I hadn't seen actor Dick Latessa since I was 14, but I knew that I recognized him. We both recently guest starred on Kyra Sedgwick's ill-fated ABC sitcom Talk To Me, and we had a pleasant chat during make-up. We talked about everything from theater to movies to co-ops to cars. At one point, he sang a verse of the "pineapple" song from Cabaret in a powerful tenor voice. "Wow!" I exclaimed. "You should really audition for that part." "Actually, I am currently playing Herr Schultz in the Broadway revival," he replied jovially. I blushed at my ignorance.
We retired to our dressing rooms, and I took a little nap. Suddenly, I woke with a start and a realization. I ran to Dick's dressing room and pounded on the door until it opened. "You're Gina's father!" I cried, as the memories hit me. I did indeed know Dick, not just from his numerous Broadway appearances, his work on TV in Law & Order and other shows, and the films Izzy and Moe and Stigmata, but from real life. His daughter Gina had been my childhood buddy.
I am thrilled to say that, after 15 years, Dick got me back in touch with his daughter. Our chance meeting also gave me the opportunity to sit down and talk with him about his illustrious 40-year career.
Why don't you have a web page? I put your name into an Internet search engine and do you how many sites came up?
With my name? I've never seen them! How many?
You're kidding! What do they say?
All good things. On one of the sites, I found out that you just won a Helen Hayes Award. You must be very excited about that.
So, where are you going to put it?
Along with my other awards!
I have an Obie. I also have a Neil-Man. It's a Neil Simon/Manny Eisenberg Award that they gave out one year to their actors.
You don't have a Tony?
No, believe it or not. I should have gotten one for one show, but we closed early.
A play called Passione. But we had bad producers.
Talk to Patrick Stewart! How did you get into acting? I have heard your daughter's version of it...
Let's hear it.
That, when you were 30, you came to New York City and said, "Let me give this a try."
That's pretty much it. Right before I came to New York, I went to see a show in Ohio where I was living, delivering papers. It was a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical called Pipe Dream. I watched it, and I thought, "I sing that well!" How's that for an ego? So I went backstage and asked, "How do you get in a thing like this?" And the director said, "You sing? Come back Thursday and you sing for me." I did and I got a featured part in The King and I.
And you had never been on stage before?
Only as a dancer. After that, I just kept auditioning and I kept getting cast.
Did you even have head shots?
Hell no! So I did six shows in two years, and then I came to New York to study. Three months later, I got my first Off-Broadway show.
And then you got head shots?
Finally, yes. I have been working consistently ever since.
I see you haven't done many movies.
Because I don't live in California. I get offered roles, but usually they are only one scene. They're too small; I'd rather stay on stage. Have you seen some of the putzes that do one scene? I want to do a good role.
You were in the original pilot of Law & Order. I'm a Law & Order junkie!
Yeah, you and a lot of people.
Do you ever turn on A&E and see yourself in the reruns?
Yeah, sometimes. I've done about four or five episodes. They have good producers.
Do you consider yourself a character actor?
Yes, I have always considered myself a character actor.
But you're so cute! And now you are playing Herr Schultz in Cabaret. He's definitely a romantic character...
An older romantic character.
Is this one of your favorite parts?
Yes, it's a nice part, and I love singing. It's actually brought back my whole voice. I hit a G natural! I've even started singing opera.
Have you ever done opera professionally?
No, but I am Italian, so it's in my blood.
What's it like to play a German Jewish character?
It's great. I've spent most of my life playing Jews on the New York stage.
Herr Schultz seems to be the only center of calm in Cabaret's decadent world.
It's so moving to realize that, when Herr Schultz goes off at the end, he will never be seen again. Everyone makes a choice about what they want, except for him. He is affected by all of these wrong choices. He doesn't make a bad choice; he's just a victim. So he's very sympathetic.
And you don't go home and talk in a German accent or anything?
No, I try not to take home stuff. I did once, in Neil Simon's Broadway Bound. I think I stayed three months too long. It depressed me, because the character was so sad and tragic.
When do you plan to retire?
Are you kidding? I work more now than ever!
You know, you really need a web page. I think I am going to buy DickLatessa.com and cybersquat there.
Why would I buy a web page?
Don't you ever surf the Net? Haven't you ever gone ego surfing? You know, put your own name into a search engine to see what comes up?
It's the battle against anonymity! I don't have that problem. I am performing, I have a nice career, and I don't feel anonymous. I am recognized everywhere. I went to Italy three weeks ago, I was sitting in a café, and there was a young couple staring at me. They knew me from TV.
Did they know your name?
They never know my name. "We know you, you're an actor." That's it.
Is there anything specific that you have ever wanted to say in an interview that you haven't had a chance to?
I would be better off not talking about my life, although I rarely turn down interviews. I have had nice ones in Playbill...
I thought you were going to say Playboy!
Or better yet, Playgirl! Can you imagine my little skinny ass in Playgirl?
Can I quote you on that?
Sure! Actually, it's not so skinny; I got a compliment on it the other night from one of the girls backstage at Cabaret.
And they know their asses! What's your next project after Cabaret?
I don't know. There are a couple of Broadway shows interested in me. I did the reading of the stage musical version of Hairspray, based on John Waters' movie. We'll see.
You know what I think you should do next? You should be the narrator in the Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show.
I didn't even know that they were doing that.
Well, if you land the part, I want a commission!