by Patricia Grandjean
Nov 16, 2010
03:38 PMBox Office
Q & A: Bill Smitrovich
(page 2 of 4)
Our grasp of current events—or outrage over the state of government—seems fueled by a lack of understanding of history. We forget that certain developments or circumstances seemingly have existed since the beginning of time.
I remember doing my first Equity play; it was The American Clock by Arthur Miller. We were doing our world premiere at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. And this is a play about the Depression, this production was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the stock market crash. And people would still walk out of the theater amazed that this had happened in this country—they didn't know about it. It was kind of astounding to me.
You seem to be most drawn to projects that have a lot of suspense or thrills or grit to them.
I never thought of it that way, but when you are a dramatic actor, you want to be on shows that have high stakes, where the stakes increase every week. It's like wonderful plays that I've been in in the past; you want to aim for those high stakes. They have to be meaningful and precarious, like life. The strange thing about my career is I never thought I’d play as many military roles as I have. I think I should be getting a pension—from one of the branches, anyway.
One reason I mention it is because you've worked with [director] Michael Mann more than once.
Oh, yes. I was doing Requiem for a Heavyweight at Long Wharf many years ago, with Richard Dreyfuss, John Lithgow and Maria Tucci—we had a great cast; it was a wonderful production. During the run I got a call from my agent who said, "I'm going to send you over a script for television." I went, "Ohh, television . . ."—you know. And he said, "No, you might like this. It's called 'Gold Coast.'" So I picked it up and read it and it was really good. And what it turned out to be was the pilot for "Miami Vice."
That was the beginning of my association with Michael, and he's a pretty loyal cat. I've done Manhunter with him, Band of the Hand, Crime Story . . . I'm really thankful to Michael for giving me those opportunities. I remember when I first met him in the casting director's office and we talked, we hit it off. I started talking about Bridgeport and how corrupt Bridgeport was. I worked in the Stratfield Hotel on Main Street. I used to bartend there, and Bridgeport police lieutenant Anthony Fabrizi and superintendent Joe Walsh would come in and have these conversations at my bar. Come to find out later that these two were making plans. Around that time there was a FBI sting that was going to be put on Walsh—but he was so connected he turned the sting around and arrested the FBI guy. Remember that story?
Bridgeport has a lot of similarities to Chicago. It's the same kind of mill-town, blue-collar, working-class environment. And then you've got a little bit of the wise guys element, the corruption that goes with that. And it's unfortunate, because it's such a beautiful, beautiful city. If you took away all of the crap, it's still "The Park City." And I remember as a kid we used to go to all of them: The gazebos had bands and people would dance on the weekends. It was a real festive town.
You came to acting kind of late in life . . .
I did. My dad died when I was 17, and it's a funny thing—he used to tell me that his dad, who died when my father was 7 or 8, called him over to his bed, shook his hand and then he died. It was a wonderful thing that he never forgot. in fact, that's the way he ended his life with me. He couldn't speak; he had just had a major stroke. He looked at me and we had this wonderful spiritual moment I felt like that was a real gift for me; it really opened me up in a lot of ways.
So I was kind of on my own; I was the oldest man in the family now. I was quite a bowler at that time and wanted to be professional. I used to bowl for a lot of money and play pool. I hooked up with this friend of mine I knew in Connecticut who also knew Bill Catone, a friend of mine from El Cajon, Calif. My Connecticut friend said, "Why don't we just drive cross-country and see him?" He was about 23 at the time; I was 18 or 19. And we hustled our way cross-country bowling and shooting pool. This was, maybe, 1967.
Then I came back having learned a lot, with my tail between my legs a little bit. Here I was at 19 in San Diego, Calif., and I don't know the first thing about anything. So I came back, and I got a job—I worked at Bernie Corporation, then I worked at Interbnational Harvester before it was a fronton—and I enrolled at UB part-time. I worked my way through college as a bartender and a waiter and at Diamond Shamrock, a plastic film company. All kinds of things. Around the end of my junior year—I was about 23—a friend of mine had gotten me into acting. So I did a couple of plays. One was The Investigation, by Peter Weiss—which is about Nazi war criminals—and then we did the wonderful musical Oh! What a Lovely War.
But I always loved Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce and George Carlin and Redd Foxx, all these great stand-up comics. So, someone else came up to me and said "Hey, you ought to go audition for Lenny." And I said, "Wow—that's on Broadway now. You mean, they're going to do it here?" I went to audition, very excited to think I was going to audition for a play about Lenny Bruce, and they handed me Of Mice and Men. I'd never read it before. I took the play and went to a very vacant part of what was the UB humanities building at the time, read the play, and it was the first time in my life I'd ever wept at a piece of literature in my life. It exploded in my head; I had an epiphany.
So I walked into the audition, and they tell me "We want you to do the scne in the barn where Lenny is stroking Curly's wife's hair and breaks her neck." I started to do the scene; I'm into it like you wouldn't believe. Then I heard them laugh and I stopped. I stopped and I said, "How dare you laugh! This is a beautiful human being!" I just went on and on, I was so offended and outraged. They said, "No, no, no, we're not laughing at you, we're laughing with you, because we just found our Lenny." You could have knocked me over with a feather. It went on to be a fabulous production and the UB Theater Department was gracious enough to award me the Best Actor award that year. We moved the show to Sterling Barn Theater in Stamford and ran there for three weeks.
The experience taught me so much about blocking and staging, how to break down plays into beats and the rhythm of plays. So much so that now, one of my favorite quotes is, "All art aspires to music." I use that as my mantra when I try to find my way into a piece of material. It was quite a baptism.
After I graduated from UB, I started doing more theater at Sterling Barn. Then I got a call from a buddy who had gone on to Smith College for graduate work in theater, who said, "Hey, you have to come here and audition, they need men and they're offering stipends and scholarships. So that's what I did, and they gave me a full scholarship with a stipend, and I got my M.F.A. in theater. With a few other people, I went on to found the No Theater Co., and taught acting at the University of Massachusetts for a couple of years. Then we moved into New York City with a show and I said, "I'll give it 10 years and see what happens." After two years I got an audition for Arthur Miller for his new play The American Clock. And they gave me the job as understudy for all the male roles—there were nine actors playing 26 male roles. I was the assistant stage manager as well. [laughs]
But I got my Equity card and we went to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., and Peter Evans, who was playing the lead—typical story—got sick opening night. He went on with a 103-degree temperature, but he did not go on for the second, third and fourth performances. So I was called on to play the lead in this new Arthur Miller play, and I was so ready. I knew every word of the play. And the cast was great; they helped me with the blocking. We went on and got standing ovations.
So you were hooked.
Man! I quit my job at the River Café. When I came back to New York, I was validated. I started to get material I would never have gotten before; I started to get bookings and callbacks on commercials to make money. And I made enough money to stop working in restaurants and concentrate on the theater.