F. Murray Abraham in Mauritius
(© Joan Marcus)
F. Murray Abraham in Mauritius
(© Joan Marcus)
"I play one of the toughest people on the stage," says F. Murray Abraham with some glee, describing his role in Theresa Rebeck's Mauritius, now in previews at Manhattan Theater Club's Biltmore Theater. He portrays an underworld figure named Sterling, one of three desperate men (alongside Bobby Cannavale and Dylan Baker) who are eyeing a rare stamp collection inherited by a pair of half-sisters (played by Alison Pill and Katie Finneran) after their mother's death.

"What the play investigates is greed and loyalty. And it examines character -- the defects of character," he says. But Abraham doesn't peg Sterling, a hard-nosed gangster, as the villain of the piece. "He is certainly the most violent, but also the purest. I am very direct and honest about my motives. I let you know exactly who I am and you'll have to deal with it. It's the kind of part I like to play."

Indeed, Abraham is adding to his particularly colorful gallery of heavies, which includes Roy Cohn in Angels in America (a role he took over from Ron Liebman) and, more recently, Shylock and Barabas in Theatre for a New Audience's repertory productions of The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta. He says the menacing parts started coming his way after his Oscar-winning performance as Mozart's nemesis, Salieri, in the 1984 film version of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus. "That's unfortunate, because for the first 15 years of my career I worked in comedy. I'm really a very funny man."

In fact, he actually made his professional stage debut in the Off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks, in which played the role of Henry, the all-purpose actor, from 1966 through 1968. "I was in the show when it became the longest running show in history. Suddenly there was this full-page ad in the Times. It was great," he recalls.

But it was his year-long stint on Broadway playing the campy and exuberantly horny Chris in Terrence McNally's 1975 bathhouse farce The Ritz that truly launched his career -- even though the heterosexual actor was offered only gay roles for some time afterwards. "I was a known homosexual," he quips. "Who gives a shit, except that it does get in the way of the work." Abraham laughs as he recalls his deeply religious Italian mother's reaction after the release of the 1976 movie version, in which he re-created his role. "I would visit her at home in Texas and she would introduce me this way, 'This is my son -- he has a wife and two kids.' God bless her!"

In fact, the show was so satisfying for Abraham that he says he'd love to have a part in its current revival, being presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54 (where Chris is being played by Brooks Ashmanskas). "I'm trying to make an appearance on the stage and walk around in a towel. I'm still in pretty good shape!" With his 68th birthday coming up in October, Abraham is feeling particularly confident. "I feel like I am in the middle of the best time of my life. I don't know how to explain what that means, because I'm not far from 70," he says.

Abraham has an unusual background: He's Syrian Christian on his father's side, Italian on his mother's -- and was raised in El Paso, Texas. He credits a high school teacher with setting him on the acting path. "She saw something that I had. I don't know what, but she saved my life." When he decided to become an actor he set about training his voice. "I spoke with a Spanish accent because all my friends were Mexican. I got records -- old vinyl discs of John Gielgud and John Barrymore. I liked Barrymore best and I began to try and to duplicate what he was doing. That's how I changed my speech."

Similar determination led to what would become his most famous role. "The way I got the part of Salieri was to be completely egocentric about what I wanted to do. I was in a certain place in my career and I said I don't want to play supporting characters anymore," he says, adding that he even held off from auditioning for any roles during that period. "But once I won the Academy Award, I insisted even more. I had some offers, which I think are wonderful now; but back then I said, 'I don't want to do supporting parts.' Well, if you do that long enough, people don't call you anymore. I could have used a mentor," he says.

Nonetheless, Abraham says he has no regrets about way his career turned out. "The film made me rich. I've spent most of it, but I really enjoyed myself. I think the secret of life is having a good time -- as long as you don't hurt anybody."

Instead of settling for so-so roles in Hollywood, he pursued a lucrative movie career in Europe and has enjoyed traveling around the globe. "I am very big in Italy," he notes "Anyway, the point is, this ride continues. That's what so amazing." Indeed, Abraham is already slated to perform in the revivals of Edward Albee's An American Dream and The Sandbox at the Cherry Lane Theatre next March.

For the present, he's savoring the delights of working in Mauritius with a company he describes as the best he has ever worked with. "I think it's every actor's secret dream. It's finding that level of achievement that can only happen when you are among equals. And I can tell you that is unfortunately rather rare," he says. "In this company, we respect each other very much. We all know who we are, we know what we are doing, and we value what we have. I'm willing to predict that when actors come to see this play they are going to say 'I wish I was a part of that,' because you can smell it, you can sense it. Mark my words."