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Joe Mantegna has been one of the most versatile and prolific actors of his generation. Whether he's the star or a supporting player, he loves a clever script and a juicy role as much as he loves a fine cigar.

By Mark Bernardo

The year is 1969. In a coffee shop across the street from Chicago's Schubert Theater, a young actor - a local kid named Joe Mantegna - sits at the counter as two of the Windy City's finest brusquely enter the diner and stop in their tracks at the sight of him.

"I was doing the play Hair and I had hair down to my shoulders at the time," the actor recalls with a wistful chuckle. "It was between shows and the Weather Underground were carrying on through the streets. You've got to remember, this was not long after all the commotion from the Democratic Convention in '68. So these two cops were checking every place downtown trying to find the agitators, they see me sitting there and they think I'm one of these Weathermen - that I snuck into the diner to hide - because I just looked so different from all the 'normal' people at the counter. They spun me around, saying 'Who are you? What are you doing here?' Thank God Ted Rado [the writer's brother] was there, who was a regular-looking guy, and he told them I was an actor in the play."

Those who know Joe Mantegna today as Will Girardi, the levelheaded father figure in CBS's hit family drama "Joan of Arcadia" would probably be just as shocked to see him portraying a longhaired hippie in his younger days. But this amusing anecdote - one of a seemingly endless supply in Mantegna's repertoire of a memory - serves to remind me of the incredible versatility that has characterized the veteran actor's distinguished career.

If you've seen a movie or a TV show in the past two decades, you've probably seen Joe Mantegna; you may even have a specific role that you associate him with, though it's more likely you don't. He's played criminals (Joey Zaza in The Godfather Part III; Pippi DeLena, the title role in Mario Puzo's The Last Don and The Last Don II; the charming con man Mike in House of Games). He's played lawmen (in Albino Alligator, Homicide, and the recent "Spenser" series of TV movies); judges (in the CBS series "First Monday"); comic foils (Forget Paris, Baby's Day Out) and soon, even a Renaissance painter (the title role in the film Pontormo, currently playing in Italy). His career, needless to say, has avoided stereotyping.

Joe Mantegna was born in 1947 on the West Side of Chicago (which technically puts him in neutral territory between the city's two warring baseball fan factions, though he admits that as a child he dreamed of being a left fielder for the Cubs). His father was in the insurance business and his mother wrapped packages for Sears and Roebuck. His aspirations to drama and performing began with auditioning - on a dare - for a role in a high school production of West Side Story. And while he didn't actually get the role, the experience set him on his chosen path. "It was an epiphany," he recalls. "The people, the piano, the lights, the other students - that high school became another world to me that day, one I didn't even know existed 24 hours before. I'll never forget going home that night and realizing I wanted this more than I've wanted anything in my life."

Mantegna narrated the English version of the James Orr documentaries on the Arturo Fuente family and the making of the Fuente Fuente Opus X, a personal favorite.
Following the infamous Hair production, Mantegna joined Chicago's Organic Theater Company (Dennis Franz, Meshach Taylor, and Dennis Farina were among his peers), where he honed his acting chops throughout the 1970s. In '78, he made it to Broadway, debuting in Studs Terkel's Working, and branching out into writing, with the award winning off-Broadway baseball play, Bleacher Bums. By 1983, Mantegna had returned to his hometown, and a chance meeting with another Chicago native proved to be a significant milestone in both men's budding careers.

"I remember running into this young, struggling playwright on the steps of the Goodman Theater in Chicago," the actor recalls. "I didn't know who he was, but I think he was having a pitch meeting there. He said, 'Excuse me, my name is David Mamet, I'm a playwright, I've seen you in some plays around here, and I hope someday we can work together.'" Mantegna started reading for Mamet, and the collaboration proved to be quite fruitful indeed. Mantegna's first and thus far only Tony Award came from his lead performance in Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross, a role later to be made famous by Alec Baldwin in the film version. To this day, Mantegna calls the role, and the opportunity, "the favorite thing I've ever done," and it undeniably put both actor and playwright on the map.

Mamet - who, incidentally, is a dedicated cigar enthusiast - made Mantegna his actor of choice in plays and, eventually, films, casting him in Things Change, Homicide, and, memorably, 1987's House of Games, his first big-screen lead. And whereas other actors who have had made the leap from supporting player to star bristle at being described as character actors, the Chicago native wears the mantle proudly.

"Luckily, I've fallen into a time in our entertainment spectrum where 'character actors' can do leading roles," he explains. "Look at Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman. I have no problem being the lead guy on the call sheet, but I have no problem being the third, fourth, or fifth guy on another one - movies like Up Close and Personal and Bugsy, where I'm just attracted to the role and the project. I try to diversify by desire, intent, and by now good the material is." Diversity has indeed been a hallmark of Mantegna's film and TV work. Unlike other actors of his generation with Italian surnames, his early resume is not littered with credits like "Thug No. 2" and "Mobster in Trenchcoat." However, his turns in the Godfather films and other mob opera fare led him to the role for which he is arguably best known by the young-adult set: the voice of Springfield Mafia boss Fat Tony, a recurring fan-favorite character on Fox's animated TV series, "The Simpsons." "I got a call from my agent sometime in the show's second season," he reminisces. "and I'd seen the show once or twice and thought it was funny, so I gave it a shot, and had a great time doing it. Apparently [the character] really resonated with the fans, so I've been coming back for a couple episodes every season. I've been doing it 12 years and the quality of the show is as high as it ever was. The only thing that's changed is that we used to record in a little basement at 20th Century Fox with a ping pong table, standing around in a circle. Now it's big time; now you've got the Marge Simpson recording studio." In an aside to "Simpsons" trivia geeks, Mantegna discloses that his raspy Fat Tony voice is based loosely on his Uncle Willy, a lifelong cigarette smoker who had one vocal chord removed.

Mantegna himself does not customarily smoke cigarettes, but he admits to smoking "about a million of them" in the course of one of his most lauded performances: the role of legendary crooner Dean Martin in the 1998 TV movie, The Rat Pack, for which he received an Emmy nomination. "I was so honored to have the opportunity to play that role, and I was a little scared to do it," he admits. "But I gave it a shot because I sure didn't want someone else to do it! I read books, I watched tape, I listened to interviews, I talked to people who knew him, contacted family members. I just did everything I could, because it's one thing to do a fictional character, but when you're doing someone who actually existed - who was so popular that people who never met him thought they knew him - it's much more daunting." Mantegna rose to the challenge - most critics agreeing, as I did, that he truly inhabited the role of perhaps the most misunderstood Rat Packer (and, allegedly according to Frank Sinatra himself, the most talented). "You can't just get surgery to become the character you're playing. The trick is to get to know him, capture as much as you can, so people watching feel comfortable with him."

Mantegna's character on the current TV series "Joan of Arcadia" has been named one of TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Dads.
On the other hand, sometimes you can be so good in a role that it makes people decidedly uncomfortable. In 1999, Mantegna did My Little Assassin, another made-for-cable feature, portraying another real-life character: Cuban president Fidel Castro. As with playing Dino, the actor immersed himself in research, with a somewhat jarring result when Marita Lorenz, whose real-life affair with Castro was the inspiration for the film, showed up on the set of the production. "I made such an effort in terms of makeup and hair to get the look down, and I remember the first day she walked on set, she gasped when she saw me," Mantegna recalls with a gentle chuckle. "She said it took her right back to those times when she knew [Castro]."

The film portrayed a young Castro in a romantic relationship, and Mantegna, aware of the volatility of the subject matter, consulted a Cuban-American for advice: his good friend and fellow actor, Andy Garcia. "I know how passionate Andy is about the political aspects of Cuba, and I feel the same way," Mantegna states, "but, not being a Cuban-American, I can't relate to it. I didn't want the film to glorify this guy, but I wanted to make sure this script was fair in how it portrayed him. On the one hand, how much ego does it take to become a dictator over a country for your entire life; to say, okay, you don't need to vote because I know what's best for everyone here? On the other hand, he's become like a father figure for so many people on that island because he's all they know. 80% of the population have never known anyone else. Personally, I would line up closer to how Andy feels about it."

The friendship between Mantegna and Garcia also played a role in a recent project near and dear to the hearts of cigar lovers - namely The Fuente Family: An American Dream, and Fuente Fuente Opus X: Birth of a Legend, a two-part DVD documentary by filmmaker James Orr detailing the struggles and triumphs of the legendary cigar-making family from Cuba. A limited edition gift set featuring the DVD and a rare Opus X cigar was wildly successful last year, inspiring Prometheus, the company that produced it, to issue two new versions this year, one narrated in Spanish by Garcia, the other in English by Mantegna.

The Fuentes and Joe Mantegna have had a relationship ever since a chance meeting in a cigar store between Mantegna, Carlos Fuente, Jr., and Fuente executive Wayne Suarez after the former had publicly declared the Fuente Hemingway Classic, then a new and largely unknown brand, as his favorite cigar. "They grabbed me and started hugging me like I was their long-lost son," the actor recalls proudly. "To mention a Dominican cigar - when the other actors in the interview were naming Cubans - put them over the moon. From that moment on, I became part of the extended Fuente family."

Cigars had, in fact, been part of Mantegna's life since long before that fateful day. He admits that he's been smoking them since high school, starting out with cheap brands like Muriel Coronellas and Tampa Jewels. When his acting career began taking him to places like Canada, where he had access to more prestigious, handmade Cuban brands, he delved more deeply into the hobby. "Any cigar smoker appreciates the world you become a part of," Mantegna contends, "the rituals of cigars smoking, the camaraderie. I just shot a movie in Toronto during June. One of the first places I went to is Thomas Hind's, an old cigar store up there where I hadn't been for about five years. As soon as I walked in it was like, here are my old friends, here are the owners... I went upstairs to the smoking room, and there's a bunch of guys who I've never met in my life. Yet we all shared that common passion, and all of a sudden I had five new friends. It's like an instant club."

Not that Mantegna doesn't appreciate a more solitary smoke as well: "Yesterday, I was all by myself at the end of the workday. We shot out at Long Beach, and my trailer was parked near the Pacific Ocean. It was almost sunset. We had our dinner break, and I sat on the lawn, lit up a Hemingway Maduro, and everything was right with the world. It's something you can do by yourself or do with a whole group of people. I enjoy a cigar, but I don't need three or four a day. I try to live by the phrase, 'Everything in moderation - including moderation.'"

The only area of Joe Mantegna's life where he seems not to follow this credo is his hectic work schedule. He has done an astounding 86 films since his debut in 1977. He is enjoying his latest stint on series television, "Joan of Arcadia," for which his character has been named one of TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Dads, right up there with Ward Cleaver, Archie Bunker, and Cliff Huxtable. During the show's hiatus, he's done three movies, including a CBS Christmas Special and Nine Lives, with Sissy Spacek, Holly Hunter, Glenn Close, and Kathy Baker. He's wrapped Pontormo, and continues to lend his vocal talents to Fat Tony several times a year on "The Simpsons." He has dabbled in directing, notably 2001's Lifeboat, written by (who else?) Mamet. And when he's not performing, he is involved with several charitable groups that combat autism, chiefly the National Alliance for Autism Research. It is a cause near to his heart, as his own daughter Mia suffers from the affliction. Yet, in between it all, Joe Mantegna finds time to lead what could honestly be described as the Good Life.

Referring back to the tale of triumph in the Fuente DVD, he says, "Anyone who watches it will see a fascinating story of individuals who have a dream and won't take no for an answer. This is a product that starts in the soil and becomes not just a handmade product but a huge industry. There are not many occupations like that. That kind of tradition appeals to me. I love great cigars, fine wines, beautiful old Beretta shotguns... I like to think I have a lot of years left, but I feel I'm old enough not to apologize for what I enjoy and who I am."

SMOKE - Fall, 2004
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