Where: his apartment. 2 pm.
Riding on the uptown #2 train recently, I was not surprised when it stalled at Times Square. This happens quite often. What does not happen quite often is the sight of an actor who has appeared in some of the most successful and critically acclaimed films of the past few years being on that train with you. Everyone had to get off, and all the passengers crushed themselves into the already crowded #1 train across the platform. I opted to just wait for the next express until I saw Richard Portnow squeeze his way inside. I followed, and finally maneuvered right next to him.
While I was trying to think of what to say, he interrupted a very loud conversation between two tough-looking, burly men to ask them how long the train had been stuck in the station. Then just as I was about to speak to him, he turned to me and said, "Look. That train is going backwards," pointing to the out of service #2. Needless to say, I was more surprised by the fact that he would speak to a stranger first than I was by the traveling path of a train.
As displayed on that afternoon, and through our subsequent chat, Portnow proves to be a very friendly man who has appeared in top box office hit movies such as Good Morning, Vietnam, Kindergarten Cop, and most recently, Sister Act. Brooklyn-born and bred, Portnow discovered acting the same way many other successful performers have--by accident.
"I went to Brooklyn College, and I was doing very poorly. The war was raging in Vietnam, and I was in danger of flunking out of school. If I had done that, I would have been sent overseas. I was terrified, and an acquaintance said, 'Well, take acting because you always get an "A." You don't have to write any term papers. You don't have to take any written tests. You don't have to read any voluminous books. And there's always pretty girls in the class.'" Portnow slyly smiles. "So I said, 'That sounds like a course I'm interested in.’
"I took the class, and everything he said was true. I found that I liked it, and I just stayed with it, not realizing the fact that it's very difficult to make a living as an actor. But I started working, while I was still in college, at the Café La Mama. After I had done about five plays there, I was awarded with the Best Newcomer of the Year Award by Show Business newspaper. And the first job I auditioned for was the original production of Moonchildren, which was done in London at the Royal Court Theatre, and I got the part.
"I came back in the fall of 1970 and quit acting for seven years. I felt that I needed to find out more about the world and life, and reexamine my commitment to being an actor. I was disenchanted and decided to leave the business and just learn other things, which I did. I bought and sold art deco antiques. I had a little shop in the antique district on 53rd between 1st and York. I also got involved in the restaurant and bar business, and subsequently returned to London to open a club. I did that in '73 and '74, and I came back to the States and worked in numerous disreputable watering holes in Manhattan, some of the most notorious being the Spring St. Bar and Max's Kansas City.
"By '76, I decided to try and get my feet wet with acting again. I had some trepidation's about returning to it, so I actually started by taking a course in how to do voice-overs, figuring, 'Well, that’s pretty safe. I'll start with my voice.' And part of the course was to introduce you to an agent, so that you would see what that was like. When the agent came in, she said after class it was obvious that I had a lot of talent, 'Come by my office tomorrow.' They signed me, and that's the way I began the business again. I started by doing TV commercials and eventually got an agent that represented me for theater and film. That's when things turned around.”
During those early years of getting back into acting, Portnow was featured in television commercials for companies and products such as Life Savers, Amtrak, and Burger King.
"I've done over a hundred on camera commercials. The last I did was a five-commercial campaign for Miller Lite beer that dealt with bicycle racing, and I played the Italian bicycle racer. They gave me a mustache, and I spoke with an accent.
"When I started doing films, I decided when I hit Los Angeles to let them perceive me only as a film and Broadway actor, and I stopped doing commercials. My reasoning being that if you were auditioning for a movie, and that night the director that had seen you during the day was watching a TV show and saw you selling soap, it could hurt your chances."
Since Portnow is one of those rare actors who enjoys the auditioning process and does it well, it is doubtful that even a pitch for polyunsaturated soybean oil processed by a generic brand name would have a negative affect on him in the eyes of any director.
"I really like to audition. A lot of actors I know are terrified. They can't stand auditioning, but I'm not frightened. The head set I try to use when I go to an audition is that, 'I've already got the job. I'm going to a rehearsal.' And I find that after talking to numerous directors about what they see or what they look for when an actor walks in, they say not only the audition, but the confidence level is very important. Lots of actors can audition well. Lots of them are also very neurotic.
"So I work on my confidence level when I walk in. I prepare like crazy. I usually memorize the material, but continue to hold the lines in my hand and refer to it, which enables me to be very free and make any adjustments that they want.
"Also when you're auditioning a lot, you run into the same people over and over, and that can be a lot of fun too. You kind of do a little networking, go out for coffee afterwards and bitch and moan about the industry."
Although Richard Portnow still lives in New York, he has spent the majority of his recent time based in Los Angeles for the obvious professional reasons. But his heart is firmly settled in the Big Apple.
"Since 1991, I've been spending all of my time in L.A., and I haven't really been working out of New York at all. Nobody walks around the streets in L.A., and I miss that. Here, you go out of your house, and you're right in the thick of the human race. The people are a lot more open here. In L.A., I'm sure that lots of people recognize me. They'd never admit to it or come over. L.A. is a one-industry town, and New York has just got so much more variety going on. And my closest friends are here."
Besides his featured role in Sister Act, audiences can easily recognize Richard Portnow as the fast-talking Carly from the film Tin Men, which is now a hit rental at video stores everywhere.
"It's one of my favorite pieces of work. I felt like I was right in the pocket with that character, and I loved doing it. I loved showing up for work every day. The ensemble of guys was very, very funny, very friendly. One-upmanship constantly. And Barry Levinson, was a very open director. He wrote the script, so he was able to take liberties with it, and he would not say, 'Cut' after the written scene was played out. He would let the camera roll to see what his actors would improve and bring to the scene; much of that stuff is in the film. A lot of people love that film. They love Diner, and they love Tin Men. They watch them over and over.
"Do you remember the face I made against the glass? I learned how to make this crazy face in elementary school. You press your face up against the glass and blow your cheeks out. It looks really insane.
"We were shooting the bar scene, and we were all in a wonderful mood that night. All the tin men were inside the vestibule of the Holiday Inn because that's what we used to exit from with the glass doors. I went to get some coffee, and Levinson was standing close to the glass doors. So I knocked on the glass to get his attention and made the face. He laughed so hard, and he said, 'Do it again, do it again!'
"Twenty minutes later, Barry comes over to me and says, 'I've got to put that in the movie. It's the most insane thing I've ever seen in my life.' An hour after that he said, 'I've got a great idea. We haven't shot the office stuff for Gibraltar Aluminum Siding yet. We'll give Carly a subtext of always bothering the girls that work there. We've got glass partitions separating the selling area from the receptionists, so you can do it then.' That's how it came about, and they wound up using it in the trailer. And it's, I think, my most memorable moment in film," he jokes.
Despite the unpredictable ups and downs of the entertainment industry and the increasing number of actors of his same status, Portnow is optimistic about his future.
"It's such an insecure profession. You never know whether you're going to work again. You assume you are because you have a track record, but there is no security. If you buy a house and tie yourself into a $3000 a month mortgage, and then have a few slow years, you're in trouble. That can easily happen, and that's unsettling.
"It is not a profession in which you will work just because you're good. There are so many other variables involved. 'He's too tall.' 'He's too short.' 'He's too fat.' 'He's too thin.' 'He's terrific, but he looks too ethnic.' You have to constantly prove yourself over and over.
"I think one of the problems with most casting directors and producers is that they don't have a lot of 'future vision,' and that's why you get typed. For instance, if I came in to try out for a romantic lead, they would say, 'Well, the guy is balding.' They don't think in terms of, and can't visualize, what I would look like with a toupee. I'm not reluctant to use one at all. Look at John Malkovich, with hair and without hair in every other project. Often times though, what will happen is they'll say, 'Richard Portnow would be perfect for this,' because they know how well I can play those urban, hard-edged, slick characters. And since I want to work, I'm not averse to doing it. Although I'd like to get away from playing tough guys and wise guys, and just play regular guys with a vulnerable side.
"I feel a little frustrated. I'm not angry, because I've done very well, but I would like to see myself get up to the next level of character acting and play larger supporting roles. While I'm sprinkled throughout Sister Act, I don't have any real scenes. I've got a line here, a line there. A close up here, a close up there. You see me a lot, but I don't get to play out any scenes like I did in Barton Fink. The first scene I do in Barton Fink is a three or four minute scene, which is healthy. That's a nice chunk of film.
"So I'm in a good place from which to spring up to the next level, and ultimately, I love acting. I feel great when I'm doing it, and I think I probably did choose the right profession." AAA