Joe Mantegna's roots include turn as Mamet muse

Toward the end of the 1985 Broadway run of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” Mamet showed up in Joe Mantegna’s dressing room to tell him, “I’ve sold the play to the movies. Al Pacino is attached to the project. You’re not in it.”

For most other actors, this would have been devastating news. Mantegna had just won a Tony for his role as Ricky Roma, the hard-charging closer in a boiler-room real estate operation. The play won a Pulitzer, as well as other prestigious awards, and thrust both Mantegna and Mamet into the big time.

“It was the definitive leap,” he says. “I couldn’t have orchestrated a better world. It was like winning the lottery.”

But rather than feel bitterly betrayed by the playwright he’d worked with since they were both unknowns in Chicago, he heard Mamet out.

“As he told me about the movie deal, he showed me two scripts and said, ‘I won’t do these movies without you.’ They were ‘House of Games’ and ‘Things Change.’ He stayed true to his word. It couldn’t have been a more honorable thing to do.

“There’s never a grand plan.”

Before “Glengarry,” Mantegna had been a solid journeyman actor (touring company of “Hair”; “Working” on Broadway; “Bleacher Bums” — which he co-wrote — at the Organic Theater in Chicago and then at L.A.’s Century City Playhouse), who sold shoes and worked as a photographer when roles were scarce.

Since, “Glengarry,” which Mantegna appeared in at age 37, the work has been non-stop. He has made 88 films and worked in 15 TV series, including “Soap,” “The Simpsons,” “Joan of Arcadia,” and now leads the cast of “Criminal Minds,” which is in its fourth year.

In the movies, Mantegna has worked with Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Barry Levinson, but it’s those two conciliatory Mamet scripts, offered in friendship and trust, plus Mamet’s “Homicide” — and not counting his plays — that seem to define Mantegna most. Though “House of Games” was shot in Seattle, it has the same feel as the Chicago-based “Things Change.”

The first deals with con artists, Mantegna the most cunning and manipulative among them; the second, more sweet-tempered, also works out of underworld deception. Both capture the tempo, vitality and edge of what Mantegna calls “the real American city,” where pol, plutocrat and working stiff live with the knowledge of corruption that’s as normal as the rank smell of the stockyards that periodically settles over the city.

Mantegna was born in Chicago in 1947. He was 22 when his father died of tuberculosis. His mother worked as a gift wrapper for Sears & Roebuck. The family (Mantegna has an older brother) necessarily lived in cheap apartments. When they moved to Cicero, he says, “You became aware of the mob scene, gambling, the legacy of Al Capone.”

In seeing the film of the explosive “West Side Story” (he didn’t know it followed on the Broadway musical) he was instantly seized with the familiar recognition of gang life. He auditioned for a school production and was turned down, but it didn’t matter.

“It was like a lightning bolt hit my chest,” he recalls. “I said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ It took my breath away.”

He didn’t know anything about theater (“Who’re all these people in black tights?”). But the wonder stayed with him, as well as his lack of affectation. He and Mamet met in a staircase at the Goodman School of Drama. Later on, in addition to casting Mantegna in a number of his plays, Mamet used him in readings to help specify what he heard in his inner ear.

Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips cautions the uselessness of pitting a Chicago acting style against a New York or L.A. style, but adds: “Actors like Mantegna, clean technique, emotionally direct yet economical in every impulse and gesture — get better and better … in a city not dominated by the spectre and lucre of film and television. Chicago actors, as they say in the restaurant business, are fully committed …

“My guess is that Mantegna had known plenty of guys like Ricky Roma. Chicago is full to the brim with Romas, men who are very, very good at their jobs, even if the job is corrupt and venal.”

Says Mantegna, “Mamet uses a vernacular I get. In all his works, from ‘Homicide’ to ‘Speed- the-Plow,’ you have these men who have nothing to apologize for. They may be villains, but I don’t see them that way. They’re true to themselves. They’re out there. In ‘House of Games’ (in which Mantegna’s Mike cons a psychiatrist out of a small fortune), when she shoots me at the end, I say, ‘I told you what I did for a living. What did you expect?’”

Profile in Excellence: Joe Mantegna
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