Joe Mantegna doesn't pull the usual star turns expected of an actor who's headlining in two of the season's most eagerly anticipated films: Woody Allen's "Alice" and Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather III."
But then, Joe Mantegna in real life is strangely, well, ordinary, although he's been able to slip seamlessly into his past acting roles, most notably as the sleazy con men of stage and screen created for him by David Mamet, one of contemporary theater's most provocative playwrights.
Sitting in a California restaurant, Mr. Mantegna seems more interested in discussing his wife Arlene's brownie business ("they come with fortunes planted in the middle of them") than discussing His Brilliant Career.
But that's characteristically Mantegna, unpretentious to the core. In fact, it's his seemingly unstudied method of moving across the stage and screen that has earned him a few high-profile fans in the more than 20 years he's been at his craft. Madonna sent a fan letter in care of buddy Mamet. In 1988, they ended up working together in his Broadway hit "Speed-the-Plow." Woody Allen also saw fit to put pen to paper. "He's come to see a couple of the plays I've been in," says the 43-year-old actor. "Finally, he wrote me a very nice letter about doing a role in 'Crimes and Misdemeanors.'
"I was pretty burnt out from doing 'Speed-the-Plow' and so I had to say no," Mr. Mantegna explains casually.
Few actors get the chance to work with Woody Allen, let alone turn him down, yet "Woody wrote back to me to say 'I totally understand, but I'm going to hold you to the next one.' "
That "next one" is "Alice," now in limited release and expected in Baltimore later this year. Mr. Mantegna plays a charming, though otherwise ordinary musician who tempts a sheltered, wealthy housewife (Mia Farrow) into an affair.
Working on "Alice" was like "making a home movie." Mr. Mantegna's role in "The Godfather III" took a little more stretching. In that one, he's Joey Zasa, Mafia nemesis to Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). Though Zasa is initially accepted as a member of the Corleone clan, his ambition drives him to attempt to dethrone Michael Corleone.
"I don't know why this role was harder. Maybe 'cause in real life I'm not a heavyweight crime figure," he says matter-of-factly as he spoons minestrone from his bowl. So how did he prepare for the part? Mr. Mantegna shrugs his shoulders and mugs, "I shot a coupla guys."
With all the hype surrounding the star-studded production, a not-yet-major player such as Mr. Mantegna might have felt intimidated. "Sure, the guy who plays on the Yankees team has got to feel the weight of history," says Mr. Mantegna, who's given to making baseball analogies. "In fact, Al [Pacino], who's always been one of my favorite actors, lived up to my expectations. He's got this intangible quality that makes him who he is. But I tried not to let any of that exist as a pressure. I just tried to do my best work."
Having grown up in a working class section of Chicago, the second son of an insurance man, Mr. Mantegna hardly seemed destined for the bright lights. "There was no basis for it in my family. They weren't into TV. They didn't go to the movies."
When he announced in high school his Thespian intentions, his parents were, "kind of indifferent. They said 'Oh, you want to be an actor? Well, that's nice.' " After two years of "doing very well" in the drama department at Morton Junior College in Cicero, Ill., Mr. Mantegna won a scholarship to the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago. That led to a role in a 1969 professional production of "Hair" and the typical precarious actor's lifestyle.
"Yeah, there were some lean times -- I sold shoes, worked as a photographer, collected unemployment. But," he laughs, "I never was a waiter."
In the early '70s, Mr. Mantegna wrote "Bleacher Bums," as a way of getting more work. An ode to his favorite pastime (he's a big Chicago Cubs fan) the play ran for one season in Chicago, then moved on to New York. Now running in its 11th year in Los Angeles, "Bleacher Bums" was produced for television, earning him an Emmy.
Now, he may just be content to let Pulitzer Prize-winning friend Mamet do the writing for him: "After I've read something of David's," Mr. Mantegna has said, "I feel like I'm wasting my life."
Mr. Mantegna was recently in Baltimore filming Mr. Mamet's next project, "Homicide," scheduled for release sometime this year.