Dad role came easy for Joe Mantegna

August 13, 1993|By Barry Koltnow | Barry Koltnow,Orange County Register

Actor Joe Mantegna is the proud father of two young girls. He is determined to raise them as normal kids. He scoffs at those parents who push their kids and try to live vicariously through them.

Then he went to a ballet recital.

His 6-year-old was up on stage doing what 6-year-old ballerinas do and someone next to him leaned over and whispered, "She dances real well."

That's all it took for Mr. Mantegna's mind to run rampant. Visions of prima ballerinas danced in his head. Suddenly, his little princess was the next Anna Pavlova.

"You swear you're not going to be like that, and all it takes is for someone to say something and you totally buy into it," said the actor, who plays the father of a gifted chess player in "Searching for Bobby Fischer."

"I happen to be a guy who doesn't have to live vicariously though my kids, because my life is pretty interesting as it is. But if I can feel that twinge, even if for a few moments during my daughter's recital, imagine what it must be like for the parents of a truly gifted child.

"A kid doesn't even have to have a gift," he added. "All he or she has to have is an interest in something and all of a sudden you're starting to wonder how far you should take them. In the end, all us parents are real suckers for this kind of thing."

"Searching for Bobby Fischer" is based on the real story of how sportswriter Fred Waitzkin handled his son's gift for playing chess. The issue at hand in these cases -- it could be chess or ballet or batting a ball ---- is whether to push the child to devote all of his or her energies to the gift or to try to live a well-rounded life.

Mr. Mantegna, 46, met his real-life counterpart about halfway through the filming. Although other cast members met their counterparts before filming began, he said he saw no need to compare notes with Mr. Waitzkin, upon whose book the screenplay was written.

"Some people might have thought it was important for me to talk to Fred before we started, but I figured anything he needed to tell me was in his book," Mr. Mantegna said.

"Secondly, Fred is not exactly a historical figure. It's not like I'm playing Abe Lincoln or Elvis. If it's not a historical figure, people don't care."

In his own life, growing up in Chicago, Mr. Mantegna didn't have parents who pushed him in any particular direction. When he told them at 16 that he was interested in acting, they didn't react one way or another.

"My parents had the best attitude in the world," he said. "I told them I wanted to be an actor and they said, 'That's nice.'

"That was it. I don't think they said anything since that. I knew right then that if I wanted it bad enough, I would have to go get it myself. They weren't going to help me, but they also weren't going to hold me back. Knowing that helped me tremendously. It worked for me."

Mr. Mantegna's father died at about the time his son got his first professional acting job -- in a touring production of the musical "Hair" when he was 21.

He stayed in theater -- he was a founding member of the respected Organic Theatre Company and co-wrote the long-running hit "Bleacher Bums" -- and began a lasting friendship and work relationship with noted playwright David Mamet.

Mr. Mantegna has worked with Mr. Mamet in both stage productions, including "Speed the Plow" and "Glengarry Glen Ross," and movies ("House of Games," "Homicide" and "Things Change").

However, one of the actor's great disappointments was not being able to reprise his Broadway role in the movie version of "Glengarry Glen Ross." Al Pacino attached himself to the movie version from the moment he saw Mr. Mantegna perform the role onstage.

"I've had eight years to get over it," Mr. Mantegna said. "Sure, I would have loved to have done it, but I was never considered so what could I do about it?

"I haven't seen the movie and I may never see it," he added. "But that's not because of any long-standing resentment. I've seen enough of the clips to know that they went in a different way with it. It's not the play, and that's fine. It's the movie, and my memories of the play are too strong. I would be too critical of it, and I don't want to be."

Mr. Mantegna is filming a black comedy called "Airheads" and has completed two cable programs -- "Slow Bleed" on HBO and an episode of "Fallen Angels" on Showtime -- that are scheduled for release in the fall.

In all his film roles, Mr. Mantegna is well-known for his painstaking research into his characters. But for "Searching For Bobby Fischer," he said he didn't study sportswriters and didn't even beef up on his limited chess-playing abilities.

"That ignorance is part of my character's charm," he said. "He was supposed to be amazed by what was going on around him, so it was better that I wasn't that good a player.

"Oh, I know how to play the game," he added with a smile, "but compared to these guys, I can't even spell the word chess."

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