One-on-One with Joe Mantegna
I met Joe Mantegna at Taste
the restaurant owned by Joe and his wife, Arlene, at Verdugo and
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
a co-host of the National Memorial Day Concert put on by the
Government and broadcast nationally by PBS. Since 2007 he has been a
regular on the top-rated CBS show, “Criminal Minds.”
How did you become an actor?
I became an actor on a dare in High School.
Somebody dared me to try out for “West
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
After that I went to the
of Drama, which at the time was a well-known, prestigious actors school.
Now it’s become the
At the time it was one of a handful of professional acting schools in
the country. There was the
Playhouse out here, the
of Drama in
What was your big break?
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.
That was just from an open casting call?
Open casting. 4,000 people auditioned and
they wound up casting 28.
Were you a singer?
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
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
But then I conceived the play “Bleacher
Bums,” and it ran here in
starting in 1980. I wrote it along with the original cast. I have them
all credit because they all contributed.
In 1983 I was asked by David Mamet, who was
just starting out, to come to
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.
Were you disappointed you weren’t cast in
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.
For me, the role that you really nailed was
Dean Martin in “The Rat Pack.”
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.
Sinatra’s “Songs for Swinging Lovers” is my
That’s a great album. I was a kid during the
heyday of it, but I remember it well. And being Italian-American from
I was able to experience that kind of lifestyle. So to play that role
was a real gift.
Did you audition for it?
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.
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.
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.
You were so understated.
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.”
Did you know him?
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
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.
You do a lot of charity work, like the
National Memorial Day Concert.
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.”
What was it that affected you so?
It was a combination of things. Here you are
on a stage sitting right in front of the
Capital. The flags are flying above. It’s all lit up. I’m on the stage.
Behind me is the
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
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
The Joint Chiefs of Staff were there. Colin Powell was there. This is
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.
Did you tear up?
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.
Was that planned?
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.
Had you planned that?
It just kind of came to me as I was wrapping
it up. I felt I had to say something that was personal.
So now you’re a regular?
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
500. That’s all.
Like Charlie Durning bringing you on board,
you brought Gary Sinise into working on the show, too. He’s relatively
conservative. Are you, too?
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.