This came about thanks to the kindness of Jean Walcher, public relations sage and President of J. Walcher Communications. Jean’s cousin is the executive producer of No Pay, Nudity, a delightful Broadway Danny Rose-ish comedy about the lives of unemployed thespians who while away their days in the waiting room of Actor’s Equity. Jean wrote, “I can probably connect you with someone if you’re interested in doing an interview.”
Let’s see…Gabriel Byrne? Nathan Lane? I wouldn’t mind speaking with either of them. As my eyes continued down the IMDB page, it stopped on the name Joe Grifasi, a top-shelf character actor who first crossed our radar with his performance as a wedding singer in The Deer Hunter. We have a winner!
I have nothing but the highest regard for character actors, particularly one who has found steady work in quality productions for over 40 years. Normally I’ll enter into a 15-minute interview with 30 minutes worth of prepared questions. Joe and I gabbed for almost an hour. The majority of my prep work was scrubbed after the first 5 minutes. It was like catching up with a guy you went to high school with.
No Pay, Nudity screen twice at this weekend’s San Diego Film Festival Saturday, October 1, 3:30 p.m. at Arclight and Sunday, October 2, 11 a.m. at Spreckels Theatre.
Joe Grifasi: Are you from Chicago? Where are you from?
Scott Marks (after a stunned silence): Rogers Park. How do you know that?
JG: I heard it right away in your voice. I’m from Buffalo and we have the exact same way of saying, “Get in the cahr” and stuff like that.
SM: I’m impressed. Only one other person since I moved to San Diego 17 years ago has pegged my accent. Usually I get, “You must be from back East.”
JG: No! It’s in your voice. You can tell. Everyone thinks I’m from Chicago.
SM: You’ve been entertaining audiences for over 40 years now.
JG: My first feature was The Deer Hunter, which would go back to 1978.
SM: According to the semi-dependable IMDB, your first feature – which I saw the week it opened – was On the Yard.
JG: No. The Deer Hunter was my first. And I can’t believe you saw On the Yard, because nobody else did. (Laughing.)
SM: While On the Yard has been largely forgotten, The Deer Hunter is one of the most memorable films in movie history. How did you land the part?
No Pay, Nudity
JG: I was doing a play…my agent must have got me in. I was doing a play with Meryl Streep. We went to school together. She had replaced somebody in a musical on Broadway called Happy End. It was a Kurt Weil/Bertolt Brecht musical. We both got a call one day to go meet Bob De Niro. He said to me, “I’m putting together this movie called Raging Bull, but it’s going on the back burner now. That’s why you’re in here.” He assured me that this would be a great project, blah, blah, blah.
Meryl was cast and they asked me to be in it. That was it. I don’t know if I was just an add-on to it with her or what. It wasn’t long after that I auditioned for On the Yard, a movie I was much more invested in. It was a bunch of young New York actors and we were really eager to tell the story. It didn’t come out very good. The guy who it’s based on, Malcolm Braly, is fascinating. The book is wonderful. It made the Times best seller list for non-fiction at one point. It was called False Start about a guy who was a recidivist from the time he was a young man.
He was just a kid who got in trouble. He had no formal education. Whatever education he had came from the prison library. He made his way through prison by writing pornographic pages, which he would rent out to the other prisoners in exchange for packs of cigarettes. Three of us were sitting around and having lunch with him one day. I’m playing this character named Morris who keeps building his balloon but at night keeps tearing it apart. I’m thinking he’s clearly afraid to go up in it or something like that.
At one point two of the guys go to the bathroom. I’m sitting alone with him and it’s a bit of an awkward moment. He says, “So you’re going to be playing Morris. A little bit like Penelope, isn’t he?” I beg your pardon. “You know,” he says. “Penelope in Ulysses. When she keeps saying she’ll take a suitor when she finishes her tapestry and at night she tears it apart?” (Laughing.) That’s amazing. He got a classical education in a prison library. That’s pretty cool.
You know who was in that? You’d remember because you’re an historian. There’s a wonderful character actor who has since died named Mike Kellin.
SM: The father in Midnight Express. What a face on that guy! He always looked like he just woke up.
JG (Laughing): Yeah! Exactly! I’m like you. I loved the generation of character actors that came just ahead of me. One of the highlights of my career, I was guesting on a half-hour show called Something Wilder. It was Gene Wilder’s show. I walked on the set and there was this old guy who was there for the table read. It was Jack Elam!
There’s an old joke. The producer said, “Get me a Jack Elam type.” To which his assistant replied, “Sure. Who’s Jack Elam?”
SM: You must get, “Hey! I know that guy!” from a lot of people. Have you ever had a lead role in a feature?
SM: There’s a moment in No Pay, Nudity where the narrator informs us that Lawrence Rose, the role Gabriel Byrne plays, tried L.A for a couple of years: “He played lots of cops, lawyers, doctors, a priest…nothing really satisfying.” To a fallen thespian with envy pumping through his veins like Rose this was 24 months in purgatory, but to Joe Grifasi it’s a satisfying way to live one’s life. When was the first time you realized that being a character actor was the path to follow?
JG: When I was going to Bishop Fallon High School in Buffalo, I never knew what a play was. I never went to a theatre. I grew up working class, real blue collar. My father worked at Chevrolet for 42 years. So I’m going to this Catholic school…there was nothing fancy about it. I was causing a lot of trouble in class by always trying to entertain the troops. I had this wonderful priest who had me read this piece…we were studying a play, and he had me read a piece of it. I was a little baffled as to why he had me read, but it came out sort of okay.
He said, “I’m going to give you a part (in the play) where you can get a hundred people to laugh at you. But you’ve got to let me get some teaching done.” My first part was Dr. Einstein in Arsenic and Old Lace. After three performances I said to him, “Father Letty, I guess I’m never going to play a lead role. I’m just going to play these character parts.” “Listen to me,” he said, “character actors always eat.” (Laughing.)
SM: Has there been a time over the last 40 years when you weren’t working?
JG: I stepped into something. I thought I would just do theatre all my life. I didn’t even know what an agent was. I worked my first two years without one. I started getting calls after The Deer Hunter. In my first two or three years in movies, I had five parts back-to-back. All character roles.
SM: And these weren’t small films like On the Yard. We’re talking major releases like Still of the Night, Splash, The Pope of Greenwich Village…
JG: It was weird. I did play some bigger roles in films that never did squat. Somehow I ended up in a lot of “A” films. It was a studio thing. For about 20 years easily, maybe a little longer than that, I was averaging two films a year and a play. I still wanted to do theatre. There was a period of about 20 years, up to 1995, where I had a movie in theatres or one in the can. It was like an ongoing poker game. A lot of them weren’t great parts, but overall I like the roles I play.
Bruce McGill, who is a great character actor friend of mine, was appearing in a TV movie directed by another friend and great character actor, Brian Dennehy. We were flying back to L.A. and I said to Bruce, “That role of yours…that one scene you played was terrific.” He turned to me and said, “You know that old saying about no small parts, only small actors? I hate that saying. There are no small parts, only shitty ones!” (Laughing.) And he was right!
SM: I was going to ask you to name the greatest piece of career advice you’ve ever received and the worst, but I think you covered the first with Father Letty’s guidance. What was the worst?
JG: Wow. Nothing’s coming to mind. I know someone else who got terrible career advice. As a result of it, I did something that I’ll never regret doing. I was doing On the Yard. It was a friend of one of the actors…maybe it was John Heard. They had a young actor friend who had just scored a big role in a movie…a big name film. I can’t remember the title of it. His agent told him not to take any other roles. This was the part that was going to do it for him.
He gave up everything that came his way. While I was hearing this story, I was offered a part to go back to repertory theatre. While we were shooting, the film that was supposed to be this guy’s big break came out. It died and I haven’t heard from him since. I told myself that I was going to do the first thing that came my way when I get off this movie. If you sit there believing that it really means anything…what it taught me was it’s just not an actor’s medium. It’s not even a director’s medium. I think it’s an editor’s medium in the long run.
SM: You played a part in what I consider to be the greatest television show in the history of the medium, SCTV. You appeared on the show after it had moved from NBC to Cinemax. You played Tommy LaSorda!
JG: SCTV came about…when I got out of Yale, there were two guys who were Canadian whom I worked with writing new material. We went to Toronto to work on a show and while we were there, SCTV had just formed. That company was a great company, better that the Chicago company. It had John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd…they were just kids. They invited me to improvise the free set and I was terrible at it.
Years later my friend John, one of the Canadian writers, became good friends with Dave Thomas. When they were putting the Second City writing team together, they hired John. I knew them all and they said they’d find me a role. Joe Flaherty and his brother Paul were both big baseball nuts. They wrote a thing for Ed Grimley which was brilliant. Paul’s biggest idols were Charles Dickens and David Lean. He thought that Ed Grimley would make a great Oliver Twist character. He shot the whole thing on location around Toronto as if it was 19th-century London. Because of his love of baseball, they cast me as the Artful Dodger, but made me up to look like Tommy LaSorda. I’m wearing a Dodger’s uniform with gloves with no fingers and a crappy vest.
Most of it got cut. Most everything I’ve done got cut. For the record, my autobiography, which has yet to be penned, will be called, The Face on the Cutting Room Floor.
SM: Speaking of that, I’m watching No Pay, Nudity, and you’re in two scenes. You character, Mr. Davenport, is a blind man who pays Byrne to read the newspaper to him. At one point Byrne questions whether or not your character is really blind, so I’m waiting for you to return towards the end for some kind of payoff. Was there a scene filmed that didn’t make the final cut?
JG: No. As it is now, it’s mostly a few lines and I’m off camera during the second scene. There was a sizeable second scene that they decided wasn’t needed. I gotta say, my hat’s off to (director) Lee (Wilkoff). He’s a good guy and I really wanted to do something for him.
SM: And Lee himself is a great character actor.
JG: That’s how I know Lee. We used to audition for a lot of the same roles. I didn’t know Lee for a long time. I had seen the original production of Little Shop of Horrors way, way back before it took off. It wasn’t until years later that we became colleagues and really good friends.
SM: I’m shocked that Scorsese has yet to cast you in one of his movies. You’d be a natural!
JG: I know. I met him when they were casting Raging Bull. It was weird. He had just gotten out of bed; he still had his pajamas and robe on. We had coffee. I met him for the Joe Pesci role. I mean I knew him to say, “Hi.” I did a small film with his then-girlfriend, Ileana Douglas. Nancy Savoca’s Household Saints.
SM: Do you still have to audition for a part? Have you ever had an audition as uncomfortable as the one Gabriel Byrne goes through in No Pay, Nudity?
JG: If you look in the background during one of the scenes at Actor’s Equity, there’s an actor sitting in soft focus doing that awful preparation that some of them do, making weird sounds like “Oooh! Oooh!” (Laughing.) That’s Lee Wilkoff! He looks like an idiot obsessed, and you know, it’s not far from the truth. When you ask if I’ve had any bad auditions, I have and they generally start with people like that. (Laughing.)
Here’s a great audition story. It was when I went in to audition for Presumed Innocent. Alixe Gordon was a wonderful casting director from the old school. The old school casting directors would bring in 5 or 6 people. That’s it. Now they’ll bring 500 or 600 because they want to please the director and directors don’t know how to talk to actors anyway. She brought me in. In the room was director Alan Pakula, Harrison Ford, and one other producer.
It’s great. I walk in with the book in my hand and everyone says, “Hey, Joe! How are you?” but no one says a word about reading the script. Alixe is whispering in Alan’s ear, “See! What did I tell you?” They look at me and say, “Thank you!” and I’m thinking I’m done. “Don’t you want me to read?” I asked. They looked at each other and said, “You can if you want to.” Harrison picks up the script and says, “Come on, I’ll read with you.” I didn’t realize that I already had the role.