Friday, September 11, 2015

In Character: Joe Mantegna

Joe Mantegna is an actor born to sling Mamet-speak. He and David Mamet have known each other since their careers began. Mantegna even won a Tony for his portrayal of Richard Roma in the first American production of Glengarry Glen Ross. The studio wouldn’t let Mantegna reprise his role for that film (Al Pacino filled in), but Mamet promised Mantegna that, in return, he could star in his first two films, both of which are listed below.

And that’s just the Mamet side of Mantegna’s career. In full, Joe Mantegna has had a long, impressive career on stage and screen, playing everything from notable mobsters to caring fathers, ruthless killers to charming thugs of Springfield. Simply put, he’s one of the best, most notable character actors we have.

Five Essential Roles
House of Games (1987)
The first film Mamet delivered his promise on was Mamet’s movie debut, the ingenious con thriller, House of Games. Mantegna’s character, Mike, is one of shiftiest characters Mamet has ever penned. You’re never sure if he’s on the level, but you always want to trust him. He’s a Confidence Man through and through, silver-tongued and eagle-eyed, always trying to spot a mark. And his on-screen chemistry with Mamet’s then-wife, Lindsay Crouse, is electrifying. I’m a huge admirer of Mantegna and Mamet’s work together, and it certainly never hurts to go back to the source.

Things Change (1988)
Mamet’s second film, Things Change, is about an aged shoe-shiner, Gino (Don Ameche), who agrees to admit guilt to a murder he didn’t commit. In return, the mob will pay Gino a handsome reward, a gift for the three years he’ll likely serve in prison. While Gino waits to confess, he is given one final weekend of life as a free man. During this time, he’s watched by a disgraced, low-level gangster named Jerry. Jerry wants to show the old man a good time, send him off right. This includes traveling to Lake Tahoe, where Gino is quickly mistaken for one of the country’s most revered gangsters. Chaos, hilarity and well-earned emotion all ensue, allowing Mantegna (and Ameche, in my favorite performance of his) to deliver some of his finest, most genuinely heartfelt work.

The Godfather: Part III (1990)
Joey Zasa
Why anyone would want to engage in battle with the Corleone family, let alone choose to become sworn enemies with Sonny Corleone’s son, is beyond me. But that’s exactly what Joey Zasa does. Not only does Zasa order an infamous helicopter hit on all of the bosses, including Michael (Al Pacino), but he also hires goons to murder Michael’s nephew, Vincent (Andy Garcia). The stones on this guy. Zasa knows the power of the Corleone family, yet he persists in destroying them. And the best part is, we believe his audacity, thanks much to the magnetic arrogance Mantegna gives Zasa. It’s a fun performance – the young Mafioso in love with being a young Mafioso. And who can forget Mantegna’s final scene in the film? “ZASA!” So good.

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
Fred Waitzkin
This clip speaks for itself, but by way of brief, additional explanation, I’ll say that this scene is one of the best, most believable movie scenes of a parent sticking up for their child that I’ve ever watched. Mantegna is so strong here, it brings tears to my eyes.

Redbelt (2008)
Jerry Weiss
Certainly there are more substantial roles to occupy a place on this list. The kind love interest of Mia Farrow in Alice, a chief Mafioso in The Last Don, a well-intentioned father in Liberty Heights, Dean Martin in The Rat Pack, and on and on. And still, I kept coming back to Redbelt. Mantegna isn’t in Redbelt for very long, but his command of David Mamet’s language, yet again, makes his brief turn essential. As a business associate of action movie star, Chet Frank (Tim Allen), Jerry Weiss’ job is to make money and hide problems. So when Redbelt’s main character, Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), comes to Jerry with an issue, Jerry brushes it off as no big deal – “I’m gonna take care of this right now” – he says with ease.

This scene comes midway through Redbelt, as Mike and Jerry meet for dinner in a hot shit Hollywood restaurant. Mike presents the problem, Jerry brushes it off, then excuses himself to make the problem disappear. The thing is, he never returns. He lets this poor bastard Mike sweat it out in embarrassment. It’s a strong action, preceded by 90 seconds of clinical, immaculate David Mamet language, delivered by Joe Mantegna, the man who knows how to deliver it best.

The Best of the Best
Homicide (1991)
Bobby Gold
When I covered Rebecca Pidgeon in this column a few months ago, I touched on Mantegna’s brilliant work in David Mamet’s most serious film, Homicide. Bobby Gold is an ace homicide detective, and he’s fast. Fast thinking, fast talking, fast acting. His partners call him “The Mouth,” because he can talk a confession out of anyone. He’s a suited badass, preferring to use his intellect as his most prized weapon.

But he’s also quite troubled, mainly concerning his own ethnicity. Bobby is Jewish, yet is disgusted by Jewish people. He defines his own people by crude stereotypes, and openly mocks them to whoever will listen. In one such scene, while covering the murder of an elderly Jewish woman, Bobby unleashes a shockingly vicious tirade. He’s saying all this to his cop buddy over of the phone. Telling his friend how disgusting the rich, Jewish family of the slain woman is. I can’t even reprint any of it here, it’s that bad. To say nothing of the fact that Bobby is Jewish himself. To say nothing of the fact that the dead woman’s granddaughter (Pidgeon) is silently sitting behind him. To say nothing of the fact that the writer of this speech, David Mamet, is also Jewish. It’s nasty on so many levels, that it’s almost… funny. Genuinely, the insults are so ludicrous, you almost can’t help but laugh in disgust. That’s the power of David Mamet, and his writing. That’s the power of Joe Mantegna, and his acting.

Other Notable Roles
in Albino Alligator

¡Three Amigos! (1986)
The Money Pit (1986)
Alice (1990)
Bugsy (1991)
The Simpsons (1991-2015)
Baby’s Day Out (1994)
Airheads (1994)
Forget Paris (1995)
Above Suspicion (1995)
Up Close & Personal (1996)
Albino Alligator (1996)
The Last Don (1997)
Celebrity (1998)
The Rat Pack (1998)
Liberty Heights (1999)
Uncle Nino (2003)
Joan of Arcadia (2003-2005)
Nine Lives (2005)
Edmond (2005)
The Starter Wife (2007-2008)
Criminal Minds (2007-2015)


  1. Thanks for reminding me how much goid stuff he's done. I needed it because whenever I look at him nowadays all I can think about is Criminal Minds. Great post, as always.

    1. Ha, I know what you mean. But I'm glad you're a fan of his work! Thanks for reading!

  2. I haven't seen some of your choices. When I saw Elvis and Annabelle (2007) I was reminded that he "used to be a good actor", though. Not a very charitable reaction to his performance, I admit, but I felt he did a good job in a supporting role in that film.

    1. That's fair. Anyone who has 144 credits to their name is bound to have some misses, so I get what you mean. I've definitely had that reaction to some of his films as well. Still love the guy.

  3. House of Games is everything! All thanks to Joe. He really was born for Mamet. Maybe vice versa. It's funny. When I first saw this post, I actually hoped you would have Airheads as one of the Five Essential. Haha! Great post as always, Alex.

    1. Ha, thanks man! Airheads is such a goofy gem. Actually haven't seen it in a long time, but I do remember ol' Joe in it.

  4. YES! Love that you highlight his tremendous career as a character actor for the ages. Love every time he pops up in anything.

    1. Awesome - so glad you're a fan! Thanks for the comment!

  5. You had to pull that scene in Searching for Bobby Fischer. You bastard. Now I'm tearing up. That is a great movie and among the many reasons why I love Joe Mantegna. Even in bad movies, he can do no wrong.

    1. Hell yeah man. That fucker rocks me. He's SO damn strong in that scene. Nice to hear it hits you too.

  6. Mategna in Searching for Bobby Fischer is heartbreaking. I'd have to say my favourite performance of his that I've seen so far is in House of Games.

    1. *Mantegna. Damn, I can't believe I actually misspelled his name. So silly of me.

    2. It's a tough name! So glad you like his work in those two movies.

  7. I had the good fortune of seeing Homicide in 1991 and definitely Mantegna was stunning as Bobby Gold. The final tense scenes between Mantegna and the superb Ving Rhames as a drug lord features some of the finest acting I have ever witnessed. Yes, Joe was wonderful as the suave conman in House of Games but he was truly magnificent in Mamet's Homicide. Thanks for this posting!

    1. My pleasure, thanks for reading and commenting! Love Homicide. It isn't my favorite Mamet film, but it's definitely his most mature work to date. And Mantegna is sensational in it. Glad you're a fan.

  8. Don't forget his occasional contributions to The Simpsons as Fat Tony. He's hilarious.

  9. It looks like I have two reasons to see Homicide, though I'm behind on Mantegna's (and Mamet's) work in general.

    1. Thing about Mamet is that his films are so easily consumable. You can watch all of them in a day or two and be totally good. LOVE them. And would love to know what you think of them.

  10. Fat Tony! I always find him hilarious on The Simpsons. He is definitely an underrated actor that don't get enough recognition. One of my personal favorite movies from him is Jerry and Tom. A small crime comedy he starred in with Sam Rockwell from the 90's. It's a hard movie to find these days, but it's definitely worth checking out if you can find it.

    1. Oh I really wanna see Jerry and Tom now. I've never even heard of it! But I love those two guys, so I'll do my best to track it down. Thanks for the recommendation!

  11. I love it when he voices Fat Tony.