Walking in at the tail end of rehearsal to interview Academy Award-nominated actor Burt Young (Rocky, Chinatown, The Pope of Greenwich Village), starring this month in The Last Vig, a new comedy by David Varriale at the Zephyr Theatre, was like stepping into my dad’s old social club where many a film, tv and music star, played and lost at poker at one time or another. The giggle-inducing bunch of characters who greeted me, cast and crew, were as familiar as the feeling of being home in those hallowed gambling halls. “In my opinion, this play is like a living documentary. These are real street fellas.” said Burt of his fellow dramatis personae and about stepping into the role of aging wiseguy Big Joe trying to stay in the game. So I had to ask:
What about you, Burt? Are you a gambler?
No. I learned that I’m not good. I like to rig things. I don’t like to gamble.
This production is about the changing of the guard and it struck me just how personal it might be to you. You’ve been in this business a long time.
It’s been a grand trip. Really no quicksand. A grand trip. I have had pleasure on every corner, whether it be theater or film. The personalities are always nice. Actors, performers are very nice people. They all try. And that’s important – to try. You know? I’ve seen a lot of changes. I think for the better. I think people’s souls are more identifiable inside the processes of today.
What’s your most honest performance? What’s your way in?
Those are sweet questions. But I think I can say, I’m always honest with myself and the play or movie that I’m working on. That’s the only thing I’ve got as a performer. I give the audience all my honesty. I just can’t cheat. I could cheat at poker with your father. But I can’t cheat with the work. Sometimes I’ve written the words. Here I’m doing words that someone else has composed. It makes you feel bright. Other times, you feel almost like it’s a volcano. You’re free to explore the left or the right field. I like that. I always liked exploration and I still do. When I work I get as close to sleep as possible, to relax, so the story leaps off the page for me. Then I put the components together with earnestness. But always the performance for me, the base of the work, is sincerity and imagination.
How you feel about being on stage right now in a small house?
I’m scared again. Honestly, first the lines. I’m on every page of this damn thing… the lines, battling them and trying to say them honestly enough so that I can help others to do their stuff. It will work, but at the moment I’m nervous.
How do you feel about this character?
Too close to home. He’s a strong man. He’s a street guy, which I would know. Which I was. The play really could be lifted from the corner of Mulberry Street to Washington D.C. The author who wrote this is very gifted in my opinion.
Are you satisfied with your career?
No. I’ve never been satisfied with anything. I used to be a prize fighter. I did exhibitions with Muhammad Ali. We became fast friends and I went through his training camp when he was fighting Holmes. I worked out with him all the time. I still I have a heavy bag in my bedroom. And I’m a Marine. From 1956-1959 they threw me around from place to place. Okinawa, Japan, Taiwan. I was one of those kids; I didn’t march good but I fought great. I still do. So no, it’s not over until it’s over. Someday. But I need more. Not that I’m unhappy. But I just need the titillation [of the craft] in a large way.
What’s the difference between you the street guy, the Marine, and the man, the actor you are today?
I think of myself at that age. There were shades and colors that weren’t there. Things that guy couldn’t receive. And quests. Struggling for a breath of who he was and who he belonged to. [Now] I think I belong to this business.
That’s deep. I more often hear people say, “This business is for me.”
I’m a deep son of a gun… And, well, I’ve had a lucky chip.
As all those people, what’s it like being vulnerable and “exposed”?
All along the way, as a kid, as a marine, as a prize fighter, I tried to hide all the tension and fear. But as an actor I learned to get rid of the barriers. I’d get told, “We want you exposed. We want you for our good. That’s a whole different ballgame. Same seeds of travel but different ballgame. Mostly, I love to share. When I work, I’m my most open. I can roll back the veneer and breath. I also sort of know what’s good for the author, what’s good for the audience and what I can do. I’m very confident.
That takes intelligence.
You’re right. And by the way, I’d like to meet your father. Ask him to come to the play.