Looking back on ‘Lakeboat’

Mantegna is an actor's director

Joe Mantegna and David Mamet have had such a long working relationship (“We mirror each other,” Mantegna says) that it seemed only natural for the actor to try his hand at directing a Mamet work for the bigscreen. “Lakeboat” was the result, in which Mantegna discovered the quantum difference between playing a part and managing a whole.

Released in 2000 (Mantegna had directed an earlier stage version at Hollywood’s Tiffany Theater in 1994), “Lakeboat” is a very early work, reminiscent of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Long Voyage Home,” and places a young college grad and aspiring writer in the gruff (to say the least; this is Mamet) company of a crew manning a commercial freighter on Lake Michigan. The cast included Charles Durning, Peter Falk, Robert Forster, J.J. Johnston, Denis Leary and Jack Wallace.

Reviews were mixed. One thing was clear, however: Mantegna is an actor’s director. He’s more interested in performance than an auteur’s cinematic effects.

“It’s educational,” Mantegna says. “Eighty percent of it is bringing out the talent. That’s a lesson learned. I did a lot of homework for that film. I was prepared. I came in on budget and schedule. I was very proud of it.

“But it was a monumental task. As director, I was out there to solve all the problems. I had to fulfill a lot of criteria.

“It was a huge advantage that I knew the actors, and they knew each other. A repertory company is like playing on a veteran ball team. You know each other’s styles, your strengths and weaknesses. When you think of the success of people like Peter Brook, Woody Allen, the Steppenwolf and even ‘Saturday Night Live,’ you wonder why more people don’t do it.

“Directing is a lot of responsibility. You’re the general, but as an actor I’d rather be a colonel.”

Beyond performance, Mantegna still contributes to a production.

“He’s friendly on the set,” says a crew member of “Criminal Minds.” “He talks to everybody. He sets a nice tone.”

Profile in Excellence: Joe Mantegna
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