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Tony Denison Interview Part 1
Weeks back when I suggested that readers send in their questions for an interview with Tony Denison, I had no idea I’d receive so many thoughtful responses. Thank you all for writing in.
AB: How long has been gone?
TD: Almost sixteen years.
AB: Growing up in NY, the son of a Sicilian immigrant, did your rub elbows with any –
TD: Oh, yeah. Not so much because of my parents – they didn’t really hang with them or anything like that – but they were always around. They were around the neighborhood. My mother would play poker – you know, she would play five and ten cent poker – they would get together and play. And there would be some guy’s wife playing the game. And you know, “Hey, how’s your husband?” “Oh, he just got sent away. We’ll see him in about ten years.” That kind of stuff.
And then while my grandfather was alive, they used to – up in Harlem – they used to sometimes use the rooftops of all the neighborhood people to run the carrier pigeons for the numbers. And my Uncle Benny, God rest his soul, my mother’s younger brother, he used to be down on the street and they would say to him, “Hey, Benny – if you see any cops, you come on upstairs and tell us. And he’d say, “Okay.”
My Uncle Benny was like twelve, fifteen years old. Something like that. And what happened was, he’d run up there if he saw a cop – we’re talking like the thirties or the forties now – and they would give him like twenty or fifty dollars. Twenty or fifty dollars back then – that was like giving someone five-hundred dollars today. And then they would pay to the owners of the building or the people’s rooftops – they would give my grandfather money. They would say, “Here’s two-hundred dollars.” My grandfather’s name was Jacinto. And they would say, “Here’s two-hundred dollars, Jacinto - for the month.” My grandfather worked hard – and he worked for the city, he broke his back. But two-hundred bucks was like winning the lottery.
AB: But it was never a case of your thinking there’s a career option here…
TD: You know why? My mother – who’s still with us – I remember I met one of these guys at a function. Some wedding we had gone to. I remember he was dressed just like in the movie “Bronx Tale” with the diamond pinkie ring on, a really sharp tie – you know, just decked to the nines. I remember thinking, “Wow! That guys’s really cool!” This guy Jerry I think his name was. “Man, look at him. He seems tough and everybody comes over to say hello to him.” So I said to my mom, “What does he do?” And she says, “You don’t want any part of that.” And I said, “But look at the way he’s dressed. He’s really cool.” And she says, “If you do what he does, then you have to learn to sleep with one eye open and one eye closed.” So that night I tried to go to sleep and I remember thinking, “How do you go to sleep with one eye open and one eye closed? Well, I can’t do this work because I don’t know how to do that.”
AB: K.L. asks, “Did you get to meet Gotti when you played that part?”
TD: No. Gotti was a fan of mine as I understand from “Crime Story.” Once I was in NY shooting a commercial for Amaretto – the print ad that wound up on billboards – and when I was in NY for the four days doing those print ads, Gotti had gotten his first mistrial. That’s when they nicknamed him the ‘Teflon Don.’ Or it was the second trial. The thing was, I was down at this place in Little Italy shooting some spots and I was at a restaurant and some guy sent over a bottle of wine to the table and one guy came over and said, “That’s from Johnny boy.” And I knew who he was talking about. He says, “He’s a big fan.” And I said, “Well, tell him thanks.” But I never met him. Interestingly enough, when the Sparks Steak House shooting occurred, I was living in NY pursuing acting then. I had just come back from a commercial audition and I walked down 45th Street and it was at 3:30, 4:00. And I walked past Sparks Steaks going down to 1st Avenue or 2nd Avenue, whatever it was, to head down to 14th Street where I lived. So I’m home at 14th street in my apartment and I turned on the TV and then there’s this news about this shooting. And I say, “Oh my God! I was just there an hour ago!”
AB: Did you ever hear what Gotti’s reaction was to your portrayal?
TD: First I heard that he was upset they were making the movie cause he thought they were going to delve into stuff about his family – his wife and his kids – which he didn’t want to have happen - which we didn’t in our version. Later on I got word from people that he really thought I did a good job and there were no hard feelings.
AB: Carole A. says, “You played a no good Noel Guzmann in ‘The Harvest.’ You were convincing as the rotten guy. Why did you take that role? How did you get cast as that character?”
TD: The producer of that film was a guy named Larry Estes who made “Sex, Lies and Videotape” and I had done another movie for him. I did two other movies for him. One was “Little Vegas” and the other one was called “Men Of War.” So he had this project and he said, “Would you like to be in it?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” So he introduced me to the director (David Marconi). I knew of Miguel Ferrer (who starred). We hadn’t met but I knew of him. I met with the director and I said, “Do you want me to read some of the lines for you because I know it might be uncomfortable for you to just have me thrust upon you, this being your first project. And he said, “No, no, no.” And I said, “Let me read them anyway.” And I read some of the lines and he said, “Oh, yeah. This will be great.” What people don’t know about that project is there’s a scene in the nightclub where Miguel and my character meet and George Clooney does an uncredited cameo. George is also a big fan of my work.
AB: The same reader asks, “Has your life ever gone like Carmine’s in ‘Little Vegas?’”
TD: No, in the sense that… I mean being a sober person – I’m sober about fifteen and a half years now – I remember hearing when I first got sober, people would tell me, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” So whenever I can find a way to not run the show and try to surrender and let go, it’s amazing how things will happen. And in one sense Carmine, the character I played in “Little Vegas,” at one point he was so hell-bent on doing something that would have been just way out of his character and at a point he says, “No, I can’t be like this.” And at that point he just lets go – and then everything just seems to work out after that. Once you let go you’re taking charge because you’re deciding to deal with the elements.
You know, in all of drama – comedic drama, comic books, television shows, theater, movies, you name it – the hero is confronted with an inciting incident where he must make a decision to move forward into the unknown or stay where he is. And I think what propels all the heroes or heroines, whether it’s male or female or a group – what propels them is that the known sucks so bad that the unknown suddenly seems like, “Well, I gotta go because I can’t hang here anymore.” And that’s a lot like life.
AB: Karen M. asks, “It’s commendable that you have the fortitude to keep sober. When you were drinking, were you loveable or mean? Do you still go to meetings?”
TD: I am a sober member of a twelve-step program is what I’ll admit to. I’m sober fifteen years, seven months. And before I got sober I didn’t drink on the job so there was never any situation where I was disruptive or caused delays. I drank after work maybe or I drank on the weekends, binged a lot. I could be one of any kind of several kinds of people when I drank. I could be the happy guy, I could be the class clown, I could be the quote-unquote “belligerent” type – I could be any of those things. And at the time, through my drinking, I just thought, “Well, that’s what happens when you drink.” And then I realized later on when I got sober, if I need to be funny I can be funny and then decide to stop. Alcohol or drugs – you stop when the alcohol or drugs wear off. And there were other times I would drink and fall asleep and be incredibly anti-social. So that’s not the case anymore. But I wasn’t a street brawler, even though I got belligerent. I would be more angry, I would be more vocally vitriolic as opposed to physically. That wasn’t my style. I wasn’t a street brawler.
AB: How challenging was making the transition into sobriety?
TD: I had reached the thing in the program that they talk about - ‘hitting bottom.’ I hit that bottom. I hit this place where I said to myself, “I don’t ever want to feel this way again. So what do I gotta do?” That last night drinking, I was howling at the moon like a crazy animal. It was just… I didn’t know if I had a soul. I didn’t know if there was a Tony inside the body. And I was tired of being a victim.
AB: Do you prefer doing television, theater or feature film?
TD: I love doing this show, “The Closer” – I love it. I get to work with people whose work I admire. Kyra’s amazing to work with and she’s a wonderful person. G.W. and I worked years ago on a show called, “The Company.” And James Duff is a friend. I’ve known James almost twelve years so it’s wonderful to work with him. But any job I get, any opportunity I get to practice my craft, like I said earlier, I love doing. Each one’s got a different discipline.
When you do a feature film, in a sense because there’s no clock on the project, it doesn’t matter if it’s ninety minutes long or a hundred and ten minutes long – it’s over when it’s over. So the discipline there is – it’s like taking a leisurely walk and you have to make sure, you realize that this walk could go on for a while. Doing a TV movie is like jogging because again, you have a set amount of time and you’re compressing a certain number of pages into a certain amount of time. And doing a television series, in one sense it’s almost like sprinting. Or it’s like a hundred yard dash. And then you get a chance to rest and you have to do it again and again and again. As long as you understand that’s what’s required, that it’s a brisker pace, the thing that you’re doing the brisker pace for is ultimately something that you really must love doing.
AB: And a play?
TD: A play is like all three of those because you have this thing where you can take a leisurely walk, this meeting of the minds, it’s almost like sitting around and having a gathering, like a picnic almost because you’re sitting around trying to figure out how this thing is going to all come together. And the rehearsal process is weeks and weeks. And then all of a sudden when you start getting into rehearsal without the books, then you’re doing it for timing. Even though a play may not have a proscribed amount of time – you may do a play one night and it may run two hours. The next night it may run one hour and fifty-nine minutes. It may run two hours and five minutes. But the point is that once you get on the stage, then that discipline is about, “I can’t stop until I cross the finish line.”
AB: Ever been stuck on the stage and totally gone up on your lines?
TD: Yeah, I’ve had that happen. I was doing “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial” and I was playing Maryk. In the movie, that’s Van Johnson for people familiar with the film. “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial” was originally a play based on a novel and then also turned into a movie. One night I had gone out to dinner with some people who had come in to see the play and I didn’t even think about it. They said, “Would you like a glass of wine?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” I didn’t think I was going to drink a lot – just have a glass of wine with my meal. I mean, I had two or three sips of the wine. And what happened – midway through the play my character has to go up on the stand. And I remember – it was such a great meal that I was so… sated. That was the perfect word. And I got up on the stage and I was sitting on the witness stand and I sort of like – belched a little bit. And I was gone. Gone. And the guy who played Greenwald came over to me and said his first line and he would always do this turn and wait for me to respond. And I was like… crickets… tumbleweed. And he turns and looks at me and his eyes are saying to me, “Are you gone?” And I’m looking back and in my eyes it’s like, “I’m not even on this planet.” The funny thing was you think that the audience must know. They don’t know the script. They think, “What a great dramatic pause.”
AB: So how’d you find your way back in?
TD: He gave me the first line by putting it in the form of a question. And I was looking at him and my eyes are saying, “No, I need more.” And then he phrased it again, “You remember, Maryk, we were discussing the incident that happened at the atoll on May 16th.” And I’m like, “Yeah. May 16th.” And he says, “Where they dragged the marker across the tow line.” And I said, “Oh, yeah.” And I was back. But after that – other than water – I wouldn’t even eat before a play except maybe a protein bar or something like that. It scared me to no end. And it was just because I took everything for granted. I was so relaxed. At that point I’d only been acting for maybe three years professionally – but I learned that lesson right away and that was it. I don’t eat much before I work – even on film.
AB: Walt P. says, “I’ve heard you like to write. What, exactly? And what books do you read?”
TD: Mostly political non-fiction. And I have written some screenplays with some friends. Hopefully something will happen with them. If not, I enjoyed the process. In terms of what I like to read – I don’t really have anything specific. I like history books more than anything in the world. So if it’s a really good novel and it involves historical stuff, then I would like that too. The most recent book I read – I don’t want to say I read it because I really didn’t finish it because it’s so big but I will be finishing it soon – is “Churchill.”
AB: Kerri L. says, “In some of your older movies you smoke but I haven’t seen you smoke on ‘The Closer.’ Did you quit?”
TD: I quit three and a half years ago but I decided unless it’s necessary for the character, or I find that there’s a quirk in the character that incorporates smoking, I’ve decided not to smoke for certain characters. That’s why I chewed the toothpick in “Crime Story.” And I got the greatest compliment in the world from Joe Pesci.
I met Joe Pesci one day and I told him what a big fan I was of his work and he says (doing a Pesci imitation), “Well, I’m a big fan of yours too.” He goes, “You know I did ‘Casino,’ right? I was doing you. You saw me with the toothpick, right?” We both played the same character and in “Crime Story” – and then later on in “Casino” – instead of the Chicago years, they just dealt with Vegas. And Joe Pesci says, “Yeah, I thought, ‘You know what? The guy’s right. You chew the toothpick, you don’t have to smoke. You don’t have to keep matches and smoke hundreds of cigarettes all day long. ‘ So I just did you.” And I thought – what a great compliment…
AB: A reader asks, “Would you rather go out on a date or play poker with the guys?
TD: Can’t I do both? Can’t I take my date to a poker tournament?
Click here for Part 2
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer/speaker and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Turner Entertainment Networks, Inc.
Weeks back when I suggested that readers send in their questions for an interview with Tony Denison, I had no idea I’d receive so many thoughtful responses. Thank you all for writing in.
During his break time as we shot episode 414, Tony generously sat down with me in his trailer and answered everything I asked at great length and with exceptional candor.
(Because our conversation lasted several hours, I’ve chosen to split our interview into two pieces – with the second half to be posted online next week.)
Adam Belanoff: Kerri L asks: “We wanted to know who the most difficult character you had to play was – and how did you prepare?”
Tony Denison: Are we talking film or on stage? If it was stage, the most difficult character I ever had to play was Ivan Vassilevich in Anton Chekhov’s “The Marriage Proposal.” Just as an indication, I don’t know if Kerri would know Wally Cox or Arnold Stang but they would be perfectly suited. Or Rick Moranis would be perfect. So I wound up doing this in a touring company. I had to play a nebbish – ‘Vassilevich’ means he had a ‘silly itch.’ He was this quirky character. And when I did it – I mean, I loved playing it – the compliments to me were such that when people would meet me, they were shocked that I was six feet tall. They thought, “No, you can’t be the same guy.”
AB: Why do you think you were chosen for this part if it was so against your type? What did the director see?
TD: I was working with this touring company. We were touring a lot of places in N.Y. state, the city and tri-county area and he just said, “Do you want to try this? And if you’re not having fun, somebody else will do it.” It was sort of like a repertory company. If I didn’t want to do it, I could have done something else or not done that piece – but I did it and I had a ball.
AB: What was the most challenging role you’ve had to prepare for and play in front of the camera?
TD: This might sound like a cop-out - but every character. Every character I’ve ever played has been a challenge because ultimately I’ve played lots of cops, I’ve played lots of gangsters, I’ve played… husbands or whatever… and the challenge is to make them different because it’s still Tony. So to find that aspect of what’s inside of Tony that I can bring something unique to – like here’s an example. My acting coach, when I got my big break on a TV series called “Crime Story,” I was going to play a gangster. So – not like there wasn’t anybody else who’d done gangsters before – but she had said to me that if you look at the movie “The Godfather” - which happens to be one of my top five favorite movies of all time – you realize that there was Robert Duvall’s character, James Caan, Al Pacino, all of them. The Clemenza character. Abe Vigoda as Tessio.
All of these characters – they’re all different. But at the end of the day, each one of them was a cold-blooded killer. Even at that point where Tessio is being taken away and Robert Duvall who’s the attorney and you don’t see him as the guy with the gun, when Tessio says, “Can you let me off for old time’s sake, Tom?” You see that look in Duvall’s eyes, kind of like, “Naah. I can’t do it.” It was almost like, “Even if I could, I don’t think I would. I don’t think I want to.” It was cold-blooded.
So I realized that no matter what, I have to come to this and bring something that’s uniquely Tony. So that’s a challenge. So in all the roles – like when I did this movie, “Little Vegas” – it was the most like being myself I’ve ever had to play. And that was very challenging.
AB: In terms of your preparation, do you have an approach that carries over from role to role? Or does each role require its own process?
TD: I have the process that I work on… it’s like, some people will put on a pair of shoes or an outfit and the character can come from that. I’ve worked that way before. I’ve also tried where I’ve just imagined a particular feeling. I’ve tried to imagine looking at the world from an internal place, there’s a lot of actors that work that way. That works sometimes. There’s been times though where I’ll just be speaking and I’ll go (makes a throaty growl) and I’ll think “Oh!” – and from the voice I’ll get a little bit more of the characterization. So I try to be open-minded to all three ways, at least the three that I’ve worked with.
AB: Gabriele A. from Stuttgart wants to know when you’re coming to Germany and when she can see you in your next film.
TD: Well, I’ll be in Italy in November for a week. I don’t think I’ll have time to get to Germany. As far as any films, I’ve done a ‘labor of love’ short film for these new directors. I guess you call them ‘labors of love.’ Otherwise you’d have to be in therapy for five-thousand hours. But I think that’ll be out in about two months – with Sean Young and myself.
AB: Jason D. asks, “My friends and I play poker and know Tony is a pro. Do you have any pointers on the game?”
TD: Yeah. Three important disciplines: “Patience. Patience. And more patience.” Just be patient. And try to have as good a time as you can.
AB: Kitty L. asks, “What part have you enjoyed the most in either movies or television?”
TD: A role that I remember I really, really enjoyed was in a TV movie that touched me in an amazing way and was called, “I Love You Perfect” with Susan Dey. Obviously, Ray Luca in “Crime Story” I really enjoyed a lot. It was my first break. The coach in “Playmakers” was wonderful. A part that I did on a TV series – obviously, Andy Flynn in “The Closer” has been non-stop in creativity and improvisation. I love it. But there was a part I did on a series called “Love and Marriage.” We shot nine episodes but only two or three aired. And to me, the thing that was so wonderful about that was that I got to do comedy which I love – and it was an homage to my dad because it was a blue-collar guy and my dad was a blue-collar truck driver. Ran a parking garage. The part was totally dedicated to and inspired by my dad.
AB: Did you and your father have a close relationship? Was he very influential in guiding you towards your career as an actor?
TD: My dad is my hero. For an immigrant from Sicily, he came here when he was about eleven years old, he never really had any formal education. My grandfather was an almost absurdly insane disciplinarian. But my dad was an incredibly decent guy. Apart from the fact that he had no education, my dad was mechanically or scientifically, I think, a genius. He once had a watch that he wore in World War Two, a Gruen that he loved. There used to be the expression, “you get a screwin’ for a Gruen.” And he had this Gruen watch that he loved and one day I remember I was going out to play softball with some friends – I was about seventeen years old, I think – it was a Saturday morning. And there was my dad at the kitchen table with this white sheet laid out. And he had his watch and all these little tools because my dad was really good at building stuff. And I could see he’s taking the watch apart…
Well, two hours later I come home from the softball game and all over the entire table are all the little parts to this watch. Now I don’t know how much people know about watches but back then there was hundreds and hundreds of little wheels and springs and everything imaginable. This was put together by people who do this their whole lives. So the sheet was covered with all these wheels and deals and bells and whistles. And I’m looking at him and I’m thinking – he’s got his little magnifying glass on the end of a letter opener from Fuller Brush that he used to love to use – and I’m thinking that my dad has gone insane.
So I went and took a shower, got something to eat, and then I was upstairs talking to a friend on the phone, I took a little nap or read something, and I came down – it was like two hours later. And the sheet’s gone and my dad’s in the little TV den room and he’s sort of sleeping. And he’s got the watch on his arm. And I look over at the watch and it’s ticking. And at his funeral – cause my dad is one of these guys who helped a lot of people – he’d come over and help people fix their car, fix their washing machine – because we never had a repairman at the house but once. My father would watch him, ask questions – and the guy would never have to come again because my dad would know how to fix whatever he needed to fix. And at his funeral, I remember the priest said to me, “Was your father like a congressman or something?” And I said, “No. Why? He was a truck driver.” And the priest says, “There are more people here then for the last congressman who died.” There was like eight-hundred, nine-hundred people who showed up.