An Interview with Actor Tony LaFortezza

When actor Tony LaFortezza came to my New York photo studio to update his headshots, I knew that I was in for a treat. Tony is a character actor who has appeared in many films, television programs, and commercials; a consummate professional who works hard at his craft, he has taught and run acting workshops for adults and child actors, served as an acting coach, and has even directed his fair share of off-Broadway shows and musical revues including An Evening with the Chordettes, which played at The Ballroom in Manhattan. After I delivered his retouched photos to him, Tony was kind enough to chat with me over coffee about his acting career and some of the film and TV work that he’s done over the years.
 

Tony LaFortezza (Image)
Actor Tony LaFortezza. Photo by Chad Gayle.

 
CG: You appeared in Sydney Lumet’s courtroom drama The Verdict with Paul Newman. Can you tell us something about the experience of working with such an amazing director and such a legendary actor at the same time?
 
TF: Well, one of the things I’ve always done when I’ve worked on movie sets, no matter what’s happening, is that I’ve always found myself a little place to watch what was going on without getting in the way. I try to make use of my time as best as I can, to watch and learn everything I can, from the technical to the creative aspects of making a film. In my scene with Paul Newman in The Verdict, I tried to stay within visual eyeshot of the main scene, and I have to say, to watch someone like Sydney Lumet and Paul Newman and his co-star, Charlotte Rampling, to watch those people work and to hear the repartee between Lumet and those actors in take after take and then in being in the scene myself, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
 
CG: Among the many appearances you made on TV, one that stands out is a skit you were in on Saturday Night Live, on an episode that was hosted by Madonna, in 1985. The set-up was tied to Madonna’s marriage to Sean Penn, who was, at that time, a notorious “bad boy” who hated the Press; you appeared in a short filmed segment that she described, in the opening monologue, as a home movie of her wedding.
 
TF: Yes, that’s right; I was supposed to be Madonna’s uncle Guido. That was fantastic, and being on SNL was a blast, not to mention that I got to work closely with Don Novello, who’s better known as Father Sarducci. He even started to call me for other projects after that bit, which actually led to my getting a role in Who’s That Girl.
 
Dunne and LaFortezza in Who's That Girl (Image)
Griffin Dunne and Tony LaFortezza in Who’s That Girl

 
CG: That’s the romantic comedy starring Madonna and Griffin Dunne. How did the production of Who’s That Girl compare to some of the other movies you’d worked on?
 
TF: They had a big budget, so money was not a problem. My understanding is that Warner Brothers did not interfere very much with the production, which gave the director James Foley a lot of creative freedom. My scene work was with Griffin Dunne, who gave me a lot to feed off, and we were allowed to do quite a few takes of the scenes that I was in, in an effort to really get them right.
 
CG: You had a supporting role in a film called Cookie, a vehicle for Peter Falk, whom I’ve always loved. What was it like to work with him?
 
TF: He was really fascinating. Falk and the director of that film, Susan Seidelman, created an atmosphere of flexibility, which meant, for me, as a character actor, that I was given a lot of freedom, that I could be as expressive as I wanted. So I was able to react, and the more I reacted, the more reactive I became, the more they liked it. There was a sense of security on that set; I felt as if I could take risks with my character without worrying that I might upstage the principals. And Falk didn’t care how far I went with my scenes; in fact, the further I went, the more he liked it.
 
Falk and LaFortezza in Cookie (Image)
Peter Falk and Tony LaFortezza in Cookie

 
CG: We were talking about David Letterman, who’s retiring this month, and you mentioned that you were on the very first Late Show with David Letterman, when he moved to CBS in 1993.
 
TF: Yes, they renovated the Ed Sullivan for the Late Show when Letterman came in, and the skit I appeared in was supposedly about the construction workers who had worked on the renovation. It was a lot of fun. The whole thing was construction workers kibbutzing around: arm wrestling, belly bumping, that sort of thing. The actors were in the right spirit, the right mood, and having the opportunity to be a part of that in the historic Ed Sullivan Theater, where the Honeymooners was taped, was a thrill as well.
 
CG: I’m sure you have a long list of favorite actors, but who rises to the top of your list?
 
TF: I like Pacino for his fiery performances; even when he is quiet and restrained, his power is just bubbling right beneath the surface, about to explode, although he is getting more subtle in his later years. Then there’s Charles Durning and Gene Hackman, of course. They are always connected to the material, and it feels as though they each are living it right before your eyes. Brando, however, is at the top of my list. Watching him work in any film is watching a true artist; his work is specific and detailed, and he always does something extra that adds to it. I truly enjoy his range, too, from The Men to Streetcar, from Teahouse to Waterfront to Viva Zapata to Young Lions to Guys & Dolls to Missouri Breaks to Last Tango to The Godfather.
 
CG: Do you have a favorite character actor?
 
TF: Jack Warden was a magnificent character actor. Going from scary to humorous but always being the working man. He was just a down to earth guy; a truly nice guy as well. We had a great conversation once while we were riding together on a crosstown bus.
 
CG: What are you working on at the moment?
 
TF: I’m currently workshopping a production of Waiting for Godot with Mikhail Nikulin, a young, enthusiastic actor with lots of potential. I’m also pleased to say that I’ve just been chosen to serve on the Screen Actors Guild 2016 SAG Awards Nominating Committee, so I will be viewing many, many films over the next few months and selecting my picks to be listed as the finalists in the SAG Awards.
 
CG: Tony, we wish you the very best. Please stop by again some time.
 
TF: Definitely, Chad. Thank you!