F. Murray Abraham won an Oscar for his leading role in the 1984 film “Amadeus.” The classically trained actor joins Diane to talk about his four decades of performing on the big screen, small screen and live on stage.

Guests

  • F. Murray Abraham Academy Award-winning actor

Transcript

  • 10:06:56

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Actor F. Murray Abraham took audiences by storm for his performance in the 1984 film "Amadeus." The next year Abraham took home an Academy Award for best actor. Since winning the Oscar, Abraham has spent less time in Hollywood on the big screen and more in New York on stage. His recent performance as Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" was described by the New York Review of Books as "among the great performances of our time."

  • 10:07:36

    MS. DIANE REHMF. Murray Abraham joins me in the studio to talk about four decades in the movies, on television, and on stage, and throughout the hour we'll welcome your questions and comments. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. F. Murray Abraham, welcome to you.

  • 10:08:08

    MR. F. MURRAY ABRAHAMThank you.

  • 10:08:10

    REHMThat F is really interesting to me. What does it stand for, and why do you use it?

  • 10:08:18

    ABRAHAMWell, I'll tell you. The idea that Murray Abraham just doesn't seem to say anything. It just is another name, so I thought I'd frame it. The F is for my father, Frederick. The Arabs called me Farid, and the Italians call me Federico. But it's Frederick. Don't believe the Internet. It's not true.

  • 10:08:42

    REHMYou know, it's interesting because I think a great many people have been under the impression that you are Jewish. In fact, you are not Jewish, but half Arab -- that is Syrian -- and half Italian.

  • 10:09:00

    ABRAHAMYes. Yes, ma'am.

  • 10:09:03

    REHMTell us about your parents, when they came to this country.

  • 10:09:08

    ABRAHAMI'm first generation American.

  • 10:09:09

    REHMSo am I.

  • 10:09:10

    ABRAHAMYes. And it was just sort of those -- I don't know how they get together, how they met, but it was in Pittsburgh, in the Pittsburgh area. My mother was one of 14 children. I was there. I came here from there. I had done a concert with the Pittsburgh symphony, Maestro Honeck, and I must have 250 cousins in the Pittsburgh area.

  • 10:09:35

    REHMIsn't that wonderful?

  • 10:09:36

    ABRAHAMYeah.

  • 10:09:36

    REHMI, too -- I have this whole huge family here in Washington which is where my father's family, which was of nine children, settled. So you and I have a great deal in common. But you are here in D.C. to receive an award from the Shakespeare Theater. Talk about the award and what it means to you.

  • 10:10:01

    ABRAHAMWell, as far as I'm concerned, everyone should get an award. I think it's a good thing. I think it's like a pat on the back, and it's a congratulations. But it's also an encouragement to continue. It's not a retirement thing. It isn't a gold watch and get out of here, but this year I'm getting quite a few awards. I get the impression people think, well, he's an old guy, let's just give him award. Maybe it'll shut him up for a while.

  • 10:10:23

    REHMYou are not an old guy. And you are clearly still very much enjoying yourself.

  • 10:10:29

    ABRAHAMYes, I am. One of the reasons, I suppose, is that I've begun to realize how lucky I am. I think that anyone who doesn't count luck in their lives is a fool. I've been very lucky, and I think a 50-year marriage is a very lucky thing.

  • 10:10:46

    REHMAnd...

  • 10:10:47

    ABRAHAMWe celebrated it this year. But these awards are meaningful. And there was a time when I used to sneer at them. I'd go, oh, it's an award. But it's a good thing. It's a chance for people to gather and get together and say, you did good. Now, continue to do good.

  • 10:11:00

    REHMI would think in your case it's especially good considering the kind of start you had in life in El Paso, Texas. Can you talk about that?

  • 10:11:15

    ABRAHAMWell, it was during the '50s. I'm from El Paso. It's a border town, border of Juarez, Mexico, and it's where the Pachucos began, was along those borders. They were the precursors of the Crips and the Bloods. We were not that violent. We didn't have that kind of fire power. There were gang wars and fights, but no one was ever killed in any fight I was involved in. You'd get hurt, you know, but there was no -- it was a dead end as far as I was concerned. I mean, I was a hoodlum.

  • 10:11:46

    ABRAHAMAnd, you know, it was in high school, this drama teacher, Lucia P. Hutchins -- God rest her soul -- she saw something in me that I had no idea was there. Literature was not part of my life. We were blue collar, steel workers, mechanics -- my father was a mechanic -- coal miners. It was an extraordinary -- I think it was the hand of God. I don't know how else to describe it, what she saw, but, as soon as I stepped on the stage, it changed my life.

  • 10:12:17

    REHMAnd what did you step on the stage to do that very day?

  • 10:12:23

    ABRAHAMI was doing the great speech from "Julius Caesar," but it was a wonderful introduction to the theater. And then we did a play by J.M. Barrie, and we went to -- I won a state championship contest, and with it came a scholarship. And that's -- otherwise I would never have gone to college. I probably would have ended up in jail.

  • 10:12:48

    REHMHow did your parents feel about this penchant toward acting?

  • 10:12:53

    ABRAHAMIt was the biggest nightmare of my father's life. He really didn't want that at all.

  • 10:12:57

    REHMReally?

  • 10:12:58

    ABRAHAMReally. No. No.

  • 10:12:59

    REHMTried to discourage you?

  • 10:13:01

    ABRAHAMOh, well, yeah. We can say it that way. Yeah.

  • 10:13:04

    REHMWhat does that mean? How far did he go?

  • 10:13:07

    ABRAHAMWell, it was a question of either doing it his way or leaving, so I left. I just couldn't -- I couldn't live without the theater. And he wasn't angry about it, nasty about it at all. He just said, you know, you have to earn your own keep, which was the right thing to do. And I went to L.A., and I started to earn my own keep.

  • 10:13:27

    REHMHow?

  • 10:13:29

    ABRAHAMWell, I parked cars for a while.

  • 10:13:30

    REHMI thought so. I thought so. Nobody says, welcome, you're going to be our new star.

  • 10:13:38

    ABRAHAMWhat a surprise that is every time it happens.

  • 10:13:40

    REHMYeah. Right. So you parked cars?

  • 10:13:43

    ABRAHAMParked cars and I worked backstage at Royce Hall and met my wife, married and then got a job -- my first professional play was Ray Bradbury, rest his soul, wonderful man, by the way. We remained friends for all these years till he recently passed away. But it was "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit." We ran for about seven or eight months, and I decided I wanted to go to New York to learn how to really learn how to be an actor, and, as soon as the show closed, we -- my wife and I went to New York.

  • 10:14:15

    REHMAnd to what kind of school, to what kind of instruction?

  • 10:14:22

    ABRAHAMIt was with Uta Hagen downtown in a village, and one of the reasons was she was so good. But it was cheap. She was really very fair about charging a fee that people could afford, and I studied with her for about a year.

  • 10:14:39

    REHMHow many others were in that class? Do you recall?

  • 10:14:43

    ABRAHAMI think it was usually about 20 to 25 students in the class, but no one that became super prominent from the class that I know of. But the thing about studying is, if you can connect with a teacher, it's like -- I suppose Brando's connection with Stella Adler was so important to him, that giant talent. But I'm grateful for her. But I'll tell you the danger of a powerful teacher.

  • 10:15:17

    ABRAHAMThe danger is that they're very charismatic, and, if you don't watch out, you will try to give them what they want rather than discovering yourself, your own talent. So the longer I studied with Ms. Hagen, the worse I got because I kept trying to please her, and I wasn't tapping into, you know, my own natural instinct. And by the end of the year, she threw me out of class.

  • 10:15:40

    REHMShe threw you out?

  • 10:15:42

    ABRAHAMYes, she did. And she was right because she saw what was happening. I was very good at the beginning of the class, and, after a year, I was terrible.

  • 10:15:49

    REHMDid you clash with her?

  • 10:15:51

    ABRAHAMNo. You don't clash with Miss Hagen. Oh, no. I just -- she just was very -- she was being impatient finally because she saw that I was losing what I had. But I'm saying this to students now. Be careful of that kind of thing.

  • 10:16:06

    REHMBut what do you get from a theatrical teacher?

  • 10:16:14

    ABRAHAMSomeone who can help you to really discover yourself, find out your own strengths through the techniques that they teach. Each teacher is quite distinct, quite different, and all you have to do is find someone with whom you communicate. And I learned a lot from her, but I was not careful with myself. But a good teacher will help you, as I say, to discover who you are.

  • 10:16:42

    REHMAnd what was your wife doing at the time?

  • 10:16:45

    ABRAHAMWell, she was supporting us.

  • 10:16:47

    REHMShe was doing the income bringing and thereby helping to pay for what you wanted to do.

  • 10:16:58

    ABRAHAMShe was the breadwinner. It's as simple as that. Now, I am.

  • 10:17:03

    REHMBut she believed in you.

  • 10:17:05

    ABRAHAMYeah. She never doubted me, ever. It was -- I don't know how people make it on their own. I couldn't have. I just don't think I could have. I know I couldn't have without her.

  • 10:17:17

    REHMWhat about children?

  • 10:17:19

    ABRAHAMYeah. I've got two wonderful kids, and a granddaughter.

  • 10:17:23

    REHMSo did the children come while you were still studying, or after?

  • 10:17:29

    ABRAHAMNo, after. I began, I guess, early on, through commercials and stuff like that to make a living, and then my wife was able to stay home and take care of the kids. But the thing that happened after I won the Academy Award was that they were in their teens, and I -- I apologized to them for the hard times when we didn't have anything. I said, now, we're going to make a little money, and it's going to make it a lot easier. And they both said, it didn't seem like hard times to us.

  • 10:17:58

    REHMIsn't that wonderful?

  • 10:17:59

    ABRAHAMThat was a real revelation.

  • 10:18:00

    REHMWow.

  • 10:18:01

    ABRAHAMYeah. The innocence of the children, it was a great thing to discover.

  • 10:18:06

    REHMAnd we're going to talk more about that Academy Award and the film for which F. Murray Abraham won it, "Amadeus," which I had the pleasure -- total joy of rewatching over the weekend. In the meantime, I do invite your calls, 800-433-8850. Stay with us.

  • 10:20:04

    REHMAnd welcome back. F. Murray Abraham is with me in the studio. He's here in Washington to receive an award from the Shakespeare Theater. He has had so many good roles. We've had an email from Thomas who said, "Could F. Murray Abraham please talk about the creation of his role in both the play and movie version on "The Ritz?"

  • 10:20:39

    ABRAHAMOh, "The Ritz," that was a great experience, really, a great experience. It was a watershed in the gay world because no one had ever considered making a success out of a play in a gay bath or examining -- in the play, which was a farce. It's still a pretty good movie, too. But in the play -- it's a big cast. Jerry Stiller -- that's where I met Jerry Stiller. The sanest person in the play was the character I played. His name was Chris.

  • 10:21:16

    ABRAHAMAnd he was an outrageous homosexual. In those days, to be completely out and very (word?) was very rare and dangerous. But he was gay and proud, and, in fact, he was the healthiest -- I think the healthiest -- man in the whole play. That was a big watershed, too, by the way. But to prepare for it, the guys -- most of the creative staff were gay, the writer, the director, good friends of mine. And I didn't know that world at all. And in those days, the gay bars...

  • 10:21:50

    REHMWhat year?

  • 10:21:51

    ABRAHAMOh, gosh, 1912, I think it was. Let me -- I don't know. It was in the '70s, wasn't it?

  • 10:21:57

    REHMOK.

  • 10:21:57

    ABRAHAMYeah.

  • 10:21:58

    REHMAll right.

  • 10:21:59

    ABRAHAMBut the gay bars were on the west side of town, one after another, and there were things going on in those bars. They said, Murray, you got to come and see this world. And it was -- I mean, it was outrageous, the stuff you take for granted now that we see even on television. This was an amazing world. Things happening on the bar -- and I'm not going to go into it. But the point is, when I started to go in the bathroom and someone grabbed me, says, where are you going, Murray?

  • 10:22:30

    ABRAHAMI said, well, I have to go to the bathroom. He says, don't go in the bathroom. If you have to pee, go out in the street. It's safe out there. I thought, what's going on in the bathroom? Anyway, this was an introduction to a world that we brought out on stage, nothing salacious, but it was an introduction to the world that Bette Midler was a part of, by the way. It took place in the same gay baths where she used to perform.

  • 10:22:57

    REHMInteresting. Now, tell me, if you can, describe for me the difference in feeling and in gesture and in power displayed from being on the stage in live production and being filmed for a movie.

  • 10:23:22

    ABRAHAMIt's that the audience makes the difference. I sincerely believe that there's providence in the fall of the sparrow. I believe if, in an audience, if even one of those people is not there, it's going to be a different experience. I believe each of us counts and makes a difference. And I need that energy from them. I feel it. I sense it. I elicit it because my search for what I think is the truth is their search as well. And I think that's urgent, particularly these days.

  • 10:23:58

    ABRAHAMI don't see that there's much of an exchange between people anymore. And that's as primitive as they come. It's a cave mentality. People gather in a room. They turn the lights down. It's artificial lighting, like it was in a cave, you know, a couple thousand years ago, more than that. The point is, it's a primitive need, this communication with another human being. And this search that we go through -- it's very important to me, by the way -- is a gathered search, and it reminds us of our common humanity.

  • 10:24:31

    REHMSo, what happens then when you're making a movie?

  • 10:24:37

    ABRAHAMWell, I try to locate that same sense of truth. But it becomes much more technical, and consequently it can be a great experience. But it's distinct. It's quite different in as much as you're playing for a camera. And it's really difficult to explain because there are so many great film performances. But I need to return to the theater to reassure myself that what I'm doing is right and the feedback I get from the audience has nothing filtered between them and me. There's no un-sweetening the experience.

  • 10:25:21

    REHMBut, you know, watching, as I told you, "Amadeus" again over the weekend, those opening scenes where Salieri is talking with the priest who is trying to elicit a confession or some request for redemption, it felt as though you were talking to me.

  • 10:25:52

    ABRAHAMOh, good.

  • 10:25:53

    REHMIt felt very, very direct. The make-up that they had on you in those opening scenes, as opposed to later in the film where you, as a younger Salieri, first lay eyes on that mischievous Mozart crawling under the table. I mean, you were absolutely dumbfounded. That film brought you an Academy Award. What did the making of that film do for you prior to the Academy Award? You almost didn't get that role.

  • 10:26:43

    ABRAHAMYeah. Yeah, it's as mysterious, I suppose, as that teacher, that drama teacher in high school because Milos didn't know me, and I wasn't...

  • 10:26:55

    REHMMilos Forman.

  • 10:26:56

    ABRAHAMMilos Forman, at all. And it's just a mystery. Again, I think it's providence, I really mean it. It's great material, and I can't tell -- you name a famous actor from the day, and they wanted that role. And they were guaranteed box office. But, I mean, everyone, some of them very famous came to audition because they wanted the role. And Milos just wanted someone, something else, and it was me. God knows how.

  • 10:27:27

    REHMBut he put off his decision to appoint where you thought you weren't going to get the role.

  • 10:27:36

    ABRAHAMYeah. It wasn't just up to him. He said he wanted me, but the writer and producer had to agree. And the negotiation was so strict -- Zaentz was pretty tough about what he wanted -- that I had to take "Scarface" because it was offered to me, and they couldn't wait any longer. So I said, look, I got a family to feed. You know, if you can't come up with it, I really have to do this. And besides, I never expected to get it. This is written by a Brit for Brits. It was a very long shot. It was out of the question, and I just -- you know, I did my best.

  • 10:28:11

    ABRAHAMI gave obviously a good audition for him on camera, and then I just dismissed it. I really did. And then I started to work on De Palma's film, "Scarface." And while I was working on "Scarface," I was told that I got the role of Salieri. So then, because Zaentz waited so long and negotiated so hard, I got no residuals from it. By the way, that's one of the things he negotiated away, was that I had to fly back and forth from Prague to Hollywood to shoot those two films at the same time.

  • 10:28:44

    REHMWow.

  • 10:28:45

    ABRAHAMWell, it's not as hard as you think. The one -- it was kind of -- one was a vacation from the other. I don't want to pat myself on the back too much.

  • 10:28:51

    REHMWhich was which? Which was which?

  • 10:28:54

    ABRAHAMReally, really, because the material, it was very good in both films, so I could just study on the plane when I was going to Hollywood. And then I'd study the other script on the way back to Prague. I think I traveled four times back and forth. It was funny. If you look carefully, you will see a couple of the same gestures from those two films, but you have to look carefully.

  • 10:29:18

    REHMI want to hear the last portion of the movie "Amadeus" where you are speaking.

  • 10:29:30

    ABRAHAMYou merciful God. He destroyed His own beloved rather than let a mediocrity share in the smallest part of his glory. He killed Mozart and kept me alive to torture, 32 years of torture, 32 years of slowly watching myself become extinct, my music growing fainter, all the time fainter till no one plays it at all.

  • 10:30:12

    ABRAHAMWow, that's a long time ago.

  • 10:30:14

    REHMHow much truth do you think there was in that film, the relationship between Salieri and Mozart?

  • 10:30:27

    ABRAHAMWell, that's the beauty of this writing. The truth is in the writing, not in the history, I think, although there's a lot of historical accuracy. Peter Shaffer was a music historian. So he knew exactly what he was talking about. That stuff about the wild laughter and the scatology, that's all legitimate, by the way.

  • 10:30:49

    ABRAHAMBut as far as their rivalry, I'm not sure about that. I do know that Salieri was a very good man and devoted to the church, and he established funds. He was very successful, very famous and rich. And he set up these funds for orphans and for poverty stricken widows of musicians. He was a good man.

  • 10:31:12

    REHMBut...

  • 10:31:12

    ABRAHAMI feel very defensive about Salieri.

  • 10:31:14

    REHMBut in his heart, the sin of envy was all-consuming.

  • 10:31:24

    ABRAHAMYes. Yes. I imagine that there was something of that in anyone, I think, any musician. This film communicates really powerfully with musicians, by the way, continues to. But that kind of genius, I suppose it's got to inspire either an envy, and also a kind of an anger, that one person was endowed with such, such huge talents.

  • 10:31:53

    REHMThat one scene where Salieri has written a little entrance for Mozart -- and the emperor plays it, which sounds just awful -- and then Mozart sits down and creates all kinds of variations to it. And Salieri stands back and sees that happen.

  • 10:32:18

    ABRAHAMYes.

  • 10:32:19

    REHMYou cannot help but sympathize with Salieri...

  • 10:32:24

    ABRAHAMIt's good.

  • 10:32:24

    REHM...as this crazy kid, I mean, who is just almost -- we have to wonder -- out of his mind with genius, simply takes it and runs.

  • 10:32:38

    ABRAHAMYes, yes. That film really communicates with so many people. I guess they all have felt that.

  • 10:32:45

    REHMF. Murray Abraham, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have some callers waiting. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850, to Greensboro, N.C. Good morning, Jay, you're on the air.

  • 10:33:06

    JAYHi, good morning.

  • 10:33:07

    REHMHi there.

  • 10:33:08

    JAYHi. I wanted to pass on just such a wonderful memory of F. Murray Abraham when I worked and lived in New York as a carpenter for the New York Shakespeare Festival in the Public Theater. Yeah, it was in 1984, 1985 and right after you had been nominated for an Oscar. We gave you a call down at the shop and just wished you well, and we were backing you 100 percent. And then shortly after you won the Oscar, you and, I believe, it was your son decided to give us a visit.

  • 10:33:49

    JAYAnd you came rolling into our shop there and with a brown paper bag, and he pulls out the Oscar. He puts it on the table.

  • 10:34:00

    JAYAnd all the guys are just flipping out.

  • 10:34:02

    REHMGaga.

  • 10:34:04

    ABRAHAMWho is this?

  • 10:34:05

    JAYAnd he -- you know, we just appreciated that so much because...

  • 10:34:10

    REHMJay, tell us your -- Jay, tell us your last name. Murray would like to know.

  • 10:34:15

    JAYOh, it's Jay Jones.

  • 10:34:16

    ABRAHAMHow are you, man? Thanks.

  • 10:34:18

    JAYGood. Good, good. You had actually -- we worked together on "The Golem" up in the park.

  • 10:34:24

    ABRAHAMUh-huh.

  • 10:34:24

    JAYAnd you knew that I lived down in the East Village, and I was -- oh, gosh, I was young and, you know, starving and -- but happy as I could be working on shows. You would give a lift downtown, drop me off, so I didn't have to take the subway.

  • 10:34:41

    REHMOh, that's lovely. Good memories, Jay. Thanks for calling.

  • 10:34:45

    ABRAHAMThank you. Thank you.

  • 10:34:48

    REHMHere's an email from Debbie in Rockville, Md., who says, "I had the good fortune of seeing Mr. Abraham in the role of Cyrano de Bergerac at CenterStage in Baltimore many years ago. It was one of the most transporting experiences I've ever had at the theater. Whenever I hear the word panache, I think of his wonderful and heartbreaking performance. He will always be one of my favorite actors."

  • 10:35:23

    ABRAHAMOh, what a wonderful compliment. That's another terrific memory. That was a wonderful production. Thank you for that lovely reminder.

  • 10:35:34

    REHMWhat was so wonderful about it?

  • 10:35:37

    ABRAHAMWell, it's always the literature, isn't it? It's always the material. You can't -- I mean, transcend any -- what am I trying to say? If you've got material like that, it's a sin if you can't soar with it. And that's beautiful stuff, the Burgess translation. It's just what every actor wants, is the chance to do everything he's capable of doing. You could use -- in material like that, you can use a three-octave register.

  • 10:36:10

    ABRAHAMI mean, if you tried that with a soap opera, it'd be ridiculous -- nothing wrong with soap operas. I've done them. I'll do them again if I have to. The point is, this encourages you to do everything physically, emotionally, technically. Shakespeare does the same thing. He demands the best. And when you rise to that occasion, the audience goes with you.

  • 10:36:32

    REHMHow do you take care of your voice?

  • 10:36:36

    ABRAHAMI work out every day. It's very important.

  • 10:36:41

    REHMHow do you work out?

  • 10:36:42

    ABRAHAMI have about a 45-minute vocal warm up that I do each day. I sing. I do scales. And then I do my physical workout as well. That's important. But the most important thing, of course, is not forgetting the joy. I enjoy the workout. It's not a chore. And I think that's part of the keys to any kind of success is that kind of pleasure in this life 'cause these days it's hard to not be glum about what's happening in the world. Anyhow, I love -- I have a passion for my work.

  • 10:37:23

    REHMF. Murray Abraham and, when we come back, more of your calls, comments and questions. I look forward to speaking with you.

  • 10:40:04

    REHMAnd if you've just joined us, F. Murray Abraham is here. He's in Washington to receive an award from the Shakespeare Theater. They have called his work unparalleled. Of course, he has played Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice." He has performed in "Uncle Vanya," "King Lear," "Oedipus Rex" and "Waiting for Godot," among others. But we have an email here for you from Peg, and it's a question about "Amadeus." "Why did the actor who played "Amadeus" seem to disappear afterwards? I thought he would blossom into other screen roles."

  • 10:41:01

    ABRAHAMOh, he's a good actor. That was a good performance. He is now a very successful producer. He did "Spring Awakening" among other things, and he directs. He's decided that's the path he wants to take. He did not disappear, and, in fact, he lives across the street from me in Manhattan. Isn't that an amazing coincidence?

  • 10:41:20

    REHMIsn't that something? Well, did you deliberately move to the theater following "Scarface" and "Amadeus?" How many other films did you do?

  • 10:41:33

    ABRAHAMOh, well, I have to do the films to support the theater habit. I do a lot of work in Italy.

  • 10:41:41

    REHMDo you speak Italian?

  • 10:41:42

    ABRAHAMYes, I speak some Italian and Spanish, but it's fortunate for me that films that we do there are all in English. And consequently I make a very good living, and I'm treated like a prince. It's a pleasure.

  • 10:41:54

    REHMI'm glad. I'm glad. All right.

  • 10:41:57

    ABRAHAMBut the theater's still wear I live.

  • 10:41:59

    REHMTo Wendy in Baltimore, Md. Good morning, you're on the air.

  • 10:42:04

    WENDYHi, I wanted to just remind you that I paid you a visit because George Alderman told me I should after I was so taken by you at Centerstage playing Cyrano. It was one of the best performances I'd ever seen, and I still remember it fondly.

  • 10:42:22

    ABRAHAMThat's a long time ago. Thank you very much. I remember it, too.

  • 10:42:25

    REHMI'll bet you do. All right. To Joe in Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning.

  • 10:42:32

    JOEGood morning, Diane, and hello, Mr. Abraham.

  • 10:42:36

    ABRAHAMHello.

  • 10:42:37

    JOEI have a question. We've enjoyed you in all your parts, but what -- now I'm going to take you to the other end of the spectrum. In "Thirteen Ghosts," did you have to watch the original because, of course, it wouldn't play today?

  • 10:42:56

    ABRAHAMNo. I never saw the original. But I had a good time on that one. We almost froze to death doing it, but it pays a lot of bills. No apologies. I had a good time.

  • 10:43:09

    REHMGood, I'm glad. Thanks for calling, Joe. You recently played Shylock in "Merchant of Venice" to real critical acclaim. Describe your approach to Shylock.

  • 10:43:27

    ABRAHAMIt's the same approach I do for all my work. I really, really try to find in myself what that character is about. It's a dangerous trip to take, by the way, if you're an actor because it tends to reveal to you things about yourself that you don't want to see. If you're going to play someone who is envious, if you're going to play someone who is looking for revenge, you really must examine that in yourself. And sometimes you'll find areas of yourself that are just not very pretty.

  • 10:44:00

    ABRAHAMHe hath disgraced me. And what is his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses? Revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard. But I will better the instruction.

  • 10:44:39

    REHMWhy does that make you so emotional?

  • 10:44:42

    ABRAHAMBecause I think that revenge is such a dead end. It's a snake eating its own tail, and it's what's driving so much of this -- the war and the anger and the misery in this world. It's just, like, so vengeful, it makes me weep. I mean, what's happening now with our country? We have two wars, and no one's discussing it.

  • 10:45:12

    ABRAHAMMy two brothers are dead in military cemeteries because of -- and these men and women are coming back in pieces, and no one's caring for them. I don't understand our country. We have money for war but not for repairing the war? We have money for war but not for hospitals and schools and education, and that makes me weep.

  • 10:45:41

    REHMSo that play brings out all of that in you.

  • 10:45:47

    ABRAHAMYes, ma'am. That's the kind of thing I try to make clear to my students -- I teach from time to time -- that that's where you have to go if you're going to do a great performance. You have to think in those terms, big terms, in terms that will reach everyone in the audience on their level because, when I find the truth, they will find it in themselves as well. And even if we don't -- it's a mutual search, and if we don't find it, the search is a good thing. It's important because it gathers us, and it reminds us of our common humanity.

  • 10:46:29

    REHMYou have such a recognizable face. Do people, when they see you, treat you like a star? Do they jump up and down? Do they fawn all over you? What happens?

  • 10:46:45

    ABRAHAMNo, they don't. And I don't consider myself a star. I know stars. I mean, Pacino's a star. Sean Connery, you should walk into a restaurant with him. Everybody disappears. There's Sean, and everybody just, like, vanishes. No, no, I'm not the star. And as far as being recognizable, it's more people saying, you're -- you were -- what was that wonderful story that Jack Lemmon told about a woman who stopped him on the street and said, you're, uh, you're, uh, don't tell me. Don't tell me. You're, uh, and he said, Jack Lemmon. She said, no.

  • 10:47:21

    REHMThat's wonderful. That's wonderful. Let's go to Tampa, Fla. Good morning, Denise.

  • 10:47:29

    DENISEGood morning, Ms. Rehm, and to you, sir. I'm just making a quick comment about being in Prague a few years after the movie and seeing some of the scenes of the buildings, the etched stonework, which is very unusual, and also the archway which is very prominent. I think he walked in the snow through that, and the plague statues. So I thought it'd be very nice, anybody's going to Prague, especially look out for that sort of thing.

  • 10:47:55

    DENISEAnd also, I might add, I was there on the 21st anniversary of the Russian invasion which was 21st of August 1989. When I went down Wenceslas Square the day before I left, I was looking for a box of tissues in a pharmacy which was unobtainable. And there was a demonstration right at the end, anti-Russian, and the military came down with a bus and riot gear, and they had a very ancient movie camera.

  • 10:48:21

    DENISEAnd I was about to take the last frame on my film, and a very high looking military man tapped me on the shoulder. I thought, well, it's time for me to get back 'cause I found my way in the metro on the bus. And the more I walked up the square, the more I looked back, and I thought this is the change. And then the loudspeakers came on and said everybody had to leave. Well, I don't speak Czech, but it was quite clear.

  • 10:48:42

    DENISEAnd everybody dispersed and half dropped off, you know, half of this square which is really a long avenue. And when I got to the top, there was about one car. I think it might have been BBC 'cause years later they said they were there as well. And the military were lining the metro. But there were three young teenage girls who started to run up the pavement beside me on the walkway, and the military at the top with the tanks, they came down with their batons, you know.

  • 10:49:09

    DENISEAnd I had my little tourist card in my hand ready. I said, tourist, and froze. Well, they didn't really do very much, but it was very clear that this was going to be a change. I was very tempted when Madeleine Albright's -- Secretary Albright was on your program. I often wondered if (unintelligible) was somewhere looking out from some building there who later became president. So thank you very much for taking my call. It's a very interesting program.

  • 10:49:34

    REHMGood to have you. Any comment, Murray?

  • 10:49:36

    ABRAHAMYes. The comment is that, in spite of that kind of suppression and repression, the Czech people are extraordinary, wonderful feeling for life and exuberance and a welcoming temperament. I made friends with a great artist there, a young man. And he needed freedom so desperately from that system that he tried to escape, and he was arrested. And when he was in the prison, he broke his eyeglasses and slit his wrists because he couldn't bear it. And they finally released him. And he is now a great artist.

  • 10:50:19

    REHMF. Murray Abraham, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I want to take you back to Shylock because clearly it moved you so to hear your own voice in that. How did you prepare for that role?

  • 10:50:44

    ABRAHAMIt's one of the great roles. And any actor who is not familiar with a great role is not doing his homework, her homework because you must be aware of the theatrical canon, and that's one of the speeches that I was very familiar with. And you have to be. How else are you going to play Lear when the time comes? How else are you going to play Richard, Riago or Othello? You have to know about it. Even if you're not going to play those roles, you should know the speeches. I'm never -- I'm not a Hamlet, but I certainly know his speeches, some of them. But this one I've always loved.

  • 10:51:21

    ABRAHAMA man who stands up alone to society and says, this is what I demand, I demand justice, absolutely, that -- I think everyone -- it resonates with everyone. I think at the time we were going through that terrible banking crisis, and none of those bums was ever put into jail, none of them. In fact, they made more money. And so I was speaking about that as Shylock. I demand justice. Everyone understands that. Didn't get it though, did he?

  • 10:51:59

    REHMBut you also went back to learning about the Jews in England during the 13th century.

  • 10:52:04

    ABRAHAMOh, yeah. Yeah, there's quite a bit of -- James Shapiro has written some books about it, and he was our mentor on that project. He's probably the leading "Merchant of Venice" scholar in the world. He's American, and he's -- he was our mentor, our dramaturg.

  • 10:52:23

    REHMSo to help you prepare, you must understand the history, the context. You're not simply getting on the stage to be that person without knowing where that person comes from.

  • 10:52:41

    ABRAHAMIn fact, I had been to Venice many times, and I had visited the ghetto. And that's where it took place. And there's a very serious bunch of Jews there who are maintaining that place, you know, letting you know that this is where it happened. It was -- the word ghetto is Italian, and that's where it started. And being in the presence of that kind of history also affects you. At least it affects me.

  • 10:53:04

    REHMTo Flower Mountain, Texas. Good morning, Louis.

  • 10:53:09

    LOUISGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 10:53:11

    REHMSurely.

  • 10:53:12

    LOUISI am a conductor here in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. And as much as I have enjoyed various roles that you've played, Mr. Abraham, from Ru'afo in Star Trek to "The Name of the Rose," all that sort of stuff, I really want to -- I've been fascinated with the "Amadeus" movie for many, many years since I was an undergraduate. And I wanted to know what kind of training you received in preparation for the role -- the scenes where you conducted an orchestra and the opera that you conducted.

  • 10:53:49

    ABRAHAMI -- that's true. I wanted to work with someone who was completely different from the person that Tom studied for.

  • 10:54:01

    REHMTom Hulce.

  • 10:54:02

    ABRAHAMTom Hulce. I wanted -- he was much freer. He was conducting with the downbeat on an upstroke of his arm. And I insisted on it being very regimented and very much -- oh, I guess, regimented is the word -- I mean, absolutely precise and restricted. And I went to a -- I was living in Brooklyn at the time.

  • 10:54:29

    ABRAHAMAnd I went to the music conductor -- I'm sorry, I'm trying to remember his name, and I can't. But he was in charge of the music department at Brooklyn College, and he is the one who helped me. And I'm sorry to say I can't remember his name. Shame on me. But that's what I wanted. I want something very precise and unimaginative. And I think that came across, but thank you for asking.

  • 10:54:51

    REHMAnd Hulce portrayed Mozart much more freely in the conducting of each of those operas. He became the star in and of himself. And yours was far more restrained.

  • 10:55:06

    ABRAHAMYes.

  • 10:55:06

    REHMFar more restrained. You and he did not spend very much time together off the set. How come?

  • 10:55:16

    ABRAHAMI decided that Salieri would not be -- would not mingle with society at all, except on a professional basis. So they were all staying in a very modern hotel -- I think the InterConti -- and I was staying in a very, very old, old hotel, alone. I kept away from the company for about six months. It was a little lonely, but it fed the character. He was -- he's a solitary man. It's a choice I had made. And it -- as I say, I really love to have a good time, and I was pretty lonely. But it was...

  • 10:55:48

    REHMYou were lonely.

  • 10:55:49

    ABRAHAMWell, I started to -- I met a whole bunch of Czechs that way. I could say that, and that was fun.

  • 10:55:56

    REHMYou know, I happened to watch the director's cut, and some of that was excised from the final film.

  • 10:56:05

    ABRAHAMYes.

  • 10:56:06

    REHMThe point at which you attempt to seduce Mozart's wife in exchange for his original music was -- just blew me away.

  • 10:56:24

    ABRAHAMPretty good.

  • 10:56:26

    REHMPretty good, yes, indeed.

  • 10:56:29

    ABRAHAMShe's a terrific lady, by the way.

  • 10:56:30

    REHMShe is terrific in that film. F. Murray Abraham, I wish I could sit and talk with you for the rest of the day. You're a joy to be with.

  • 10:56:40

    ABRAHAMBless you.

  • 10:56:42

    REHMThank you for being here, and congratulations on your award from the Shakespeare Theater.

  • 10:56:49

    ABRAHAMThank you for being you, dear. I mean that.

  • 10:56:51

    REHMThat's lovely. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 10:56:56

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn and Megan Merritt. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is drshow@wamu.org. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program is a production of WAMU 88.5 from American University in Washington, D.C. This is NPR.

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