F. Murray Abraham
From Amadeus and Homeland to the West End stage, the great American actor talks to The American
Interviewed by Michael Burland
He's in London for a must-see season in a great new play, The Mentor. That screen-grabbing face, that deep, warm voice, that theater-filling charisma, they're so well known. But how did F. Murray Abraham create a stellar acting career from humble beginnings as an El Paso gang-member? The American decided to find out. (And if you've ever wondered, he added the 'F' not because there was already a 'Murray Abraham' in Equity but in honor of his father, Fahrid, and because it made a distinguished stage name.)
To start with, Murray was a little hesitant to talk about his new play, as we were speaking just two days after the latest terrorist attack on London Bridge:
It's difficult to talk about these things, because it's good for my show and it's important to let people know why they should come and see it, but in light of what just happened... I was in England when that other attack on a bridge happened [the Westminster Bridge incident, March 22] and it locked the city down.
The British are very good at 'Keeping Calm and Carrying On' as their famous wartime poster said, and I think our expats here have picked that up and will be looking at the longer term, bigger picture.
I hope so.
Maybe we can start by looking at your background, which our audience will be interested in. It's slightly unusual – a Syrian-Italian-American family?
Well, if they're interested, I'll tell you! Yes, Syrian-Italian, I'm first generation American. I grew up on the border with Mexico, in El Paso. I grew up speaking Spanish with a Tex-Mex accent. I discovered I could be an actor because of a high school teacher. I began to listen to myself and realized I couldn't be a really fine actor if I had an accent. So I began to listen to the greatest British actors. I still have them on these old vinyl disks – Olivier, Gielgud, I loved Richardson, and I also have Barrymore. I listened and changed my accent. But it was a blue collar background – coalminers, steelworkers, my father was a mechanic, and I'm kind of self-taught.
So, unlike many actors, no theatrical background in the family?
No, and they were dead set against me becoming an actor. So I simply said, I'm leaving, and went to LA then New York. The exciting thing about it, it was a discovery that came out of nowhere because of a teacher. It's so thrilling to discover in oneself these things that we didn't know existed. It reminds us of the endless potential that we have. I think that's what it indicates. We can change, we do have some power over our lives.
Did your teacher ever say what they saw in you?
No. I was really a small-time hoodlum, a tramp, in and out of jail a couple of times, nothing real serious. But the point is, how she saw that in me is a mystery. I'm forever indebted to her.
Without her, what would have happened in your life?
I can't even imagine. I'm completely dedicated to what I do. I was born to be an actor. Hooray for great teachers!
What was your teacher's name? I think she should get a credit.
Well thank you, that's very nice! Her name was Lucia P Hutchens.
You're also religious?
Yes, I'm a believer, a churchgoer. I started out in an Orthodox church, the same as the Russian and Greek Orthodox. It's Antiochian, and it is a little unforgiving. They don't accept homosexuality which so many of my friends are. So I switched to a very liberal, big, old – it predates the Revolutionary War – Protestant church.
After Texas you went to New York?
I went to the University of Texas for one quick session, then to LA first of all, to horse around and look into the movie business. I met Kate and we married – we've been together almost 60 years now. From there I came to New York, to study with Uta Hagen, because I wanted to be a real actor. It's still one of the great schools and it's still inexpensive, which is very rare.
You've been with Kate for so long – something of a record in the acting business.
I had very good fortune to run in to her. It's always fortune, don't you think? How do you plan on falling in love?
What's the secret, you must have been away working so much?
I swear it's because I'm not home a lot! We give each other space. And when I work I'm not a lot of fun. You can check with my colleagues!
You stopped working and became a house husband – that will surprise a lot of people.
I did, she was paying the bills and I swallowed my Tex-Mex macho-ism and learned a little humility. It was a harsh lesson, but an important one good lesson. I forget it a lot.
A lot of people might have given up then, thinking they'd tried acting but it just didn't work out.
No, no. no. I couldn't. Chekhov told his brother when he asked him if he should be a writer “If you can live without writing, then do it.” I can't live without the theater. Even when I wasn't working, I was still studying.
Many people will know you from the screen, small and large, rather than the theater. Which do you enjoy most?
It's a blessing to be able to do both. And it's important because one does really inform the other. They're rooted in the same place, of course, but very different disciplines. In film and TV it's as though people are looking at you through a keyhole. The more private you are, the more mesmeric and magnetic you are. On stage, there's no dismissing the audience. There should be a hyper-awareness of them – not to please them, but to share with them this… thing… I hate to use the word journey… this trip that you're taking together. It makes every performance, eight times a week, different – their input. I sincerely believe that if there's one person who is not at that performance who could be, it changes things. Everybody has a contribution. And I really expect them to contribute something – I want their energy I need it. Especially with laughter. It's such a treat to see a gathering of strangers laughing together. It's such a communal thing. I call it a communal search for the truth. Because I don't know where you go these days for the truth. You can't go to the newspapers, the churches – the politicians, certainly. They all have a point of view and you begin to wonder where in the world the truth exists. Well maybe it's in Art.
You worked in the theater, on TV, in commercials and voice-overs, but then came the big break. I hate to use the word 'overnight success' because you were in your, shall we say, early middle age when Amadeus was such a massive success, and you got the Oscar for playing Salieri. Obvious question, but did it change your life?
You know it did! For the rest of my life – and forever! I'm now 'F. Murray Abraham, Academy Award Winner'! It's part of the title, like Sir Ian McKellen or Lord Olivier. People suggest that it's a curse, but anyone who says that is a fool. It's the best thing that can happen to you. It makes the rest of your life, as an actor, so much easier. I have never stopped working since. It may not have been work that people have been able to see, like in film or TV, but a lot of theater. It was a blessing and I'm grateful.
Do people think that if you're not in a movie, that you've disappeared.
Oh, they do. 'Are you still acting?' 'Yes, I'm still acting. I just did King Lear.' They don't want to know about King Lear, they just want to see a movie and hear the gossip about the stars you've worked with and who you slept with. Which isn't a problem, but it's kinda disappointing. Because after winning that award for that performance in that wonderful movie, I just refused to take the crap they were offering because I thought, I'm better than that. If you say no for long enough, they don't ask you any more. And, of course, they shouldn't. So I've done all this wonderful theater and I've made a living.
I can't tell you at this stage in my life how good it feels. I never expected to feel this healthy at 77, I can't believe it. I like my kids, and their education is paid for, their homes are paid for, everything is great. Except for, you know, the rest of the world [laughs].
You've done a lot of serious plays – Othello, Richard III, Shylock, Chekhov, Beckett – and people who know you from Amadeus and Homeland may think of you as the bad guy, a brooding presence, but you've also done comedy – I would have loved to see you as Malvolio in Twelfth Night.
What a treat that was. What a terrific play. For the first 15 years of my career I did a lot of comedy, and I love jokes – I love to hear people laugh. In The Mentor there's quite a bit of comedy. I don't want to make this a heavy thing, because it's not, but it's human relationships, people trying to work out their problems and dilemmas and discovering who they are. And then being able to change, to take control of their lives in whatever small way. That's what happens in this play. And it's very entertaining – people kept on coming back again and again when we played it in Bath. Sometimes you can feel that going to the theater is a chore, but with this play you really are delighted. It's only about 80 minutes long, you go in and still have time to have dinner afterward. Or go dancing! Urge your friends to come!
Did you enjoy Bath?
Oh yeah, it's a good place to work. And I'm a very good tourist. I walk. That walk between the Royal Theatre and the Royal Crescent was something I looked forward to every day and every evening after work. I was there for a month so I got to know the staff. When I came home to the hotel one evening there was a great big tall man who opened the door for me. I looked up at him and said, 'My God, you look just like John Cleese'. And he said, 'I am John Cleese'. We spent the rest of the evening, he and his wife and I, chatting and having a wonderful time. He just bought a place up there. We became friends, just like that.
It was an eye-opener for an American, in that reserved British culture, to be so embraced by the Brits. Not physically! I don't know what I expected, but I didn't expect that. It could be me – it could be that I have become a wonderful person.
What's the best thing about being F Murray Abraham?
My whole life! – Actually, I'll tell you what it really is. It's my wife.
The Mentor is at the Vaudeville Theatre from 24 June to 2 September. Tickets available from www.nimaxtheatres.com and 0330 333 4814