In the world of leading men, Joe Mantegna is a natural outsider. He's a dark, swarthy guy who almost always plays an Italian or a Jew. He compares to the William Hurts and the Kevin Costners as a smirk with an 11 a.m. shadow compares to a golden, clean-shaven megawatt smile.
"When you look the way I look," Mantegna says, "no one asks you to play Swedish sea captains. It doesn't bother me. Whatever I'm best suited for, I don't mind doing."
Mantegna is one of the best stage actors anywhere -- "live theater has a thrill that you can't duplicate," he says -- but his film career lately threatens to catch up. He was the evil Don in the final panel of Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" tryptich and the saxophone player whom Mia Farrow seduced in Woody Allen's "Alice." But perhaps the best role so far in his career will be on screens this week in "Homicide," a police drama -- made in Baltimore -- that is much more than just a police drama; it was written and directed by the actor's old pal, playwright David Mamet.
Mantegna plays Bobby Gold, a homicide detective whose specialty is negotiation. He's the guy who goes unarmed to parley with the killer or killers who have taken hostages. Gold's a a Jew, but his blood runs blue -- or so he thinks -- the same as other cops, be they Irish-, Italian- or African-American. But what seems to be an ordinary murder of an old Jewish woman turns Bobby's life upside down.
His investigation makes him realize that all his life he's been over-compensating for what he believes is Jewish timidity: He's always the first cop through the door. His resulting conflict between being a cop and being a Jew leads to an unintentional betrayal of his partners. And Mamet makes the the dilemma that tears Bobby's life apart stand for the tribalism that is tearing the United States -- particularly its big cities -- apart.
"Homicide" is going to intrigue and disturb a lot of Americans -- not just Jewish-Americans but every American who thinks of himself as having a hyphen in front of American.
The city in "Homicide" is never identified, but Mantegna says he spent a lot of time researching his role with this city's homicide cops. Perhaps surprisingly, however, he says he did not give any time to thinking about what it meant to be a Jew in the United States.
"Bobby Gold is great at talking to outsiders because he's an outsider," Mantegna says. "To me his being a Jew wasn't that important. He's part of two worlds -- one that's in bred and one that he's been immersed in as an adult. This is a guy with an occupational hazard that he's endured all his life. It's been simmering under the surface until it's unleashed. But if this was a French film, I'd wonder what would it be like being an Algerian cop in Paris; if a German film, what it would be like being a Turkish cop in Berlin."
It's hard to imagine another actor in the role of Bobby Gold because Mamet himself does not seem able to imagine other actors besides Joe Mantegna in certain roles. The relationship of these men -- born within a few days of each other almost 44 years ago in Chicago -- goes back 17 years. Their actor-director relationship has been compared to that of Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro. But as writer and actor it can be compared to that of Shakespeare and Will Burbage, the actor for whom the language's greatest playwright created "Hamlet," "MacBeth," "Othello" and "King Lear."
Mamet's friendship and admiration for Mantegna has meant the lead roles for Mantegna in the plays "Glengarry Glen Ross" (for which Mantegna won the Tony award for best actor) and "Speed-the-Plow" and the Mamet-scripted and -directed films, "House of Games" and "Things Change." The only reason that Mantegna will not be in the film of "Glengarry Glen Ross" -- Al Pacino will take the role he created -- is that the playwright sold the rights and will not direct it himself.
"In three films I have not spoken 10 words of 'direction' to him," Mamet has said of Mantegna's performances. "I don't find it remarkable that his performances are superb without my meddling with them, but that, as I look at them, they are as I pictured them when I was writing."
"Doing Mamet is the next best thing to doing Shakespeare," Mantegna says. "There's almost as much poetry as prose and more intelligence per square inch than in anyone else I can think of. The great thing about him is the way he can say so much with so little. After working with David, it's difficult for me to read other writers' scripts sometimes for a long while, because everything else seems so overwritten. Why is this guy spending a page to say this when I've just worked with a guy who can say the same thing in two sentences?"
His relationship with Mamet has, however, led to relationships with other important directors -- Coppola in "Godfather III," Allen in "Alice" and Barry Levinson in "Bugsy," which is scheduled for a Christmas release and in which Mantegna plays the actor George Raft.
"I met Barry in Baltimore because the premiere of Avalon took place during the filming of 'Homicide' and Barry invited the whole cast of our film to the 'Avalon' party. 'I've been thinking about you for this role in this movie I'm doing,' were the first words he said to me. I loved every minute of that film ['Bugsy'] too. I work with some great people and that's all any one can ask for."