Joe Mantegna Revisit

Joe MantegnaBorn in Chicago, Joe Mantegna’s career really took off on the stages of New York. In his role as Richard Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross, his star began rising. For this, he won a Tony Award and a Joseph Jefferson Award, but he was only getting started. He has gone on to act on stage, film, and TV; being nominated for and winning awards. He has also produced, written and directed for stage and screen. Some of his credits include: “A Life In The Theatre,” “The Disappearance of Jews,” “Bugsy,” “Searching For Bobby Fischer,” “The Money Pit,” “Weeds,” “Baby’s Day Out,” “Airheads,” “Cars 2,” “The Last Don,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “The Water Engine,” and ”Criminal Minds”. Mantegna has also been the voice of Fat Tony on The Simpsons for almost 30 years.

ABILITY Magazine’s Shelly Rohe and Chet Cooper caught up with Mantegna on a sunny day in Southern CA pre Covid-19 lockdown to talk about where he is now, changes in the industry, and changes he’s seen in the inclusion of people with disabilities in the entertainment industry. With all of the many projects that Joe Mantegna has been a part of, it isn’t surprising that their paths had crossed.

Joe Mantegna: When was that thing we did?

Shelly Rohe: “Club Soda?” It was 2006.

Mantegna: “Club Soda.” It was a project my friend, Paul Carafotes, wanted to direct it. It was small, 20 minutes at best.

Rohe: Yeah. It was about a dream he had. He wanted to use a specific camera; the camera George Lucas filmed the three “Star Wars” in between, not the recent ones or the original, but the CGI ones.

Mantegna: Yeah. Some sort of digital thing, was it?

Rohe: Yeah, it was new technology.

Mantegna: I remember I did this series, “Joan of Arcadia,” which was 2003. That was the first time a drama series was going to shoot digitally. You couldn’t shoot in the shadow. It was all kind of interesting. I know it was going on around that time.

Cooper: So, Joe, you were already cast at this point, then?

Mantegna: Yes, because I knew Paul Carafotes, the guy who directed it. It was he, myself, and James Gandolfini. He knew us both. I think he got Gandolfini because he said I was doing it. (laughter) He wasn’t going to do it, but he said, “I’m going to get Joe to play that part,” and he says, “Oh, no, that’s all right, I’ll do it.” We would go up for similar things at the time, before “The Sopranos” got really big.

Cooper: When you look at it now, can you see a difference in the way the film was produced because of this equipment you’re talking about?

Mantegna: Digital was new and probably not quite the same exact look as film, but if anything, it was probably more detailed, a little closer to video. I remember, the film looked pretty good. You didn’t think, “Oh, it has a weird look to it.” You could tell that film was doomed. You just knew that was the way it was going to go, which it certainly has. Yeah, I remember that.

Cooper: Do you remember your interview in ABILITY Magazine?

Mantegna: Yeah, I do remember. I remembered there was a connection, but I couldn’t remember specifically.

Cooper: It was autism. But I remember learning you were the voice of Fat Tony in The Simpsons.

Joe Mantegna signed picture of Fat Tony of the SimpsonsMantegna: (laughs)

Rohe: Can you talk about the pilot that you just shot?

Mantegna: Well, it’s tentatively called “On the Spectrum” because there’s a show running in Israel with that name. That show was adapted by Jason Katims, who’s a really wonderful writer. He created “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights.” My agents called me to see if I was interested in the pilot for this series. I read it, and having a daughter with autism, I related to it very strongly. It’s about three young adults who live together, and then there’s a character played by Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick’s daughter, who plays a person from the regional center, whose job it is to check up on them and see how they’re doing. The role they were interested in me playing was the father of the lead boy.

When I read it, I thought it was very well written. It had humor and yet dealt with the seriousness of the situation. I was pretty sure that Jason was writing from a personal experience, which he was. He has a son on the spectrum. And while my daughter is perhaps further on the spectrum than these characters were, they are more Asperger than autism.

I was taken by the quality of the writing and what it was about, but I thought, “Do I really want to combine what I do for a living with what I do every day?” You know?

I wanted to meet with them, which I did, and I like Jason very much, but at that time, they were planning on shooting the whole thing in Chicago. I’m from Chicago, but there’s a reason I’m from Chicago and not in Chicago, because while I love the city, especially around this time of year, it’s not my favorite place to be. I met with them and they pitched the whole thing, and I could tell they probably knew about my personal situation. We’ve never made it a secret. But at any rate, I said to them, “Look, I’ve got to tell you, I really like this project, but I don’t like it enough that I’m going to relocate. If for any reason this thing moves back to LA, call me. I’d be interested. But otherwise, good luck, and I think it’ll be successful. It’s really good. I’m a firm believer of if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage. If the writing’s there, you’ve got a good shot.”

As it turned out, a month or so later, my agents called me back and said, “You know what? They moved it!”

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Rohe: Wow!

Mantegna: And I was like, “Oh!” (laughter) It was kind of like a double-edged sword, like, “Isn’t that good news? Is it?” And then I read it again and thought—absolutely! I’ve never had any problem separating what I do for a living. But this is certainly closer to home than anything I’ve ever done in terms of my day-to-day existence. I thought, “But why not? Who better to help bring some insight into this?” If I can add something to the role.

Rohe: In a word, “authentic.”

Mantegna: Yes. We shot the pilot, and I haven’t seen it yet. In fact, we’ve just been communicating recently about picking a date. He’s very happy with it, and he probably wants to get us all together to see it. They were very conscious of what they were doing with the show. They had a woman I had met because of my daughter, she’s 32 now, and she was diagnosed at two and a half, so it’s been a long time. There’s a lot of different organizations and relationships I’ve made over the years with people in that world.

There was one woman who was there who was not the technical advisor so much as just somebody who was representing the autism community on the set. She and the producers were very much wanting to incorporate, within the production, people on the spectrum in whatever capacity would be fitting, including the actors themselves, which they are.

Including the one who plays my son. And then they asked about my daughter, she has an interest in makeup and went to makeup school and graduated from the MUD School. The only time they’ve ever had a person with autism do that. They said, “She has an interest. Couldn’t we incorporate her into the makeup department?” I said, “That’d be great!” I’ve been totally pleased with how it’s gone, with the people involved, with the way everything was done, the way people are portrayed, their inclusion within the project itself. Especially the character who plays my son, he is a stand-up comic, and he’s very glib.

He asked me to be on his podcast. When I was doing this podcast, it became a little more apparent to me. He basically said he was 30 years old before he was diagnosed as being on the spectrum.

Rohe: He’s in his forties now?

Mantegna: Yeah, but up until then he just thought he had this quirky side to him. But as he started to explain it, it was really interesting. Of course, I started to pick up on it right away. The stuff we were doing when we shot the pilot was basically him doing scenes, so he’s playing this character. I’m thinking—I’m not spending that much time with him off-camera, but all I know is, this is just him. And the character is a little bit more extrem extreme than he is. But no, it’s definitely there. The way he explained it was really interesting.

He said where it became apparent to him was when he said, “I was doing an interview with a woman about something, and she was going on and on about this certain thing, and then I said, ‘OK, but what’s the point?’” And he said, “Instantly I realized that something happened behind her eyes, and she kind of shifted things and wrapped it up in, like, in a minute, and he said, ‘OK.’ And I was really enthralled with what she was saying, I didn’t understand why that happened. So, I said, ‘Excuse me, can I ask you something? When I said, ‘What’s the point?’ did that kind of hit you wrong and made you want to—’ And she goes, ‘Yeah, yeah, kind of. I figured you were a little bored, maybe.’” And he said, “That really wasn’t it at all. I meant, ‘What’s the point?’” (laughter)

Joe Mantegna and Easterseals team
Joe Mantegna and Easterseals team

And then he realized, as he started to think about it, that he’d been doing that all his life. In other words, when he says things like that, there is no hidden agenda. And I get it. My daughter is like that, too. They don’t have a hidden agenda. That’s not quite on the radar, for him much less so than my own daughter, but it’s there. He explained how it caused him to make a shift in how he talks to people. He says it’s somewhat tiring in a way, because he always had to think a sentence ahead, thinking, “Am I, by saying this, putting a spin on it?” In a nutshell, that’s been my experience so far. I don’t know if the show will get picked up. If we shot what was on the page, I think it’s very high-quality, well-written. My feelings about “On the Spectrum” are, if you compare it to a show like “The Good Doctor”, you’d say people with Autism don’t all become intelligent surgeons. What about the rest? It’s kind of that. And also, since it’s not network, it can get into some areas that are a little bit more heavy, especially with the language. This is only important because there’s one scene especially with the one girl where she’s using language that you couldn’t use on network television, but for her totally appropriate because she doesn’t realize that it’s inappropriate. I remember that scene being very effective.

Cooper: Your son on the show, you said he does comedy? Stand-up?

Mantegna: In his real life he does.

Cooper: Have you had a chance to see any of that?

Mantegna: Just his podcast which is kind of humorous. You go on and he’s on his exercise bike talking. He’s very sharp, very bright, kind of like a George Carlin type. It’s hard to put him in a bag. He’s very good, very quick, very sharp. In a way maybe being on the spectrum enhanced some of the positive aspects of his persona.

Cooper: I don’t see comedy that much in the spectrum, that’s why I was curious.

Mantegna: He’s very glib and very intense. He’s operating at a little higher speed than most. Check him out. His name is Rick Glassman. Check his podcast. I think he’s terrific. I love him to death. He showed me pictures, and I actually look like his father in a lot of ways. There’s that innocence and naïveté about them. My daughter has a lot of things that make it different for her to operate in social situations, but on the other hand, she doesn’t know what the word “envy” is, or “retribution,” some of those things that we take for granted and live with and deal with and do. There’s something to be said about that.

Did you ever hear of the book “The Clowns of God” by Morris West? It’s a novel I read years ago, before I had children. Morris West is a former Catholic priest, so all of his books are seen through the eyes of that, but they’re novels. That one was fairly famous; it made the bestseller list. What happens is, the Pope has a dream that the world is ending, and that God has spoken to the Pope and said, “Look, I’m ending it. It’s gotten too sparked up. I’m ending it. Your job is to get [everyone] ready.” The Pope tells this to the lead character of the book, like Sam Spade or whatever you want to call him, this priest. He says, “Look, I had this dream,” and if you believe in Catholicism, the Pope is supposedly God’s voice. If he says it, it’s going to happen. He says, “But I can’t just tell people. It’ll freak people if I say, “By the way, you’ve got a couple of months. Live it up.”

So this guy goes out and runs into this character who’s very slick, really suave, debonair, like a movie star. And he realizes that this guy would be like the archangel Gabriel. He realizes, “This is the guy who’s going to make it all happen.” He knows that the priest is kind of working for the Pope, trying to figure out what’s going on.

This character, this angel-like character who’s in the body of a regular, cool-looking Cesar Romero or something, takes him to a cave and there are all of what we would call “special needs” children, young adults, with Down syndrome, autism, who run the gamut. They’re all in this one place, because judgment day is pending at this point. The priest says to the other guy, “What’s this?” And he says, “These are the ones we’ll keep. You know? When all hell breaks loose, it ain’t gonna break loose here.”

Cooper: The non-sinners.

Mantegna: And he says, “Why is that?” And the title of the book, he goes, “These are the clowns of God. These are the ones who bring a smile to his face. There’s nothing that they do that makes him go, ‘I screwed up here. This was a mistake.’” It changes your thinking. You start to realize that even if there was a mistake made in their genetics or something, it wasn’t their error, as opposed to maybe even the solution. My wife has a strong belief about that. I think about it, and I think she may have a point. She feels like our daughter and people like that are the next phase of evolution and that the reason they don’t fit in is the same thing when the first salamander came out of the water and tried to walk on land. It took a long time to go from a fish to a mammal. It’s that same thing, and that’s why so many of them, while they have a lot of deficiencies that make it difficult to operate wherever we are today, they have those savant abilities. My daughter has some of that, where that part of the brain’s now working overtime, so she can do numbers and facts and dates. It’s that force that’s common to them. Maybe it’s almost like that missing link, the one chromosome that’s twisted. It’s not necessarily all bad, and in some instances obviously, with some people, they have more of that positive stuff.

Like Einstein. They all said he was pretty quirky, always wore the same shirt. He probably was on the spectrum somewhat. All those things kind of rattle around in my head. It’s a long answer to a simple question.

Cooper: I think we just said, “How are you doing?” (laughter)

Mantegna: Exactly!

Rohe: It reminds me of a short poem I read somewhere that says, “I’m not broken, don’t try to fix me, just hold my hand and be my friend.”

Mantegna: Yeah, exactly right. Because it’s that whole thing. It’s like that in everyday life. Unless you fit into the pattern, something must be wrong with you. What’s really weird is it seems like we are taking a few steps back currently than we were 50 years ago. I think about a play I direct, called “Lenny Bruce,” that’s running right now. Some of the stuff that’s in it is more controversial today than when he was doing this material back in the 1960s. People are taking it a little more personally. It’s almost like, “Wait, have you forgotten that we’ve progressed?” Words are just words unless you have some sort of explicit negative intent behind it. But beyond that, a word inherently is not a dangerous thing. Don’t be afraid of it, because then you’re giving it power.

Where do you draw the line? I think part of it is education. Maybe we’re just getting dumber in our education system. In a perfect world, there shouldn’t be any prejudice about anything, your race, your religion, your sexual preference. It’s almost more of an us-vs-them attitude than it used to be. I grew up in the ’60s. We kind of loosened things up a little. It was kind of like, “Hey, let’s go.” And then maybe we went too far in some ways, but boy, oh, boy, have we reverted back in some ways.

Rohe: Where do you think that comes from?

Mantegna: I don’t know. It certainly it happens politically that the pendulum seems to be always swinging. We go to some place and it’s over here and then it starts to feel like, “You know what? We’re too far over here.” And then whhhht! Now it swings over here, and then eventually it gets over here and we say, “Now it feels like we’re too far over here.” Speaking specifically about this country, we’re such a noble experiment, and I do embrace that. What we’re trying to do here is unlike what most other places on the planet are doing, which is saying, “Yeah, we’re a little bit of everything. We are who we say we are, but at the end of the day, we’re made up of tons of stuff.” Not many other places say that. When you go to China, they’re still basically all Chinese. When you go to Italy, they’re Italian. When you go to France, they’re French. When you come here, no matter what, we are a conglomeration of everything. And that’s difficult. It creates a whole set of problems that are harder to address. But we have to do it. At the end, I think it’s the natural law, because I think if you fast-forward into the future, there probably won’t be any kind of diversification that way. Look how far we’ve come in the last hundred years.

When I was a kid, it was very delineated. Now with travel, intermarriage, stuff like that, it’s like the mutt dog. The strongest dog is the mutt, the one that’s been able to weed out a lot of the inherent genetic problems. That’s what evolution is. We went from cave people to what we are today. There’s a reason that that happened. Nature is making that happen. I think in a way that’s why America is the way it is, why for better or worse it has the power that it has. We are almost jumping ahead in evolution in the sense of, even with our problems, we mix it up a little. I think it’s a good thing. But there will be a lot of problems along the way.

Rohe: When it comes to diversity, do you see inclusion being the same—accepted?

Mantegna: It should all be the same. I’ll give the example of my daughter. She was diagnosed with autism in the 1990s. We felt like we were hit in the chest. At that time, it was fairly unique. We thought, “we have to do we’ve got to do.” We looked into things, got involved with groups. We were in New York at the time. We came back to California when she was preschool age. Everything was like, “OK, we’ve got to find the right preschool. We’ve got to go to the special this, the special that.” She was doing the special preschool, special kindergarten, special ed. Everything was IEPs.

The Mantegna family — daughters Gia and Mia, wife Arlene and Joe.
The Mantegna family — daughters Gia and Mia, wife Arlene and Joe.

Then I get a movie in Chicago and we’ll be there for half a year. We always had traveled together. At this point I already had a second child. So, we get to Chicago and we’ve got to find that situation, some special place. We knew the public-school system is tough. Somebody told us, “There’s this private school. They may have some sort of thing for children with special needs.” We go to the school, the Catherine Cook School. We met with the principal. He says, “I think you should meet our first-grade teacher, Miss Fedler.” We go into the classroom, and here’s Miss Fedler, a force of nature. She has all these five-year-olds in her class. They were on break. We explain to her, “Our daughter Mia has been diagnosed with autism. We see it’s like a regular class here, but they thought you might have some input.” She had a brother with autism.

She says, [much louder] “Oh, yeah, great. OK, good. Mia? All right, come here.” Right there. She stops the class. She says, “Kids, this is Mia. Mia’s got this thing called autism. She may start talking. She may start walking around. She may start singing. She may go up to the blackboard. She may do a lot of things, and you’ll probably think, ‘What is she doing that for?’ It’s because she has this thing. We’re all going to help her out, right?” “Right! Right! Yeah! Yeah! Mia, OK!” “Mia here’s your desk. She’s going to sit there. So, we’re good.” My wife and I were like— (choking sounds, laughter) It was unbelievable. It was instant inclusion, within 30 seconds. It was what we’d been looking for and we didn’t even know it existed.

Cooper: How old was Mia?

Mantegna: Five. She was there that whole semester. We realized when we came back to California when the movie was over, we went right to the public school and said, “She’s not going into special ed.” We saw what it was like at the mountaintop, we didn’t need to go back. And still, it was a bumpy road. She was severe enough that certain classes were going to be too much, the teacher just couldn’t handle it. It was a constant, maybe you’d spend a little time here. Each year it would change. What was great, I remember especially in fifth grade, she still talks about her fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Wong. We’d go in his class on the first day and we would be Miss Fedler. My wife and I would say to the kids, “Look, this our daughter.” She wouldn’t be there, she’d be outside. “She’s got this thing. You can all help her out.” If you clued them in, kids will respond. They want to be informed.

Mr. Wong had no clue about autism and what it would be like. Some of the teachers were hesitant. He was like, “OK, let’s give it a whirl.” I remember how at the end of that school year those kids had benefited from it so much, and he benefited. He explained that. And of course, it continually hit us, the importance of it, because if you do it at that age and with all those classes, all those kids benefit, too. When I was a kid in high school, there was that special ed department, and you’d say, “Well, they’ve got their own life and we’ve got ours.” But once we saw that, it was all through public school, high school; total inclusion. In certain classes she’d step out just because it was a little too much.

We had a line in the play “Hair,” which I did back in 1969, “Vive la différence,” there’s no cookie-cutter thing of a perfect human being. I think at the end of the day inclusion just becomes the norm. You have to sometimes make accommodations, but that’s easy to do. I mean, obviously, you have trouble getting upstairs.

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Rohe: Right.

Cooper: Have you heard of Exceptional Minds school?

Mantegna: No.

Cooper: It’s a programming school, depending, of course, on the spectrum where you are or your interest, it’s all autism. They teach coding and animation. The industry has picked up a lot of their students over the years and they’ve done work on some of the major motion pictures.

Mantegna: In what capacity? Animation?

Cooper: Everything from creating cartoon images themselves to working on animated film, like DreamWorks.

Mantegna: My daughter was involved for a couple of years with Joey Travolta, John Travolta’s brother.

Cooper: He’s got a class and workshop.

Mantegna: She was involved with him for a couple of years. She created Mia’s Makeup Corner. She did a makeup for the movies. There was another student, a girl, who was into animation. She created characters. I went in and watched some stuff by them. Ironically, my daughter Mia, that is one of her kind of quirks she has. She can mimic voices fairly well. We discovered it once when she was little when her Mexican housekeeper gave her a video of “Pinocchio,” all in Spanish. Unbeknownst to us, our daughter memorized it. She walked into the room and started spilling “Pinocchio” in Spanish. The housekeeper said to us, “What’s interesting is, she’s speaking it perfectly, with no accent, not as a person who speaks English and knows Spanish. She’s speaking it like this was her first language. She’s hearing it and duplicating it.” She does have that knack. She does voices and things. Just recently, because I have done some voiceover work, I’ve been doing “Fat Tony” and “The Simpsons” for 29 years now.

I was going to bring Mia to meet with my voice agent. He was interested because of inclusion now opening things up. Maybe she has some sort of talent. And also, it’s good for her to keep her motivated. That’s been the best therapy of all, her being occupied, having a purpose. She takes Italian class, art class. She goes to yoga, all these different things. It only becomes more an issue when she’s just stagnant, not focused in her day-to-day life. Which is pretty difficult for everybody in some ways.

Cooper: How do you think they found actors who had autism?

Mantegna: For the pilot? I don’t know. It would be easy enough to find out. I would think that nowadays there are avenues out there. I worked with Joanne Lara, who runs a group called Autism Works Now. The other thing is, when you’re first starting out, let’s say you have a child who’s diagnosed, all your focus is on kids’ stuff. What can you do for the kid, school, this and that? They’re only a kid so long. What do you do for the next 70 years?

Rohe: Right!

Mantegna: Your focus changes to groups that are more inclined to be dealing with adults on the spectrum. Joanne Lara’s thing is to create job opportunities for people on the spectrum, which is great. In fact, I’ve got an interview with her for some national radio something coming up. I would imagine that the creator of the show, Jason, because he has a son on the spectrum, is also somehow connected, being in the industry, being a well-known writer and producer with those successful shows he’s had, I don’t think it would be very difficult for him to tap into somebody who’s able to say, “You know there’s such-and-such an acting class who happens to know blah-blah-blah.”

Cooper: Was this the first time recently that you presented the Media Access Awards?

Mantegna: I presented years ago to Verne Troyer, who was Mini Me, remember him?

Rohe: Yeah.

Mantegna: When I did the movie “Baby’s Day Out” years ago, they hired him to double the babies. He had never done anything in show business to that point. He was working for the phone company in Texas.

Rohe: Oh, my gosh!

Mantegna: It was John Hughes, a big budget picture, the guy who did “Home Alone” and all those other movies. They put out a search for the smallest human being they could find to double the baby. They had a robot baby, but they knew the movie would be totally about the baby. They had twins, the whole thing, but they thought they might need a human to do certain things, and the robots weren’t that sophisticated then. So, they put out a casting call, not casting in the sense of looking for an actor, but just looking for a small human being, and it turned out Verne was one of the five smallest humans in America, perfectly proportioned. And he is this big. I always knew he came up to my knee.

I had to work closely with him every day. And here’s this guy. My daughter Gia, the youngest daughter, was only two at the time, and I have this great photo of the two of them nose-to-nose. He’s dressed as a baby and she is a baby and she’s looking at him with this look like—it’s great. But anyway, he was game, he was great. Physically he could do whatever you wanted him to do. I feel in a way not responsible, but like I helped him stay in the business. What happened is, at the wrap party for the movie, his mother and his sister flew in from I think it was Michigan.

I’m talking to him at the party and I said, “Verne, are you having a good time?” And he said, “Oh, Joe, man—” He had a great sense of humor. He’d walk up to me and say, “Hey, Joe, what’s up?” Because for him everything was up. (laughter) He said, “I had a great time. I’m so sorry I’ve got to go back to Texas and work for the phone company.” And I said, “Verne, I’ve got to tell you, you can’t do everything, but there are certain things only you can do. I really think you could probably parley this into something else. There are agents who look for people with specific talents. Yours is that you come up to my knee.” He said, “Really?” I said, “Absolutely.” I think I gave him an agent’s number. I pointed him in that direction. I said, “Do this. I think there might be something there.” Within a couple weeks, next thing I know I hear from him in China. He’s doubling the panda in “The Great Panda Adventure.”

Rohe: Oh, my gosh!

Mantegna: And then all of a sudden, things started happening. He was doing commercials, Mini Me. One time he was in town he called and left a message, “Joe, it’s Verne! I’m in town!” And he’s kind of sophisticated, like a working actor. So I called the number, I’ll never forget, and it was an answering machine, and the machine is, “Hi! This is Blaze. You’ve reached Blaze and Honey’s answering machine. You can leave a message for either us or Verne, who’s staying with us while he’s here. Beep!” It was, like, two girls.

Anyway, whether it was that year or the next year, they gave Verne an award, a Media Access Award, and they asked me to be the presenter to him, because they knew our connection. I remember going there.

He was engaged. His fiancée was a normal-sized woman, a beautiful girl, blonde. My first impulse when he introduced me was, I thought, “Is she an opportunist, a knucklehead who figures she’ll be married to him and that’ll take her to auditions”? But she seemed very genuine. I was like, “All right, whatever.” He’s in his little tuxedo and she’s all dressed up. They took a picture, and it was odd. It looked like I was with a girl who was much younger than me and we have a little doll with us. That was the deal. But I was happy to do that. And that was the last time I saw him, and I know he had a little bit of decline then, and next thing I saw he was on celebrity rehab, and then he did pass away. But he had a shot. People’s paths will go where they go, but to answer your question, that was my other time with Media Access.

Cooper: That was a while ago, then.

Mantegna: It was.

Cooper: Media Access was doing nighttime tuxedo gala events back in the day and then it kind of went off and started some morning things. This last one, they hadn’t had a night event for years and years.

Mantegna: This was my first time back. It was nice. I loved the girl I was with.

Cooper: Shannon?

Mantegna: Shannon. It was fantastic. It was great. That was my second event with them.

Cooper: “Criminal Minds”?

Joe Mantegna, AJ Cook and Shemar Moore on the set of "Criminal Minds"
Joe Mantegna, AJ Cook and Shemar Moore on the set of “Criminal Minds”

Mantegna: “Criminal Minds” is January 8th. They’ll air a two-hour pick-up from where we ended a year ago. It will kick off the final 10 episodes, which have already been shot, the 15th and final season of “Criminal Minds.” In other words, we’ll do a little recap of, “Well, we last saw …” They did it in such a way that we ended the season in April, so probably the last episode in April or May. When this two-hour show starts, it will be as if those six months had passed and we’re picking up the story six months later, and this is what’s going down. Actually, almost a year later. We finish it off, we’ll do two hours and then we’ll show six hours, six weeks, and they’ll end with the two-hour finale, which will wrap up the whole series.

Cooper: And that’s all been shot?

Mantegna: It’s all been shot, yeah.

Cooper: Do you keep connected with any of the cast?

Mantegna: All of them. We’re all very close.

Cooper: Who’s your favorite?


Mantegna: Who’s my favorite? Me. No, we’re all very close, for that reason. There have been changes, people coming and going, but the last eight of us the last couple of years, got very close, the four women and four men. The chemistry was perfect.

Cooper: Who can beat whom at arm wrestling?

Mantegna: They could probably all beat me, including the girls. (laughter) Two of the boys, Adam Rodriguez and Daniel Henney, they’re the muscle in the show. Both of them replaced Shemar, who could have beat anybody.

God bless him, I’m very close to him. He calls me “Papa Joe.” He wasn’t that close to his own father. He’ll contact me over personal things, almost like a son would do to his dad. We talked about it, like when I got my star on the Walk of Fame about six years ago or so. He came to the event. You could tell he was just thrilled to be part of it. He told me afterwards, he said, “I want to do what you did. You’ve done theater, movies, television, you’ve done it all. All I’ve ever done was a soap opera and ‘Criminal Minds.’ I really want to step out.” I remember when he made the decision to leave the show, which was totally his decision. I talked to him about it. I said, “I just want to make sure—you’re jumping off a horse that’s winning the race, you understand that? There’s no guarantee you’re going to jump on another one. It happens. There’s a long list of actors who’ve jumped off that horse and never found another one.” And he said, “I get it, but I don’t care. I’m willing to take the chance.” He reaffirmed, “I’ve got to try it. If I don’t do it, I don’t want to be an old guy and say I wish I would have done it.” I said, “Well, then, God bless you. Absolutely, go. I’m not going to tell you not to believe in yourself. Go man.” And he did it. He made a movie that he financed, that didn’t work out. He wanted to be more Ray Donovan than the guy on S.W.A.T. That didn’t quite work out, either. He’s starring in a show that’s very popular. He’s the number one on the call sheet. And I told him, “That’s a responsibility. You set the tone. As you go, you allow everybody else.”

Do you understand what that means, number one on the call sheet?

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Cooper: I assume, yeah. She would know better.

Mantegna: Every day you get a call sheet on a film or television show that tells you what the next day’s work is. It’s listed numerically. Number one is your main actor. If you’re 35, that means you’re a guy who’s only there for an hour.

Cooper: And you’ll be killed. (laughter)

Mantegna: Yup. If you’re number two, you’re number two. But number one is a responsibility. I learned that a long time ago. I picked up a lot from Tom Hanks when I worked on “Bosom Buddies” with him years ago.

Cooper: I didn’t know you did that.

Mantegna: Yeah, I did an episode. I noticed that when we did the script reading, not all shows did them, he went around and introduced himself and welcomed everybody in the cast, even people who were working one line. I thought, “How classy!” I never forgot that, and I would do that at every single reading on “Criminal Minds.” I would get emails and letters from people, some of whom became very successful, saying, “I’ll never forget that you came, and I was so nervous. I was coming into a show that had been around 11 years, maybe, and I had two lines, and you said, ‘Hey, my name’s Joe, welcome to the show.’” I told Shemar that. “That’s your responsibility, because if you’re nuts, if number one is nuts, everybody can be nuts.” He’s not. He’s doing well.

It was a great experience. I really enjoyed the people. And the guys who left, I had a good relationship with Thomas and Shemar and Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Jennifer Love Hewitt, a good girl. She’s on “9-1-1” now. She was on for one season. Even Damon Gupton, who was only one season, was terrific. It was a good experience, great people. The show runner for the last eight or nine years was a woman, she was wonderful. Ed Bernero was the original show runner. She replaced him; she was wonderful. Erika Messer.

Cooper: I know Shemar, he also was in the magazine, he talked about the love of his mother.

Mantegna: His mother, yeah. They would do the MS bike ride every year in Ventura. I didn’t ride, I thought I might fall off the bike and kill myself, but I would show up every year for the ride and cheer them on. I’m very close to his mother. I’d go and he would bring his mother. I like Shemar, to this day he’ll text me at any given moment. A couple days ago he sent me a text, it wasn’t that long ago.

Cooper: Do you know Jay Leno?

Mantegna: Yeah. Jay—we had this restaurant here, I don’t know if you knew that, Taste Chicago.

Cooper: Maybe I did.

Mantegna: It was a Chicago-themed restaurant in Burbank. We just closed it this year. My wife worked there for 15 years. Jay used to come in there because his garage is not far.

I used to be a guest on his show a lot when he was the guest host for Carson. He and Joan Rivers would be guest hosts. Jay would have his couple of go-to guys he would go to. I was mostly doing movies then. I remember one time, I was the guest on the show and then he said, “And now we’ve got this new country act, he seems to be very popular, and here he is: Garth Brooks!” And he comes out and a couple of girls screamed, and Jay and I are looking at each other That guy’s got a cowboy hat on, and we’re like, “OK, I don’t think this guy’s going anywhere!” (laughter) There was that.

One time he pulls into the restaurant driving some car that looked like it was made out of an Erector Set. He would always drive with his mechanics for that reason, because he was driving these old cars where you never know what could happen. I’m sitting at the window at the restaurant and he pulls up into the parking lot and it’s dripping underneath the car.

Cooper: Oil?

Mantegna: I’m screaming out the window, “Jay, get that car out of the lot, you’re dripping oil all over the parking lot!” (laughter) And he goes, “It’s not oil! It’s water! It’s a Stanley Steamer!”

Cooper: Wow, a Stanley Steamer!

Mantegna: So, I go out there, and it was a Stanley Steamer.

Cooper: Do know what that means? It’s a steam engine.

Rohe: Ok.

Joe Mantegna: They built a car back in the early 1900s, some guy got the idea, “Trains run on it, why can’t a car?” It wasn’t very practical, because you had to keep filling it with water, and it did leak, because you’re boiling water. So, it’s dripping water, and I’m like, “It was! It was water!” It was more like you needed a plumber than a mechanic.

Cooper: (laughs)

Rohe: Wow!

Joe Mantegna and Shelly Roche
Joe Mantegna and Shelly Roche

Mantegna: Anyway, I knew Jay fairly well. I probably did his show five or six times, and he’d come to the restaurant. He liked to eat. The reason he stopped coming, I swear to God, it was in “Enquirer” magazine, they ran an article: “Jay Leno, he’s eating himself out of a job.” They had a picture of him heavy. (laughter)

Rohe: Oh, my gosh!

Mantegna: And it said, “Probably part of it’s due to eating at Joe Mantegna’s restaurant Taste Chicago!”

Cooper: Oh, man, double whammy!

Mantegna: Thanks a lot for that!

Rohe: Speaking of other jobs, did you do anything before acting?

Mantegna: I was making my living doing headshots, and I got offered the play “Glengarry Glen Ross.” I go to New York. To make a long story short, I won a Tony award, the show wins a Pulitzer Prize, and my career all of a sudden takes off. I had been taking photos of this one manager’s clients prior to that here in California. So, I’m living in New York now. The night of the Tony awards, I come home, and the answering machine had all these messages from all the people calling in who saw the TV show and saw me win a Tony award. There was this guy, I don’t remember his name, it was Bill something, I play, “Beep!” I hear the message: “Joe! This is Bill! My wife and I, we were watching the Tony awards last night. I didn’t even know you were an actor! (laughter) “Does this mean you won’t be doing my clients anymore?” (laughter) It’s funny. I had to call him back and say, “I don’t know. We’ll have to see when I get back.”

And it turned out no, I am not going to be doing your clients anymore.

Rohe: And here we are today.

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