Friday, January 27, 2012

F. Murray Abraham: Class Act

Of those who won Oscars for the films of 1984, the most widely-remembered and quoted victor is Sally Field.  She was Best Actress for Places in the Heart and her "You like me.  You really, really like me!" acceptance speech became part of our American pop culture.  The Best Actor was F. Murray Abraham for his sad, sublime work as Salieri, the classical musician practically dying from the venom of his own jealousy of Mozart in Amadeus.  If you haven't seen this rich film, you really need to rent it.  In this age of microwave stardom, thanks to shows like American Idol and The Voice, I believe F. Murray's performance strikes a chord in today's "Why aren't I a star too, Lord?" world.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on this day in history.  When I heard that on the radio this morning, I thought of my encounter with F. Murray Abraham and acting students in Brooklyn.  Abraham was, by no means, a star overnight.  He paid his dues.  If you didn't know his name, you knew his face.  He did a lot of television work.  In fact, before he dressed up like a Viennese composer in Amadeus, he was a Fruit of the Loom guy in one those old TV commercials.
Abraham showed off his comedy skills in an art deco gay New York City bathhouse. It was called The Ritz. 
The Ritz is a kooky movie. A mob hit, a gay bathhouse, mistaken identities, showtunes and a clueless-but-devoted-to-her-craft entertainer named Googie Gomez (hysterically played by Rita Moreno) made this a chock full o' laughs 1976 comedy.  Abraham stole scenes as an eager-to-please regular of The Ritz who winds up onstage. In a bra.
When I met F. Murray Abraham, he'd won the Oscar, had a new film about to open (The Name of the Rose) and was teaching some acting classes in Brooklyn.  I was new to New York City local TV, doing entertainment features on WPIX/Channel 11. I had the chance to go to Brooklyn and tape an interview with Abraham. He was very gracious and invited me to get some classroom footage. His performing arts pupils in those daytime sessions were young adults.  I was excited to have that opportunity as a celebrity interviewer.  I was sure those aspiring actors were even more excited at the opportunity of classroom time with a Best Actor Academy Award winner and Broadway veteran.  WRONG.
Have you ever gone to buy a coffee or make a department store purchase and the young person behind the counter has that "I'll say 'Can I help you?' but I could really give a shit" expression on his or her face?  That was the same expression many of these aspiring young actors had on their faces.  Abraham was at the head of the class passionately, generously sharing what he's learned over years and years of honing his craft. He was telling of his actor's journey.  One student raised his hand and his question basically was: "Can you just tell us what we need to know that'll get us the job?" Others agreed.  My cameraman and I couldn't believe their crust.  I felt my jaw drop down to the floor with *clunk* like a character in a Tex Avery cartoon.  You could see in F. Murray Abraham's eyes that he was spiritually wounded by that question. Still he handled it with grace.  Bette Davis would've beaten that guy down with both her Oscars. Abraham said that he was telling them what they needed to know.  I did not use that footage in the final piece out of respect for the Oscar-winning instructor.

That student did not want to do the work. He just wanted the easiest, fastest route to a red carpet interview and instant celebrity status. F. Murray Abraham was trying to teach those who cared how to be professionals.  Some just wanted to be stars.  As soon as possible.  By doing as little work as possible.  That was in 1986.

My next encounter with the actor was in the early 90s.  I was a regular on another local news show, Weekend TODAY in New York, on WNBC.  In between WPIX and WNBC, I'd had three years of national exposure on VH1 that included my own prime time celebrity talk show.  I'm proud to tell you my talk show got a rave review in The New York Times and TV Guide.  It was Oscar season and I knew that Abraham was in town because he was doing a play.  Our WNBC news producer wanted Oscar-related segments. I contacted F. Murray and asked him if he'd come on our live news show, bring his Oscar, talk about the impact winning it had on his career and talk about his play.  He could not have been sweeter. He was still in Brooklyn.  He accepted my invite, with a small request -- could he please mention the movie he was working on (Last Action Hero with Arnold Schwarzenegger) and could he have a car service pick him up.  Ours was an early morning weekend program and he didn't want to have to rely on a subway -- especially while toting an Oscar.  This, I felt, would be no problem at all.  Our producer sent cars to pick up guests who lived just ten blocks away from the station.  They could've easily caught midtown cabs. Here was an acclaimed actor who lived over the Brooklyn bridge. WRONG.  I could not have car service vouchers for him.  I was surprised but not surprised. During the course of my time with that show, I was offered in-studio interviews of other celebrities but the producer said they were "not our audience."  So I was not able to interview Ruby Dee & Ossie Davis, Patti LaBelle, Dianne Reeves and Pam Grier.  The show's anchor, however, was free to book Pia Zadora as an in-studio guest.  F. Murray Abraham and I mutually agreed that he shouldn't have to take a subway or try to flag down a cab in Brooklyn to be at WNBC by 9:00 on a Sunday morning.  He didn't come on the show.  Instead, the news producer sent me to the Museum of the Moving Image for a live remote segment.  I got there with the crew.  The museum was closed.  On Sundays it opens at 10:30am.  Our live news program aired from 9-10:30am.  I could've been in the studio with F. Murray. And his Oscar.

When I left that show a year later, a few folks in Manhattan's TV industry assumed that I'd been fired because Weekend TODAY in New York was -- and still is -- a hit show.  I wasn't fired. I quit.  And there you have it.  Happy Birthday, Mozart. And thank you, F. Murray Abraham. You're a class act.

1 comment:

  1. most unfortunate !!

    The world will not prosper, until, it learns to respect its true teachers...



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