F Murray Abraham: ‘There are tricks to getting a job that I don’t like or understand’
No matter that big screen success failed to follow an Oscar win, the Homeland star has worked steadily on the stage and television since Amadeus 33 years ago. Mark Shenton meets the American ‘actors’ actor’ on his return to London
In 1985, F Murray Abraham won the Academy Award for best actor for starring as Salieri in the film version of Peter Shaffer’s hit stage play Amadeus. But despite continued work on stage, his film career did not take off as expected, a phenomenon film critic Leonard Maltin dubbed ‘F Murray Abraham syndrome’.
Meeting him in his handsome apartment in New York’s Fifth Avenue, that Oscar still looms large. Abraham refers to it as ‘he’. “He has made my life so much easier – he has made this possible,” he says, sweeping his hand across the lounge. He was living in Brooklyn at the time of the win. “When I returned in triumph with the statue, Brooklyn was very proud.”
And Abraham remains proud today, telling me: “My Oscar has appeared in every play I’ve done since – not in view of the audience, but for my colleagues to enjoy. I give it to the stage manager, who hides it on the stage and it pops up -different places, dressed up in different ways – I think he has a tutu on right now.”
Yet if the Oscar changed his life, it also stalled it a bit. “When the life is good in this business it’s really good, but when it’s bad, it’s terrible. No matter all of your credits and accomplishments – you can be forgotten in a trice. The idea that you have to go back and start again after considerable success can destroy you if you’re not strong. I never lost track of who I am and what I can do, because I continually find things to do, but not everyone has that resource.”
In the immediate wake of Amadeus, he starred in The Name of the Rose opposite Sean Connery, “but then it was really quiet for a while – I did a whole bunch of films in Europe that disappeared”. But he always had the stage. “It’s always been a place for me to work. I’m not afraid to go anywhere, to the smallest theatre or the least amount of money.”
Born in Pittsburgh and raised and educated in Texas, it was the lure of the stage that first brought Abraham to New York in the 1960s after making his stage debut in LA in The -Wonderful Ice Cream Suite in 1964. “As soon as that play closed, I decided to move to New York. When I started working in LA, I realised they were not as serious about the work as I was. They were serious about getting work, not doing it.” He, on the other hand, was deadly serious about the work – but not as good at getting it, as he admits for himself.
“That’s part of the profession I’ve never really licked. There are real tricks to getting a job that I just don’t like or understand – it feels too close to pandering. I’ve tried it, but it doesn’t work. I really had claims to being an artist. That’s why I came to New York and studied with Uta Hagen and started working.”
He was 25 at the time, over half a century ago. His first job in the city was being Santa Claus for Macy’s at Thanksgiving; he also waited on tables, the usual New York actor’s rite of passage. His big break came when he appeared in the OffBroadway premiere of Terrence McNally’s play Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? in 1971. “From that point he was very loyal to me. I’ve appeared in or read for every play he’s written since then, maybe 10 of them, and performed in seven. His work is the foundation of my success in the theatre – he’s an actor’s writer.”
And Abraham, 77, is an actors’ actor: as a programme essay by Michael Davies for The Mentor puts it: “He can still ride the subway in New York without being mobbed by fans. Maybe there’s a clue in the private, unassuming nature of this actors’ actor who puts all the effort into the work, rather than the pursuit of fame or celebrity.”
And sitting in his New York lounge, he affirms: “The stage is where I live – I can’t do without it.” We talk about a few of his favourite roles: “Have you ever seen the movie of Terrence McNally’s The Ritz? It was a watershed as a play – it opened on Broadway in 1975 and ran for a year, but people thought, ‘a bunch of queers running around in a bathhouse? Who’d pay to see that?’ I played Chris, a wonderful character, who was an outrageous man – a screaming queen – who was the sanest person in the play. He knew who he was and enjoyed it.”
Q&A: F Murray Abraham
What was your first professional theatre job? In Ray Bradbury’s play The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit in Los Angeles in 1964 65.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Listen – you don’t hear if you’re talking. You have to learn to listen and take advice.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Marlon Brando.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Don’t be afraid.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? I’m a pretty religious man – maybe I could have done something to do with that.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I’ve become more superstitious the older I get. I used to scorn them. Now I don’t talk about the Scottish play in a theatre, I throw salt over my shoulder if I spill it and I don’t walk under ladders. I respect superstitions. As for rituals, Olivier had one I hope is true: he would stand before curtain went up, his face up against it, and say, ‘You lucky bastards!’ That’s a great technique for not being afraid.
We also talk of Angels in America, in the original Broadway run in which he took over the role of Roy Cohn, the venal, gaydenying lawyer who succumbs to Aids. “It’s one of my most treasured performances,” Abraham says. “It was very hard to capture him, because I disliked the man so much. If you play a living person you detest, it’s hard to get past that hatred.
“I could do it and it would be interesting and acceptable – I’m a good actor – but I didn’t get it until I met an international lawyer, who said he’d tried against him and detested him, but that he couldn’t take his eyes off him. And when he said that, I realised it had never occurred to me that the reason he was interesting is because he was hypnotic.”
Abraham has also worked a lot in classical theatre. “You go there for the great roles. Nobody is writing that big stuff these days. The theatre now is geared towards a TV and movie audience; but that is not what the theatre is about. It’s about size and gesture, there’s a grandeur about it, something that says more about your life than a TV show. There’s good television nowadays – in fact better than most motion pictures – but you can’t do King Lear for a TV screen; it’s got to be done on stage.”
He’s played Lear twice, but says that his favourite -Shakespearean role is Shylock. “I felt so fulfilled – I’m half Syrian, so I thought it would be like being a Palestinian in an Israeli court, or a black man in in America – you don’t have a chance, there is no justice. That rage was very easy to tap into. We did it in New York [at Theatre for a New Audience], then took it to the Swan in StratforduponAvon as part of the Complete Works Festival there [in 2007] – the performance just elevated and rose when we got on that stage.” That was his second time on a British theatre stage. It was a happier experience than his West End debut a decade earlier in James Goldman’s shortlived Tolstoy at the Aldwych in 1996, in which he played the title role. “It was a disaster,” Abraham admits. “We did pretty well on the road, but it was just awful. Unfortunately the writer, God bless his soul, had promised a lot of changes, but there were none at all – and it was poorly produced, too. But no excuses – we did our best and they shot us down, and that’s it.”
He’s hoping for a happier experience this time around. The Mentor has already been warmly embraced in Bath where it premiered earlier this year at the tiny Ustinov studio. Its author Daniel Kehlmann approached Abraham directly to do it via his agent. “He sent a note saying it was perfect for me and that it was almost a sign he’d written it with me in mind. It had been a big success in Germany, and he asked me to look at it. When I did, I was swept away – it’s such a great part.”
F Murray Abraham’s top tips for aspiring actors
• A lot of it is luck. No matter how hard you work or how dedicated you are, there are no guarantees – it takes a little bit of luck. So don’t take it all on yourself or blame yourself.
• Don’t give up.
• Keep working and studying. You have to have respect for yourself. The only way to do that if you’re not working is to continually do things – learn a sonnet a week, pay attention to Shakespeare, read plays, vocalise and exercise. Don’t kid yourself, just do it.
He plays a playwright who enjoyed his greatest success at the age of 25; now, half a century later, he’s asked to take part in a mentoring programme with a much younger playwright.
And although the play is critical of both parties, Abraham sees great value in a mentoring relationship.
“Unfortunately mentoring is an oldfashioned term, but there was a time when older actors took it as their responsibility to pass on their -knowledge to younger actors or to teach – it’s a responsibility to the craft. I don’t know if any younger actors would be interested these days, or older actors for that matter. I teach once a year because I like it. At Atlantic Theatre -company, they get a big class together and do scenes and talk. It’s selfish, because I also learn things from them. It’s a changing thing, this acting thing.
“But I believe mentoring is important. I still have vinyl recordings of the great British actors of the last century – Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson – and would listen to them and get rid of my Texas Mexican accent. Though when Brando came on the scene, everyone else took second place – he became my longdistance mentor without knowing it.”
He’s also keen to be doing a new play. “There’s nothing like it – you just don’t know. It’s new ground, you’re got to be courageous, maybe you’ll fall on your ass – but so what? In Cyrano de Bergerac, which I once did in Baltimore, he’s told, ‘Watch out for windmills, they can drag you down into the mire’, and he replies, ‘Yes, but it can also take you up among the stars’.”
And this particular windmill of a play has brought the star that is F Murray Abraham back to the London stage.
CV: F Murray Abraham
Born: 1939, Pittsburgh
Training: University of Texas, Austin
Theatre (Broadway): The Ritz (1975), Macbeth (1986), Angels in America (1994), A Month in the Country (1995), Triumph of Love (1997), Mauritius (2007), It’s Only a Play (2014)
Film: Amadeus (1984), The Name of the Rose (1986), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
TV: Law and Order (2010), The Good Wife (2011 2014), Homeland (2012 2017)
Awards: Oscar for best actor for Amadeus, 1985
Agent: Lisa Lieberman at Innovative
The Mentor is running at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, until September 2