Joe Mantegna steps in to save the day for ‘Criminal Minds’

[19 November 2007]

By Luaine Lee

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

“Criminal Minds” has been plumbing the depths of the depraved with glowing success almost since it began airing on CBS. When the show’s star, Mandy Patinkin, decided to leave midseason there was panic among the high command.

No need. The addition of uber pro Joe Mantegna has the show racing at mach speed.

Mantegna brings just the right amount of prickly irascibility to Special Agent David Rossi, founder of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, who serves as a counterpoint to the other characters who carry on their macabre duty.

Mantegna, 60, has been a sought-after character actor for years in films like “The Godfather III,” “Bugsy” and “Baby’s Day Out,” and TV series like “Joan of Arcadia” and “The Simpsons” (on which he voices the Mafioso Fat Tony.)

“You’re always paying dues,” he says. “Everything leads you to the next level, the next step. You never know what you did 10 years ago could be a catalyst in getting you for something else. You never know. I’ve had instances where I was hired by guys who say, `You don’t remember me, but back in the theater I was assistant costume guy and I’ve always liked you and it’s great to meet you.’ You never know. That’s why you should always do your best regardless of what level you’re at.”

While Mantegna has never been a “celebrity star,” peppering the tabloids with titillating exploits, he has observed them up close and personal. “I feel movie stars are not made,” he says.

“I think the public first foremost and always decides who the real stars are. A lot of people have had a lot of publicity and they’re real well known, but I wouldn’t call them movie stars. Some people are famous for being famous, yet work in the movies and make big money and have big roles. It escapes me, like they went from zero to 100 overnight ... To me the true movie stars are the people 10 years from now, 50 years from now we’ll look back on their work and say, `Wow, that guy was great’ - the Humphrey Bogarts, Robert Redfords, the Cagneys, Cary Grants,” he says.

“I think the true stars are the ones that embody not just admirable qualities but try to live a full and complete life with some class and grace as opposed to being this wild cannon going off and `Everybody get out of my way.’”

Mantegna, who grew up in Cicero, Ill., snagged his first professional role in “Hair” in 1969. A time with “Godspell” followed until he landed work with Chicago’s Organic Theater for five years. In 1977 he toured with the company stopping in Los Angeles and, unlike most Easterners, “fell in love with the West.”

Still, it was playwright David Mamet - his pal from his old Chicago days - who changed Mantegna’s fortunes forever. He asked Mantegna to play a cold-blooded salesman in his new play “Glengarry Glen Ross.” It earned Mamet the Pulitzer in 1984 and Mantegna a Tony Award, and led to their subsequent Broadway collaboration, “Speed-the-Plow.”

“I left California in December 1983 to do that play,” he recalls. “The next time I stepped back in California was March 1985 and all that had happened in between. I felt like a conquering hero. I came home with a Tony Award, every TV network was offering me series and stuff, and it was like Cinderella. It just kept going from there.”

But Mantegna was never complacent about his work. “What it takes to stay where I’m at, it takes consistency, dependability,” he volunteers. “When somebody hires me I always go in with the feeling they’ll get their money’s worth and more - within reason. They’re not gonna have any trouble. Anybody meets me half way I’m going to meet them half way and then some ... There are a lot of temptations in this business but you gotta keep at it and ride the waves, especially having children. I take that responsibility very strongly. I can’t foresee anything that would be an obstacle to me to keep them from having a stable life.”

Mantegna and his wife, Arlene, have two daughters, 20 and 17. His older daughter is autistic. “It’s an ongoing problem,” he says. “She’s got learning disabilities I’m going to have to deal with all her life. That’s the stuff that’s important. That’s the stuff that makes losing a part pale in comparison,” he says.

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James Woods, the take-no-prisoners prosecutor on CBS’ “Shark,” insists his hours are longer than double shifts in the coalmine. But he’s not complaining. “I’d like to sort of give you some dirt on how tough it is. But it’s really a joy going to work every day. I love the people I’m with, I love the stories, I love the character, I love the money, I love the environment. The only thing that I don’t like is it keeps me away from my family back in Rhode Island on a more regular basis because I am working pretty much every day. But other than that, I have to say the show itself is a pretty great experience,” he says.

“I was really impressed by how much it’s one’s own choice to make television really great or not. My buddy Steve Collins, who’s been on `7th Heaven’ for forever ... I said, `Steve, what’s the thing?’ And he said, `Here’s the trick in television. You don’t have to be good to be a major hit. If you go and you turn on the TV you’ll see that.’ But he said, `If you choose to be good for your own sake, you will have a much better time.’ And he said, `I know you, you only want to do the best work possible.’”

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Sandra Oh, the ambitious Cristina Yang on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” has been acting since she was a kid and had to give up dancing “because I wasn’t good enough.” Acting for her is not an option, it’s a necessity. “It’s something I feel I have to do. It’s something that’s not really a choice and there’s all this hoopla and stuff around ... when it really comes down to it that’s not the point. There’s something you have to transcend or there’s something you have to communicate or there’s some mark you have to make in life or in the world - all those deep reasons of how it gives meaning to your life.”

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At last “Two and a Half Men” is snatching the kudos it deserves. Critics sat on their hands while the public was discovering just how funny it is. But the creators of the CBS show had little trepidation. “The night we shot the pilot, I had no doubt about it,” says co-creator, executive producer Chuck Lorre. “Watching these guys together that first episode, it was - it was so exciting. It was one of those exciting nights that you just go, `Oh, my God. This is way beyond what we thought it could possibly be.’ So that was the night I knew.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/joe-mantegna-steps-in-to-save-the-day-for-criminal-minds/