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?