Anthony LaPaglia had never been starving for work, but he wasn’t quite a household name either.
Much of the public was introduced to the Oz pro in the Alan Alda pic “Betsy’s Wedding,” “Murder One” put him on primetime television and he even earned a Tony for the legit production of “A View From the Bridge.” But until “Without a Trace” became a bona fide Nielsen hit on CBS, LaPaglia had never realized true fame.
That all changed when he was vacationing in France a few years back with his family.
“It was like I was a rock star. They were mobbing and touching me. They just love the show there and treated me like I was Jerry Lewis,” says the Australian born, 47-year-old actor, laughing at the comparison.
“Trace” came about only because LaPaglia, with his wife about to have a baby, was looking for some stability. He had done several indie films, including the highly praised Oz pic “Lantana” (which won best picture and earned him top actor honors at the Australian Film Institute) and was in the mood to settle down with a steady gig.
Soon, he received a script called “Vanished” — the early title for “Trace” — and was impressed. The pieces fell into place after that.
“I had a good relationship with Les Moonves, and every year CBS would ask if I wanted to do a series, and every year I would say no. But once my wife was pregnant, I decided I didn’t want to go anywhere. Vancouver, Toronto, Prague — wherever they shoot films. I wanted to be here,” LaPaglia says.
Series creator Hank Steinberg recalls LaPaglia was not only on Moonves’ list to topline the show, but his as well.
“I was a huge proponent of Anthony’s,” says Steinberg, who’s now showrunning ABC’s drama “The Nine” but still consults on “Trace.” “What I really like about him is that he has both a hero and anti-hero personality.
“You can never underestimate the power of a leading man with gravitas as the defender of what you’re doing. Everything he does is interesting. He can read the phone book and people would be mesmerized by it.”
LaPaglia was intrigued by the skein not only because he thought the script was viable but knowing that Jerry Bruckheimer was producing, it wouldn’t have too many budgetary concerns.
“When I looked at what we had going on, I felt like, at the least, production values would be good because Jerry had incredible resources,” recalls LaPaglia.
Born in Adelaide, LaPaglia didn’t start acting until he was 12 — and that was only because he wanted to date a girl who’d only go out with him if they went to see a play. They did and a career was born.
“I remembered sitting in the audience the light bulb went off,” says LaPaglia of watching a 16th century Restoration comedy. “I had been wondering what I was going to do with my life and I became so enamored of what was happening up there.”
A few years later it was off to Gotham, where he would perform in a few Off Off Broadway productions while paying the rent as a waiter and installing sprinkler systems.
Although the Oz invasion of the States seems well-documented now, it certainly wasn’t the case at the time. LaPaglia often felt like an outsider. Mel Gibson was just starting out and household names such as Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman were still back in the homeland.
He was also told at that point to lose his Aussie accent, which he did. Almost too well, it turns out.
Says Steinberg: “He has a hybrid, New York and Australian accent now, what I call ‘LaPaglia-ese.’ He was telling me that he went back to Australia for a shoot recently and had to relearn his accent again.”
He stays close to his roots by being part owner of a Sydney soccer team, and still plays on the weekend whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Business-wise, LaPaglia created his own production shingle last year, Warner Bros.-based Last Straw, and has already set up a comedy at Fox (“Damnation,” about a recently deceased man wrongly sent to hell) and a drama at CBS (“The Word,” concerning renegade whistle blowers).
With his production company up and running, a successful move for “Trace” from Thursday to Sunday, voiceover in the anticipated upcoming animated pic “Happy Feet” and a role in indie “The Architect” with Isabella Rossellini, LaPaglia has exceeded way beyond early expectations, when Hollywood and a film career were not even a fleeting thought for a uninspired young man in a country about 7,000 miles away.
Now, he’s quite content to grow up and continue to learn his craft — both in front of and behind the camera.
“I’ve never been an actor who was willing to cling on,” LaPaglia says. “I’m happy to age, and that comes with evolvement. Getting older has never bothered me.”