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by jay s. jacobs
All rights reserved. Posted: February 10, 2004.
Joe Mantegna was a student at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, he
would to pick up a play and turn the page that listed
the original cast. It always fascinated him. Who originated these roles?
What did they do later? Did they become a star or stay relatively obscure?
He always thought that it would be the greatest thing if someday
an acting student could open up
a book and
see his name.
years later, he has met and surpassed his dream. Mantegna has worked
in every aspect of the industry:
from acting on stage,
television and film to writing, directing
actor he won a Tony as real estate salesman
Ricky Roma in the Pulitzer-Prize-winning David Mamet play Glengarry Glen
Ross. He also played super-agent Bobby Gould in Mamets
Broadway run of Speed-the-Plow (with Ron Silver and Madonna). His
long and fruitful relationship with Mamet also led to performances in the
play A Life In the Theater and the films House of Games, Things
Change and Homicide. Mantegna has been in other terrific films
like Searching For Bobby Fisher, Bugsy, Liberty Heights, Queens Logic,
Alice and The Godfather Part III. As anyone
with such a long
career, he also worked in some less-than-brilliant ones (hello, Bodies
of Evidence and Babys Day Out.)
However, even when the material wasnt really worthy of him, Mantegna's
talent stood out.
He received raves for playing Dean
Martin in the HBO movie The Rat Pack, and was
nominated for an an Emmy for starring in
the TV mini-series Mario Puzos The Last Don. He wrote the play
Bleacher Bums, a tribute to the long-suffering fans of his beloved Chicago Cubs, which
has been produced for television twice (in 1979 on PBS and 2002 on
Showtime). In 2001, he tried his hand at directing a film version of Mamets Lakeboat.
is conquering series television. His show Joan of Arcadia is
deservedly one of the biggest hits of the 2003-2004 season.
funny thing is, when he was a kid on the south side of Chicago, Mantegna
never even considered acting. He wanted to be a baseball player. In high
school, he became obsessed with the movie West Side Story.
of those coincidences that make life endlessly entertaining, Russ Tamblyn,
one of the stars of that film, is the father of Amber Tamblyn, Joes co-star
popular series Joan of Arcadia.) When his high school
put on a
production of West Side Story, they held open auditions. He and a
baseball buddy decided to try out on a dare. Mantegna nervously sang to the auditorium. He was blinded by the
footlights, so he couldnt tell who was watching or what kind of reaction he
was getting. When he finished, there was a nice round of applause. Mantegna didnt get the role, but he got the fever.
didnt get cast in the play, Mantegna laughs, but I was so devastated by
that fact. I couldnt figure it out. Why am I so devastated? Four hours
ago, I didnt even know there was a drama department in the school. Now,
Im devastated that Im not a part of it. That told me something. This is
something Ive got to look into. And I did. They made it easy for me. The
drama department was very vibrant at that time. They were looking for new
people, and the guy that ran it at the time was very supportive. I really
havent looked back since then. They put me in the drama class, and thats
the path Ive taken.
Mantegna had thrown himself into drama clubs, acting schools and theatrical
troupes. It was in those
heady days that Mantegna met and became friends with a writer
who would go on to be arguably the greatest playwright of our time, David
Mamet. I never lose sight of how fortuitous that was, he says humbly.
You cant make that happen. That was the luck of the draw, that he and I
occupied the same time and place, to come together and work together and be
friends and colleagues. Thats a lucky break for me.
real break was playing the king of the salesmen, Ricky Roma, head cheese in
a depressed real estate office in Glengarry Glen Ross. With that
character, Mantegna was a force of nature. Roma oozed charm and
hucksterism. You knew he could con his mother, and you knew that he would
too. The role won Mantegna a Tony award.
people started thinking that he was that character.
would be funny Mantegna says. Guys would come backstage and thered
always be those guys that said, If ever you need a job, I could use a guy like you.
I understood where they were coming from, but I also knew in my heart that I
wasnt that guy. I dont mean that in a negative way, like I disliked the
character. I loved Ricky Roma. I thought he was heroic, in fact. I
thought that was the way to play him. You had to play him with supreme
know, what other people would call sleaziness Id call confidence. Every
attribute that maybe somebody would find distasteful about him, I found as
an attribute. I feel that takes a unique personality. In other
words, those are the super-salesmen. Those are the con men.
Those are the guys that have that kind of chutzpah
And I dont.
Thats why I really dont play cards or gamble. Because Id crack.
Ricky Roma doesnt. Its fun to play that, because you can tap into that
side of yourself to play the role. But I think once they got to know me for
more than ten minutes, theyd realize, okay, hes not really that guy.
Mantegnas reputation on the stage continued to grow, he
supporting roles in films like The Money Pit, Compromising Positions and
¡Three Amigos! But it was Mamet who provided Mantegna with
his film breakthrough, playing con man Mike in House of Games.
At that point, Mamet had written several well-received screenplays like
The Verdict, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Untouchables.
There was a bidding war for the new screenplay about a psychiatrist who
finds herself drawn into the world of con artists. Mamet accepted much
less so that he could make his directorial debut. Mamet also resisted the
Hollywood idea of populating the film with well-known actors.
Instead he used
people hed worked with in theater like Mantegna, Lindsay Crouse (Mamets
then-wife), J.T. Walsh, William H. Macy and Ricky Jay. At the time,
Mantegna wasnt sure if it would strike a nerve. It was a relatively
moderate hit when released, but over the years has grown a reputation as a
really has become like a cult film, Mantegna agrees. I get asked about
that film more than anything. People who are passionate about it are really
passionate about it. All over the world
I did a film in France a couple
of years ago, and it was playing again first run at a theater there. I
liked its script, because I like much of Davids stuff. It seemed, it was
right in the pocket there. It was in that realm of
Sexual Perversity in Chicago
and a lot of the things that he had written, in
the sense this is just a real solid, good script, with interesting
characters and dialogue.
roles have led to a long and impressive career. Since 1979, Mantegna has
appeared in nearly eighty films or TV movies. Mantegna loved the lifestyle;
flying into a new city somewhere around the world, moving into a hotel and
learning his lines, then moving on to the next project.
In the last few
years, this life was starting to wear on Mantegna. He was getting tired of
living out of a suitcase. He wanted to put down roots.
spent the better part of the last twenty-five years doing a lot of
traveling, Mantegna explains. Doing different things all over the place.
And its been great. Ive loved it, but I have a wife and two children.
one of my children has autism, which just complicates things a bit. When
they were small and my wife really had no other responsibilities, except
taking care of the family and all of us, it wasnt that big a deal. It was
fun. Hey, were going to Moscow. Were going to Italy. Were going to
going to New York. I did plays and movies and whatever all
over the place. [Now] theyre both teenagers. All of the sudden, that
reality hits in. That phase of our life is over. Theres no more,
going to spend January and part of February in Montreal.' Theyre not
going. All of the sudden, I started to make that realization that I didnt
like it. The work did not compensate for me living in a hotel by myself for
Mantegna thought that it might be time to try doing a series. Mantegna
some experience in television. Beyond doing many TV movies, he'd done two mini-series
The Last Don and
a series of movies
for A&E as Robert Parkers well-known detective Spenser. And of
course, he had a recurring voice role on The Simpsons as mobster Fat Tony.
love it, Mantegna says. Ive been doing
[The Simpsons] for about ten years now. Who
knew? Theres now a Fat Tony doll, which cracks me up. But you feel honored that they asked you to do a voice.
I like the show, even in those early stages when he was still in the second
season, which is when I first did it. You go in and you do the character
and have fun with it. The fact that they bring you back and keep
writing for the character, it was very satisfying. I think the writing has
maintained itself. I wouldnt be surprised if some day, they put the Simpsons in the Smithsonian. Its become part of our culture, those
years, CBS head honcho Les Moonves had been contacting him every year as pilot
season came up. Mantegna always politely declined, but said that he hoped
Moonves would still be around when he was ready to make that jump into
series work. Mantegna had a long discussion with his good friend,
Franz has made a
career starring as Detective Andy Sipowicz on
NYPD Blue. Franz assured Mantegna that
series work was wonderful. So in 2002, when Moonves asked Mantegna if hed be interested in a
new series about the Supreme Court called
he was finally ready.
remember distinctly, Mantegna says. I was shooting a thing. It was dead
of winter. I was by myself. That was when I made the decision. I had an
offer to do a third lead in a major film, but it took a lot of travel and
rehearsal. Then I got offered
I was fascinated by the Supreme Court. That was almost like a cathartic
moment in the hotel room where I said, what the hell am I doing? I reached
that day that I always thought might happen, where I say to myself I dont
want to do this anymore. Im looking for some stability. I want to stay
home. I want to work on something that gives me some logic to it and maybe
which also starred James Garner, Charles Durning and Linda Purl, debuted on
the air at about the same time as Sally Fields similarly-themed series The Court. Neither show lasted long. Still, Mantegna
got his feet wet. Moonves offered him a development deal. He started
working on an idea with a young screenwriter, but that fell apart when the
writers contract with a movie studio precluded him from working on the
project. Mantegna read some pilot scripts, but none of them really grabbed
I get this script,
Joan of Arcadia,
Mantegna says. Ive been with the same agent for over twenty years now. I
trust his taste and input. He read it first. He said, read this one. Im
not going to say anything, but just read this one. I looked at the title
and right away I went, oh, I dont know
I figured I had it all figured
out. Yeah, okay, chick talks to God. Im not ready to do
Touched By an Angel II.
I started reading it and all I can say is right around page six it was like,
Hello! It took this little turn. Then I started really getting into the
style of the dialogue. The writing. As I dug down [I had a feeling I get]
whenever I read Mamet, or I felt the same way when I read the script for
Searching for Bobby Fisher.
This is something else
This doesnt go into the pile with the
ninety percent of the
scripts you get.
Mantegna decided that he wanted to meet with creator Barbara Hall, who
also had written for ER, Chicago Hope, Northern Exposure and had
developed the series Judging Amy.
had a meeting, just her and I." Mantegna recalls.
"There was nobody else attached to this
thing. In fact, from what she explained to me, this project was
in limbo. [It] was really something she wrote because she felt she had
to. She was moved to write this thing, but she never dreamt that CBS really
would go for it. We talked for a couple of hours and she starts talking
about metaphysics and religions. Obviously, this was not just like somebody
who had this whim of, like, hey, I think Ill write this series about a girl
who talks to God. I was so taken by her intelligence and her passion and
where her head was with this. Then [there was] the writing itself, because
to me, thats what its all about. If it aint on the page, it aint on the
stage. At the end of the meeting, I said to her, Im going to roll the dice
with you, honey. Win or lose, Im with you on this. I think if we shoot
this thing and theres just a pilot, so be it, we made a nice little
49-minute movie. Lets do it. Im in.
little 49-minute movie was just the beginning. In the series, Mantegna plays Will Girardi, a cop in
the fictional city of Arcadia. Will has just moved his family there to
become Chief of Police. As much as he relishes being a detective, he
hates the politics that go with the new position. He has seen much evil
in his job, but he does truly love his
family. The family has gone through its share of hardships. The oldest
son, Kevin (Jason Ritter) has been involved in a car crash and been
paralyzed. (Actor Ritter looks spookily like
his father, late television star John Ritter.) His wife Helen (Mary Steenburgen) has taken a job at the
but she is unfulfilled as an artist and her worries and guilt about the
accident are causing her a crisis of faith. Youngest son Luke (Michael
Welsh) is a brilliant but shy boy who always feels like he
is overlooked. Daughter Joan (Amber Tamblyn) is
teenage girl problems: peer pressure, body image, high school politics and
the like. If her life isnt complicated enough, God
starts to visit her and give her cryptic tasks to perform.
the reasons the show works so well is that they all feel right as a family. The
teasing, the petty arguments and the deep love all feel extremely realistic. Mantegna readily credits the sense
of truth to the talented ensemble cast.
really couldnt be better, Mantegna says. Whats funny is theyre
relatively unknown, but all three of them are very savvy. In Ambers case,
you are talking about someone who worked on a soap opera for eight years.
If thats not the best training ground for an actress, I dont know what
is. Michael, as young as he is, has been acting since he was a little kid.
Hes just a consummate professional and knows the ropes. Jason, of course,
its in his family. Hes been doing it. Theyre just three great kids,
just unaffected. We dont even talk about the business. Its all
about our lives and stuff. And Mary, you couldnt pick a sweeter, more
wonderful woman. I think the casting has been done so well, in the
friends and the other roles. You like to think that quality stuff is going
to draw quality people.
cool thing about Joan of Arcadia is that
although it is a very
spiritual show, it is not necessarily a religious one. It does not look at
issues with one incontrovertible answer. The show works in the gray areas of
It's not all love and beauty. The show does
tend to tap into the dark side,
mostly through the character of Will and his work.
It acknowledges the evil that man does as well as the good.
The show does not offer pat answers, but it does try to explore
the condition of mankind and
therefore find a balance.
Thats intentional," Mantegna explains.
"If youre going to believe in a God, then you also have
to equally believe that theres a flip side to this. Whether you want to
call that the devil, or you want to call that bad karma. We know it
exists. For every Mother Teresa, theres a Jeffrey Dahmer. Why is that?
What goes wrong? Wheres the imperfection and whos going to win? Theres
good and evil going on. We have cops. We have robbers. So, by having this
character in this world, it gives us the opportunity to tap into the dark
side. We always enjoy the episodes where there are parallel stories
happening. There was an episode which was about finding your voice. I was dealing with a
hate crime, where a man was attacked because he was supposedly gay. You
find out its really because the son was gay and the father couldnt handle
that and he took it out on the priest. It paralleled the other story with
Amber helping a boy with a stutter find his voice. He wasnt good for
debate, but he was good as a writer. The two stories crossed and
intersected. Theres a lot of thought put into that.
show is also takes a somewhat radical
turn, because Will and
Helen are a long-married couple who still seem very much in love with each
other. They have been through a lot together and may fight or
disagree, but in the end they know that they will always be there.
Were not talking the family-values police idea
of a pure all-American family. This is a family that has faults and
problems and loves each other because of these foibles, not just despite
them. Real individuals like these are welcome in a
TV atmosphere where Fear Factor is on at 8:00 at night and Janet
Jackson flashes the world at the Super Bowl.
Television has taken a turn. Mantegna says. Its funny, just today on
they were talking about it. People were e-mailing in saying there
isnt a show we can watch anymore, hardly, where you
sit down with your daughter or your mother and watch it. Everything
is violence, sex
When I grew up, on television there was a nice
cross-section of things. There was the stuff that at the time was
thought of as a little edgy.
It was on late. You had the family shows in the family hours. I guess you
really start to appreciate it when you have kids of your own. Before, when
youre single or its just you and your wife, you watch as show and you
laugh at it. All of the sudden, you got a three-year-old sitting next to
mean, believe me, Im not for censorship. I spend a lot of time in Europe
and I see their attitude is a little different. You can show all out
there. As long as you do your job, people know what to separate, whats
proper behavior, where to do it and when to do it. But were still in
somewhat a Puritanical society in a lot of ways. Because of it, were
almost like not educated enough to a point to kind of accept things. So, we
titillate in a way and kind of go to the other extreme. Like, okay, well show
you. Were gonna hammer you over the head. Were gonna show you some
nudity here or say these words there or this much violence here
show you we can push the envelope. But, its almost gotten to the
point where youre pushing the other stuff out. So its
almost unique to see a show where you have a family as the core of it, and theyre actually
functioning. Its not a single mom. Its not a single dad. There are
problems within the family and stuff, but theyre still working it out
together. Ironically, this Fridays episode is the one thats going to be
dipping into that other side. In fact, the episode is
called A Night Without Stars and we really show
things come to a boil on all different
aspects within the family. Because those things happen. Were not trying
to say theres always going to be a little problem and then we
solve it. Sometimes its big problems. But, the point is, you can you
work through them. It doesnt always have to end in divorce. Or murder.
Or separation. Or, you know, whatever
Joan of Arcadia
finds its niche by exposing us to a world which
is similar to the one many of us
inhabit. With fondness and surprising humor, the show explores the dynamics
of day-to-day life in the new millennium, with all the complications and
benefits involved. It looks at good people trying to make their way in
a world that can sometimes be
overwhelming, or boring, or confusing.
are the things that go on in peoples lives," he
explains. "You almost have to put in some
of the mundane, in other words. Thats why it always amazes me that there
are so many cop shows. You talk to the real cops and they say ninety
percent of it is
paperwork. You talk to cops whove been policemen thirty years and have
never pulled their gun once.
Thats why I like the scenes where were just in the kitchen having
breakfast, because its the interaction between people. The chaos. You
find the order within the chaos of, in our case, five people. Yes, were a
family, were a husband and wife and three children. But theyre still five
different individuals with their own problems and their own agenda. Theyre
all different. One guys in a wheelchair. One kid is a genius. The girl
is going through what shes going through, that she cant even share with
anybody. So, its all of that. And thats what life is.
Mantegna, it is just another interesting
twist in a long and respected career.
He never wanted to be DeNiro or Schwarzennegger or Gibson. He just
wanted to act and do it well.
Joe Mantegna is
rightfully proud of what he has accomplished over the years.
I was having
problems with one of
my cars, Mantegna says.
It's an old car, from the
70s. I took it to this
mechanic somebody suggested. And the guy did a fantastic job. Fixed everything. This guys
now my hero. Because heres a guy who does what he claims he can do. He
did a perfect job of his passion of life, to fix these
old cars. Its the same thing. I love what I do. If at the end of the
day, people look at it and say, oh, yeah, I liked his stuff, or for the most
part I liked his stuff, or Ive enjoyed watching some of the things hes
done, thats all I can hope for. I was never driven to be Babe Ruth. I
always make that baseball analogy for show business. If you become Babe
Ruth, you become Babe Ruth, or you become Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa. But
the goal is to play in the major leagues. That Ive done. That Im doing.
Thats the joy. Thats whats great.
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