Vincent Gardenia's life is the theater Veteran actor is in show about restaurant owner who's producing a show

November 08, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

'BREAKING LEGS'

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Through Dec. 6.

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza.

Tickets: $17.50-$42.50

:. Call: (410) 625-1400; TDD: (410) 625-1407.

Even if his tie weren't untied and his feet weren't propped on the hotel coffee table, Vincent Gardenia would look disheveled.

He's got a disheveled-looking kind of face. In repose, his mouth droops in a frown that seems to stretch all the way to his jowls. And on this particular morning -- a few weeks before Tuesday's opening of "Breaking Legs" at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre -- he's so tired his eyes are almost slits.

Starring in a touring show can be like that -- finish the run in Boston, fly to Baltimore for interviews the following morning, head to Hartford that night for the next week's engagement.

Of course, it probably helps if you've been doing this all your professional life, which, in Gardenia's case, began at age 5. And despite the weariness, his face brightens when he launches into a story, such as the time he made his summer stock debut in Clinton, N.J., in 1955, starring in a play called "Burlesque." "They billed me as Red Gardenia," he says with a laugh. "They used to call me 'Red' when I was a kid. I had red hair."

No one has called the gray-haired actor "Red" for a long time, and even the name "Vincent" doesn't always meet with instant recognition, but his craggy face usually does.

Eh, Gardenia! The guy who played Cher's father in "Moonstruck"; the owner of the flower shop in "Little Shop of Horrors"; the cop in "Deathwish" (I and II); Archie Bunker's neighbor, Frank Lorenzo, on "All in the Family"; Roxanne's father on "L.A. Law"; and to Baltimore theatergoers, the lead in "I'm Not Rappaport" at the Mechanic in 1988.

In fact, Gardenia has somewhat of a following in Baltimore. The season he appeared in "Rappaport," he was voted "favorite performer in a play" by Mechanic Theatre subscribers, and three years later the Baltimore International Film Festival held a tribute in his honor, presenting him with its "Biffy" Award and screening "Age Old Friends," the 1989 HBO movie that won him an Emmy for his role opposite Hume Cronyn.

Enjoying the role

Gardenia's latest character, Lou Graziano in "Breaking Legs," is the same role he played throughout the 13-month off-Broadway run of Tom Dulack's show-business comedy. And it's a role he enjoys so much, he turned down two movies to do the current tour.

But don't confuse his character with a wise guy or mobster or anything stronger -- at least not when you're talking to Gardenia. Never mind that the advance publicity describes Lou Graziano as a "goodfella," or that the ads picture an angel packing a tommy gun. Gardenia sees him as a simple businessman who loves his daughter and wants the best for her.

"He owns a restaurant somewhere in a small town in Connecticut, and he wants to marry his daughter off to a professor who's written a play, and because of his love for the daughter, he wants to produce the play," he explains. "He takes on two partners, and the three of us know nothing absolutely about plays or theater. That's where the title comes in, 'Breaking Legs,' because in show business they say, 'break a leg,' but if 'break a leg' is good, then breaking legs is better."

Portraying a restaurateur didn't require much research on the part of this lover of good food, cooking and Italian restaurants (in Baltimore he's partial to Sabbatino's). "Anybody who cooks good is a friend of mine," Gardenia says, adding that instead of research, "I've been interested and watched people all my life."

In terms of restaurateurs specifically, he says, "God knows that, in Italian restaurants since the age of 5, I've seen maybe, who knows, 20,000 restaurateurs or owners." He didn't model his character after anyone in particular, however -- unless you count the dreams of Gardenia himself. "I always wanted a restaurant of my own," he admits. "I never went into it because it's a terribly tough business."

And theater isn't? Not to Gardenia. "Theater is easy," insists this Italian-born actor, who was in his 30s before he performed his first English-language role.

By then, he had already spent 25 years on the professional stage, appearing with his father's Brooklyn-based, Italian-language troupe, the Gennaro Gardenia Dramatic Company, which toured Italian communities in the five boroughs as well as nearby states.

He still vividly recalls his first role: "I played an orphan, street urchin. . . . The war broke out, and the family was detached from each other, and this kid was left alone to fend for himself, and then finally he meets his parents. There was a lot of that melodrama in the Italian theater. They loved melodrama, and I like it, too. When it's done well, it's fun."

What's not to like?

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