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An Interview with...Frank Tangredi

How did you get started in theatre?
If you want to go back to the very earliest and
deepest roots, it started when my sister and I
(and later my brother) used to put on little shows
for the relatives each Christmas Eve. At first,
it was just Angela and I singing.  In grade school,
I wrote a little playlet called "The Lost Present
Hunt,"  which was one-half of a program that
also included a musical portion. That  became an annual event. I was the director and writer and everyone in the family had a part. My Dad never remembered his lines because he was always at work during rehearsals. However, he managed to steal the show by doing totally unexpected things, such as wiring a Christmas tree light to his nose
when I cast him as Rudolph. In the middle of a scene, we heard him whispering  from the bedroom, "Hurry up, my nose is getting hot!"

What hooked you? Was it your first school play-movie-first time seeing a Broadway Show? What inspired you to be where you are today?
I was weaned on show music, especially the original cast album of My Fair Lady . In June 1961, when my sister and  I were six and four, respectively, my parents took us to see My Fair Lady on Broadway. (They sat us down beforehand, explained the story, and told us how to behave in the theatre.) I still have a visceral memory of sitting in the theatre and what I felt like when the lights went down and those first eight violin notes of the overture resounded out of the orchestra pit. I felt a chill and I was hooked.

What was the first play you ever performed in?
Other than the Christmas Eve epics, the first show I ever performed in was "The Discontented Crocus" in second grade. I was slated to be the narrator. However, the kid who was playing the title role was having some problems. I raised my hand and asked if I could show him how to do it. Within minutes, I was recast as the Crocus. It was the first and only time I deliberately set out to steal a part from another actor. (And, yes, it was deliberate, I blush to admit.)

Did you study acting? If not, how did you get into it?
I don't consider myself a trained actor. Anything I know about acting I've learned by doing. I did take First Year Acting in college, but I'm not sure what I got out of it, and that was really about it. I have some distrust of acting classes. They can be valuable to hone talent if it exists, but too many actors do all their work in class and not enough in front of an audience. And some get the mindset that acting class exercises are necessities rather than tools. (Actually, now that I know what I'm doing, I might benefit from an acting class that let me focus on my specific weaknesses.)


What was your first audition?
There were a few auditions in school and later in church or local productions. But my first real audition  that is, for the kind of theatre that advertises in Newsday cast calls  was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at Studio Theatre in 1984. (I got the part, by the way.)

How do you choose what play you will audition for? The piece itself, the director, theater, you were precast, etc.
All of these factors have figured in at different times. My major concern is whether the part offers me some kind of challenge. And that's pretty broad, because I believe almost every part does offer a challenge, even if it's the challenge of making an impression in a very few moments of stage time.  The play itself is very important to me. I'm a fanatic about classic American drama, and when something like Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire,  or The Little Foxes comes along, I'm there. I love comedies and musicals, too, but quality is important there as well. (I've resolved never again to appear in a play that I wouldn't want to see.)  Finally, I will sometimes do a play because of the people involved: either because I want to work with someone, or I want to do somebody a favor. I'm one of BroadHollow's best-known emergency replacements.

Speaking of precasting, tell us how you really feel about the subject.
I prefer auditions. But as long as directors are honest about which parts are open, I don't have a problem with precasting. (In fact, I'm currently doing a show for which I was precast in one of the two leads.) Some plays just aren't worth putting on the schedule unless you know you have the right person in your pocket. One problem with precasting is that lazy or unimaginative directors may tend always to think of the same person for the same type of part. That robs other actors of a chance to prove that they can bring a different slant to such
roles. I also have a BIG problem with actors who refuse to audition and will only do a role if they are precast.

Looking back on the roles you've been cast in, do you think there's a certain kind of role you get cast in repeatedly? When directors look at a certain role, what do you think they see as a "Frank Tangredi" type?
Given what was until recently my very specific physical classification, I've managed to avoid typecasting to remarkable degree. If there is a "Frank Tangredi" type of part, it is the commanding (and often pompous) authority figure. But I've managed to play a lot of variations on this type, ranging  from Kings Herod and Charlemagne to Uncle Ben in The Little Foxes to Mr. Babcock in Mame. And I've done plenty of characters on the opposite end of  the spectrum, unassuming types like Charley in Death of a Salesman or Mitch in Streetcar or Sipos in She Loves Me.  More than once, I had the experience of a director saying "I wasn't sure you would be able to pull that off." That's music to my ears.


What is your approach to developing your character?
The playwright's intention is paramount. I read the script at least three times to start with, first to get the shape of the whole play, then to zero in on my character. I like to know what function he must fulfill and what impression he needs to make on the audience. I look for the telling moments, especially the ones where the character shows a different side. If he's a self-effacing character, when does he "blossom"? (For example, Thompson in 1776 when Adams asks him where he stands on independence.) If he's self-confident, when does he show his vulnerability? (Sir in Roar of the Greasepaint when he suddenly finds himself abandoned.) If he's a conniver, at what moments is he unexpectedly sincere? (Even Ben in Little Foxes has about  two sincere reactions, which Hellman specifies). Those are my favorite moments. And I do work a lot on externals, especially voice. Accents, of course, have to be nailed down. But even with my own accent, there are a lot of variations in tone and timbre. I've never had voice training and couldn't explain any of this on a technical level. But I might add an edge to one character's voice, or a precision to another's. Sometimes, I just go with Frank's voice and tone, which is the hardest choice of all. Hearing the character's voice is essential before I can really start to work.

Of all the characters you have portrayed, who is your favorite?
A toughie. Mitch in Streetcar was my first role that demanded a lot of naked emotion, so it has a special place in my heart. Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar and Mr. Baker in Come Blow Your Horn were probably the most sheer fun. Charley in Death of a Salesman was a high point in so many ways (and,  according to some, my best work). And Sir in Roar of the Greasepaint is one of my few leads, definitely the biggest part I've ever had.

What do you think were your best roles? your worst?
My best work was in the plays mentioned above, plus Greetings and Driving Miss Daisy. My worst? Without doubt, The Supporting Cast. Steve Parks said that I tried to make the character interesting and failed. I couldn't have put it better.

What roles offered you the greatest challenge and why? How well do you think you met the challenge?
As noted, Mitch in Streetcar was my most challenging role because of the emotional depth. At the time, I felt like I met the challenge well. Could I do it better now? Maybe.

What role do you wish you could have a second shot at and get it right this time?
When I was doing community theatre, I got a chance to play Paul in 6 Rms Riv Vu. I didn't do a bad job, but I certainly am a better actor today. Now that I'm thin enough to get cast in such a part, I'd sure like to try it again.

What roles or types of roles would you most like to pay in the future?
I want to play an absolute lowlife with nothing suave or civilized about him.  A child molester, a redneck bigot  somebody, please give me the chance!


How do you feel when you perform?
When I'm doing it well and the audience is with me, it's the best feeling in the world. Why would anybody do it if it wasn't?

What motivates you to keep on doing what you're doing?
My main motivation is, simply, that I go crazy when I'm not doing it! Live theatre is so important to me, not just as a hobby, but as something of a cause. Also, I love the high of performing, I love the camaraderie, and I must confess that I love the attention.

During opening night jitters each one of us has said, "Why do I do this to myself?" Why do you do it?
I do get opening night jitters, but I have never once said "Why do I do this to myself?" I've been around long enough to know the jitters will pass and the joy is just around the corner.


What is your favorite theater story?
My Little Shop of Horrors experience was my 42nd Street come to life. I was at the office on a Thursday when, at about 2:30, I go a call from Pat Zaback.  The actor playing Mushnik was in the hospital, there was a show at 8:30 that night. Could I go on? Being insane, I said yes. They faxed me my pages of the script. I studied them on the drive home. (Fortunately, it wasn't my turn to drive that day.) I rushed home, threw together a costume, and arrived at the theatre at 6:30. Richard Dolce quickly taught me the songs, then John Hudson showed up and showed me our dance. Quick line through with the cast in the dressing room, and CURTAIN!  And it all worked out fine.

Did you ever miss an entrance, drop enough lines for it to be noticeable, crack upon stage?
Missing an entrance is one of the few really inexcusable things for an actor, and if I've done it, I've blocked it out. (I had some close calls with costume changes, and once in the bathroom.) I have dropped lines, of course, but I cover pretty well. However, my singing an entire line of gibberish in Pirates of Penzance probably did not escape the audience's notice.
As for cracking up, the entire cast of Brighton Beach Memoirs almost lost it one night during the dinner table scene. We managed to get through by each of us delivering every one of our lines into our plates. We knew that, once anybody made eye contact with anybody else, it was finished!  One of my pet peeves is actors who blow lines or crack up and make a joke of it. That may amuse the audience, but it just annoys me.

What was your worst theater experience?
The Supporting Cast. If there's anything worse than being in a bad play,  it's being in a bad play where the entire cast is at odds with one another.  Enough said.

What's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you on stage?
Brighton Beach Memoirs again. I was playing the father. In Act Two, I'm in pajamas and a robe, sitting in my chair, when Stanley comes home. We have a very dramatic, touching moment. One night, I rise up and (this being Studio, with audience on three sides) hear titters from behind me. Not a sound you want to hear. So, as I proceed with the scene, I do a surreptitious check and discover that the robe has ridden up and is, shall we say, "stuck" where the sun don't shine. So, as I do the scene, I have to subtly get it unstuck, while keeping my back to the one side of the theatre where there is no audience.


Why do you perform at the theaters you do?
First of all, I tend to be a creature of habit. I've been married to the same woman for nearly 22 years, I'm celebrating my twentieth anniversary on the job this year, and I've been acting almost exclusively with BroadHollow since 1986. I've had little reason to look elsewhere. They treat me well and appreciate me. And I certainly can't complain about the parts I've gotten.  By now there's a lot of personal loyalty as well.  Mind you, I don't feel obligated to stay with one company. It just suits me to do so. Sometimes, I think it might be healthy for me to go on a cold audition at some theatre where they don't know me. But it would have to be a part I really wanted to do badly.

Do you think regional theater will continue to grow on L.I.?
I hope so, but I have no idea. It all depends on whether we can make the audience grow. And the pessimist in me is not too sanguine about that.

Who are some of the actors who have been particularly rewarding to work with?
Touchy question. I've enjoyed working with so many. There are some very fine actors around with whom I just haven't had the chance to do a lot of scene work. (For example, I managed to do about four plays with Melanie Lipton before we ever exchanged one word on stage!)  As far as scene partners go, I want someone who will hit the ball back to me, someone with whom I can establish a rhythm. I've been privileged to share scenes with actors who can put more into a brief exchange of glances than most can put into three pages of dialogue. When I'm working with  to give just a few examples -- Karen Rowan, Jack Howell, Mary Ellin Kurtz, or Andrea Drake, every moment is alive with our relationship, even when we're not  talking to one another. And there are plenty of others. But I must give a special mention here to my partner in hammy mayhem, my comic counterweight, my fellow specialist in lovably repellent couples. As far as I'm concerned, Debbie Starker and I are one of the great teams on Long Island!

Who is your favorite performer? Favorite L.I. performer?
My favorite actors of all time are Charles Laughton and Maggie Smith. (And George Grizzard!!!!!) And I wouldn't touch the latter question with a ten-foot pole.


How do you maintain your career and do theater?
When something is important enough to you, you find a way. I usually don't  even stop at home if I'm going from the office to a rehearsal. And if I have to, I will bring paperwork to the theatre and do it during

Why do you spend so much time toiling in L.I. Theater?
Because toiling in Iowa or Tennessee theatre would just be too much of a trip!  All kidding aside, the answer is simple: love.

Do you find that your family supports your love of theater?
My wife Pam is very indulgent about it. Every once in a while, she puts her foot down and insists that I take a break. And she's usually right.  But she's really behind me all the way. (When I didn't get the part of Tevye, she was more indignant than I was.) And I highly value her opinion of my work. She has a nasty habit of telling me the truth.

How has performing enriched your life?
In the personal fulfillment it gives me, in the people I've met, in the color it's lent to my life, in the way it's built up my self-confidence and stroked my ego. In every conceivable way.


What brings you the greatest joy?
Aside from acting? Being with my extended family on a happy occasion; being among children; listening to the Pastoral Symphony; and hearing my words read by George Grizzard.

What really irks you?
Bigotry, hands down. Nastiness and negativity in general.

If you won LOTTO tomorrow you would...
Pay off my remaining debts, take a vacation, and stop commuting to New Jersey! And be very, very generous -- a luxury I haven't been able to indulge very often.

Is it true that you'd really rather be rich than good looking?
Absolutely. Lack of money has caused more stress in my life than lack of beauty.
What's your favorite word?
"Family" for what it means. "Brouhaha" for how it sounds.

When you reach the pearly gates what do you want St. Peter to say?
I want him to tell me that everybody I ever loved who has already passed on is waiting for me, and the party starts in five minutes.


Do you have any projects on the horizon that you want the readers to be aware of?
Not yet. But I'm revising my play, Thackeray's Ghost, and if anything further happens, you will all be the first to know.

Given your choice of parts in plays, which play and role is your heart's desire?
Hands down: Andrew Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version. I would also very much like to play Frank Elgin in The Country Girl and Howard in Picnic. The musical role I would like most to play is Mr. Rich in Celebration.
Frank as Mr. Bumble in Oliver! 1998
Photo by Fred Richards