F. Murray Abraham has about 30 minutes to talk before he has to go to rehearsal for Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which is set to open April 14 on the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
He’s not rushed. In fact, he talks slowly and deliberately, as if time has agreed to wait for him to conclude his discourse.Â The Oscar winner’s conversation is of both a personal and professional nature, with the gist being about the fun and joy he’s having bringing the character of Shylock to life on stage.
In Shakespeare’s play, Shylock is the controversial Jewish moneylender, who goes to court to demand the agreed-upon pound of flesh as payment from a Christian debtor in default. “Shylock represents every race that has been under the heel of another race,” explains the veteran performer. “I try to present him as a human being.”
Director Darko Tresnjak’s modern-dress Merchant was first produced by Theatre for a New Audience in New York in 2007 and revived earlier this year in New York, before going to engagements in Chicago, Boston and now Santa Monica.
Shylock is yet another memorable character Abraham has portrayed during his 50 years on stage and in television and film. Other roles include Roy Cohn (Angels in America), Omar Suarez (Scarface), Arnold Rothstein (Mobsters), Al Capone (Dillinger and Capone), Joseph Stalin (Children of the Revolution) and, of course, his Oscar-winning Antonio Salieri in Milos Forman’s film version of Amadeus.
“I love playing strong characters,” says Abraham. “Shylock is one of the greatest parts ever written.Â As an actor you have to test yourself with parts. This part is even more interesting given what our country is going through right now. People with money are treating everyone else like dirt. This is about class and justice. Why haven’t these bankers gone to jail for ruining the country?Â That’s why I love this play.”
Abraham’s enthusiasm is equally distributed among the classics. “I’m very familiar with classics,” he says. “It’s one of the things a serious actor has to know. I don’t think you can be called a great actor unless you’ve done the great parts.Â Why are they called the classics? What does it make you do as an actor? It’s hard.Â Some actors aren’t willing to do that work. It takes a lot to do a show eight times a week and be fresh. I happen to like it.Â I was born to do it.”
While Abraham, 71, is doing a modern version of the play, Al Pacino, his colleague and former co-star in Scarface, recently received accolades for his traditional portrayal of Shylock on Broadway.
Abraham, who went to see Pacino’s version, applauds the performance while accepting that comparisons are inevitable (Charles Isherwood in The New York Times, for example, called Abraham “the more rigorous classicist” of the two).Â “The comparisons, well, I think it’s mar-ve-lous,” says Abraham, elongating the adjective. “I like it because the public can judge for themselves. Al [Pacino] is a friend of mine. He is terrific. Shakespeare has never made a million a week until Al Pacino. It’s not a question of one is better than the other.”
Of course, Abraham agrees both versions are different in presentation, tone and texture.Â “Let me say that I prefer this version,” says Abraham. “I like whatever the concept is, as long as it works and communicates vividly and informs people.Â This version works because of what I was talking about previously, regarding the banking industry.”
Abraham admits that whatever play he’s doing at the moment is usually his favorite.Â “When I’m in the middle of one, that’s my favorite,” he says. “Macbeth was most difficult.Â I was glad to get rid of him. He was so evil. You become evil yourself.Â I’d prefer to play [Nick] Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Richard III was funny. Humor saves my soul.”
With five decades of acting behind him, Abraham considers himself lucky.Â He’s working. In fact, he says, he works a lot.Â “As I get older, I realize more and more that I’m really lucky. I know good actors who can’t get a job. Fame is nice if it guarantees you work, but there is 90% unemployment among actors. But I always work. I’m very lucky.”
While his stage and television career has kept him busy since he won the Academy Award, Abraham has not been seen a lot on the big screen. He insists it has nothing to do with the so-called Oscar curse.Â “The Oscar is the single most important event of my career. I have dined with kings, shared equal billing with my idols, lectured at Harvard and Columbia. If this is a jinx, I’ll take two,” is a quote he gave previously regarding the legend of the “curse.”
“Yes, I said that,” says Abraham. “My line now is, “˜the only people who say it’s a jinx are the people who don’t have one.’”
“F.” HIM or BEING ABRAHAM
For years people have speculated about what the “F” in F. Murray Abraham’s name stands for. Case in point, www.imdb.com (Internet Movie Data Base) claims that he was born Fahrid Murray Abraham.
Not true, he says. In fact, according to Abraham, the “F” really doesn’t mean anything.Â “I made it up. Actually, I did it in honor of my father, whose first name was Frederick. I don’t know how it got started but somebody wrote it and everybody ran with it. The “˜F’ does not stand for Fahrid. That’s not my name. The “˜F.’ is just an “˜F.’”
As reputations go in Hollywood, Abraham’s is for being an actor’s actor. He’s been called “intense” and “serious” and doesn’t shy away from either description.Â “I am intense,” says Abraham. “I’m both intense and serious when it comes to acting, but I’m so much more.”
Intense and serious may be two words to describe his acting, but personable and quick-witted are two — OK, three — words that express his personality. “I know I’m not good-looking,” he quips. “Well, my wife thinks I’m good-looking, but you walk into a room with Pacino or [Sean] Connery and you get the sense you’ve disappeared. The sexiest man in the world? They’ll never put me on the cover for that. However, I wish you could see me, I’m extremely good-looking.” That’s Abraham’s humor.
Having appeared in a Fruit of the Loom underwear commercial, this solid thespian wants it known his comedic side has not been put out to pasture.Â “I can be funny,” he insists. “The Ritz was funny. I played a flamboyant gay man ““ during a time when very few men were flamboyant. But I’m also a lot of fun when I’m not working. I’m really fun to be around. I love to laugh. We’d laugh all day if we hung out. I’m a good storyteller. I also tell jokes.”
For proof, he asks, “What is the difference betweenÂ comedy and tragedy? Tragedy is when it happens to you.” He’s here “˜til Thursday. Try the veal.
HE GOTTA HAVE ART
Although he is an A-list actor with an Oscar in tow, Abraham chooses not to live his life in the media. You won’t see him on a lot of talk shows or read about him incessantly in the tabloids.Â He doesn’t give a lot of interviews because he’s been burned. “Some people in this profession are only interested in gossip,” he says. “That’s not of any interest to me.”
When he’s not acting, what interests Abraham? The arts. He loves museums and visits them frequently. Also, he’s “dedicated to keeping my body in shape, so I work out,” he says. And “I want to sing light opera. I think it’s time to expand a little bit. I think I can do it. I have been working with a vocal coach, studying once a week, but I vocalize every day. Even if I don’t achieve it, my voice will get better.”
Abraham was born in Pittsburgh to Italian and Syrian parents but grew up in El Paso, Texas, where he attended Texas Western (now the University of Texas El Paso). He studied drama at the HB Studios in Greenwich Village in New York City.Â When he was living in LA’s Cheviot Hills, he met his wife, Kate Hannan, to whom he’s been married 50 years. The father of two, he takes care of his 97-year-old mother and now lives in Manhattan.
His acting career began at age 16 when he appeared in his high school production of James M. Barrie’s Echoes of the War – The Old Lady Shows Her Medals.Â He later won a $100 scholarship, which enabled him to go to college. Abraham said that without the money, he never would have been able to attend.Â “Because of the scholarship, I was given a chance to live my dream,” says Abraham, who has gone back to give commencement speeches.
He credits a teacher with turning his life around and opening up his world to possibilities.Â “Lucia P. Hutchins, my teacher at El Paso High School, is the one who saved my life,” says Abraham, who admits to being more than a handful as a kid. “She’s the one who said, “˜try this,’ meaning acting. I call it providence. I wish she could have been around to see my success. I think she’d be proud.”
GETTING IN FOCUS
Ever since he got bit by the acting bug in high school, Abraham has known what he wanted to do with his life.Â “I realized my life’s work early on,” he says. “Some people never discover. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. It’s like a calling. It’s a good feeling.”
Before “making it,” Abraham worked lots of odd jobs. He washed dishes, parked cars, tried to sell books, sold insurance, worked in a bowling alley and was even a cook at a pizza joint.Â But, he says, he never took his eye off the prize. “I always wanted to act,” he says. “Working, being on stage – it’s a great experience. To do what you love ““ what else is there?”
Although Abraham has experienced great success, he says he had never measured it.Â “Measuring my success, that’s a question I’ve never heard before. I suppose it has to do with work. If I’m working, I’m a success. If I’m doing something good, I’m a success. Currently I’m working on a project every great actor has done. I think if we all sat down in a room together, we’d have a lot to talk about.”
Abraham loves making a character his own. “There’s only one me in all of eternity,” he says. “ThereÂ was a time when I started out that I’d be imitative but those days are gone. Now, it’s all in my heart. It’s right here.”
For five decades Abraham has toiled at his craft ““ always consciously trying to improve. And he’s satisfied with the results. He chuckles when asked if he’s where he thinks he should be in his career. “We’re all where we should be,” says Abraham, who occasionally teaches acting for free. “I really believe that. I wish I had been here 40 years ago, though. But I feel good. The Oscar makes you feel a little relaxed. I’m not intense about fame. It was fun, now let’s move on.”
**All production photos by Gerry Goodstein
The Merchant of Venice plays Thur.-Fri., Apr. 14-15, 7:30 pm; Sat., Apr. 16, 2 and 7:30 pm; Sun., Apr. 17, 2 pm; Tue., Apr. 19, 7:30 pm; Wed., Apr. 20, 2 pm; Thur., Apr. 21, 7:30 pm; Fri., Apr. 22, 2 and 7:30 pm; Sat., Apr. 23, 2 and 7:30 pm; Sun., Apr 24, 2 pm. Tickets: $32-$135. The Broad Stage, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica; 310.434.3200 or www.thebroadstage.com/venice.