He was a Suffolk County legislator in the late 1970s, a Long Island representative to Congress for 10 years and a three-time delegate to the Democratic National Convention, but if you had asked a young Robert Mrazek what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would have said: movie director.
Today, at the age of 70, he is one.
“The Congressman,” Mrazek’s semi-autobiographical first feature, stars Treat Williams as Charlie Winship, a beleaguered politician whose woes include a failing marriage, devious colleagues and a media-driven inquisition over his failure to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The film is co-directed by Jared Martin and produced by Fred Roos, whose credits include most of Francis Ford Coppola’s movies. The cast also includes Elizabeth Marvel (Netflix’s “House of Cards”) and veteran actor George Hamilton, tanned as ever. “The Congressman” begins a weeklong run at Huntington’s Cinema Arts Centre on Friday. (The movie also opens in limited release in Manhattan on Friday and at more theaters nationwide May 6.)
For Mrazek, who will attend Friday’s premiere with Williams, the movie is the culmination of a dream derailed when he left London Film School to enter politics in 1968. “Basically,” he said in a phone interview while driving to his home in Ithaca, “I ended up on a 40-year detour.”
His path to politics
Born in Rhode Island but raised in Huntington, Mrazek neatly foreshadowed his future when he declared a major in government and a minor in film at Cornell University. After graduating in 1967, he volunteered for the Navy but never went to Vietnam; a freak accident during training injured him in one eye and led to his discharge. By 1968, he was working on a screenplay (he still hopes to produce it) and attending film school, where the visiting professors included Orson Welles and David Lean.
“I loved being there,” Mrazek said. “Michael Mann was a classmate.”
That year’s assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, however, caused Mrazek to rethink his calling. “It just seemed that what I was doing was kind of trivial,” he said. He returned home, began working an as aide to Sen. Vance Harke — a vocal opponent of the war — and chose the path of politics.
Making his movie
Mrazek retired in 1993 in the wake of a murky House banking scandal, but movie lovers might prefer to remember him as the driving force behind the creation of the National Film Registry. Established in 1988 partly as a way to prevent the colorization of black-and-white classics, the registry preserves up to 25 “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films” each year.
Despite having befriended a few Hollywood types over the years, Mrazek said he was surprised when professional actors began accepting offers to appear in his fledgling film. Williams, who recently played another politician, Ted Kennedy, in the HBO movie “Confirmation,” said he enjoyed Mrazek’s screenplay and its underlying themes of disillusionment and self-reinvention.
“I’m 64, and I think we all know the feeling of wondering what you’ve been doing with your life,” Williams said, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. He said he also liked Charlie’s closing speech arguing that “patriotism can be something deep and quiet. . . . It’s one of the best speeches I’ve ever had in a film.”
Mrazek scored a personal victory earlier this month when he brought his movie to Washington, D.C., where it screened at the Motion Picture Association of America’s theater. That organization battled him fiercely over the colorization issue in the 1980s and eventually, according to Mrazek, banned him from the premises.
“I was back in the theater,” Mrazek said with evident satisfaction. “It was a packed house, about 80 seats. And they loved it.”