean at all. He had passed away before we made the film. I had gotten to know Frank a little bit. I had played in his golf tournament. I just played it in February. In the early days he would be there. I am very good friends with his wife, Barbara. I’m a key supporter of her charity out at the Eisenhower Center in the desert, the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Hospital. So I had a connection and I’ve gotten to be friends with members of Dean’s family. His daughter, Deena, and her husband, John, are dear friends. She’s written a wonderful book about her life with her father, called “Memories Are Made of This.” It would make a nice TV film.

 TONY:        You do a lot of charity work, like the National Memorial Day Concert.

JOE:           Charlie Durning was the guy who got me involved. He asked me and I said, “All right, I’ll do it,” not knowing what impact it was going to have on me. The first year I did it was the Memorial Day after 9/11. It so affected and moved me, I said to myself, “I’m aboard. I’ll do this as long as they ask me.”

 TONY:        What was it that affected you so?

 JOE:           It was a combination of things. Here you are on a stage sitting right in front of the U.S. Capital. The flags are flying above. It’s all lit up. I’m on the stage. Behind me is the Washington Symphony Orchestra, playing Mozart’s “Requiem.” Next to me are huge 4-story screens. On these screens they’re showing clips from 9/11, just six months fresh in our minds. While this music is playing and they’re showing these images, in front of me are more than 300,000 people. And I’m saying the words of four New York Firemen who lost their sons, who were also firemen in 9/11. Sitting in the first row in front of this whole multitude of people are those actual firemen and their wives, in full dress uniform, all of them retired, sitting there, listening to me saying their words of what it was like to look for the bodies of their sons. All I can tell you is that I’ve been an actor for 40 years. This took me to a level as an actor that I never wanted or looked forward to tapping in to. But here I was in that situation. That transcended a performance. This is life. This is the real deal. This is not fiction, not Hollywood. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were there. Colin Powell was there. This is the United States and the Capital and the flags and the firemen and I’m saying their words. And it took everything I could to get through it. It took everything I could to keep from levitating out of my body.

 TONY:        Did you tear up?

 JOE:           Well, I think if you saw the tape of the end of it, it took everything I could to control myself. But I couldn’t allow myself to let loose. I couldn’t allow myself to give in to that. I’m representing these four men and their wives and families. It’s my job to get through it. The emotion was raging through my body, probably more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. But I had to get through it and I did. At the end of it, I walked off the stage and I walked up to them and I’m facing the Mall and that was a very emotional moment for all of us.

 TONY:        Was that planned?

 JOE:           The people running the thing knew what this moment might be like, so they told me to feel free to do what I felt. I ad libbed a line at the end. I was reading it off the teleprompter. When I got to the end, I looked at them and said, “Tonight we are all your sons and we will never ever forget,” then I just walked off the stage and embraced them all.

 TONY:        Had you planned that?

 JOE:           It just kind of came to me as I was wrapping it up. I felt I had to say something that was personal.

 TONY:        So now you’re a regular?

 JOE:           Oh, yeah. Every year has been emotional in different ways, and it will be this year. I don’t even know what the program is this year. We’ve got great people. It’s a 90-minute show and it just taps on everything. What I like about it is that we’re not trying to make a statement, not political. It’s just saying what it is, that we are a nation united on this day, Memorial Day, to honor all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice so we can live this life we live. Whatever our feelings may be, we live in a country where we have the freedom to voice those opinions. We’ve had to pay a price for that. That’s what we’re saying. Memorial Day is more than the Indianapolis 500. That’s all.

 TONY:        Like Charlie Durning bringing you on board, you brought Gary Sinise into working on the show, too. He’s relatively conservative. Are you, too?

 JOE:           I think Gary and I balance each other out a little bit. I think I’m a little left of center and he’s a little right of center. I like that because Memorial Day shouldn’t be about politics. I’ve been an Independent my whole voting life. I don’t like to align myself with any particular party or person. I like to see what’s going on out there and base it on that. But my feelings about the military are strong. I’m a strong supporter of all the individuals who serve.