Dan Lauria knows there's no place like home for the holidays. Though he lives primarily in L.A., the Lindenhurst-raised actor, best known as the gruff dad on TV's "The Wonder Years," always spends Christmas with his L.I. family, including his 90-year-old aunt in West Babylon and his 103-year-old aunt in Richmond Hill.
Making the homecoming even more joyful for Lauria is starring as radio raconteur Jean Shepherd, the narrator of "A Christmas Story: The Musical," which begins an 18-day run at Madison Square Garden Wednesday. Lauria, 66, spoke about the merry time he's having in the show.
How did "A Christmas Story" come about for you?
First, I have to say, me being in a musical is a miracle in itself. Vince Vaughn came to see me in "Lombardi" and he offered me a part on his new television show, "Sullivan and Son" . His partner on the show is Peter Billingsley, the original Ralphie, who's producing "A Christmas Story." So it's complete nepotism.
This show's a musical, but you don't sing?
No, if I did we wouldn't sell a seat. . . . I am in one of the numbers, in a cowboy suit. I'm supposed to sing these two little lines, but I say them fast. [Director] John Rando and my co-stars, they're very, very patient with me. John said, "Dan, you gotta come in and say that on an eight count," and I said, "Count slower."
When I heard you were doing this show, I figured you would be playing the father.
I'm too old for the part, but so was Darren McGavin. I was working with Darren on an Off-Broadway play when he had just finished the movie, and he thought it was going to be a big hit. When it wasn't, he was surprised. He said, "Maybe I was too old, maybe I shouldn't have done it."
What's been the most enjoyable part of doing the show?
The kids, they're just great. . . . We've got one kid, . . . I'll go out on a limb and say it: I think the play's stronger than the movie. We're so loyal to the script of the movie. Everything is there . . . but wherever he had a fantasy in the movie, that's now a production number. It ends on a stronger note and the mother has a stronger influence on the kid in the show.
What do you have planned after "A Christmas Story" ends?
I go back to work on "Sullivan and Son," which got picked up for a third season. We did 10 shows the first season, 10 the second season and we got picked up for 13. But I've never gone a year without doing a play. Charles Durning and Jack Klugman were my mentors, both of whom passed away while I was doing this show on Christmas Eve last year.
In July, I'll be rehearsing a play at the New Jersey Rep called "Dinner With the Boys." I wrote it for Charlie Durning, Dom DeLuise, Jack Klugman and myself, and I did get to read it with them. Then Dom passed away, then Charlie, and Jack got sick the last four years, so I put it away. I didn't want to do it while they were still around. Now that they're gone, Jersey Rep offered me a production. It's a little theater. If it doesn't work, it's not going to matter, and if it does, maybe we can move it.
You said Charles Durning and Jack Klugman were your mentors. What did they teach you to become a better actor?
Charlie I knew literally from the first month I came to New York 35 years; with Jack, it was only the last 10 years of his life. Both of them had it in their wills that I give their eulogies. Charlie was like my dad. Jack would say to me, "It took me 10 years to learn how to act and 35 years to learn how not to," which is a good lesson.
Charlie told me if I ever went a year without doing a play, he'd never speak to me again. He never went a year without doing a play, and I never went a year without doing a play. When I got "The Wonder Years," he said to me, "All right, what are you going to do for the theater?" So I produced a couple of plays, and Charlie helped me with that. One of them was "A Bronx Tale" that DeNiro bought for me.
Every time Charlie saw me in a play, hed put his arm around me and go, In another 20 years, youll be an actor. Then he saw Jack Klugman and I do a play. Jack was 85 at the time. It was called The Value of Names, about the House Un-American Activities Committee, and we had one of those special nights. Charlie was there with Dom DeLuise and Peter Falk, who were all our friends. Jack, as soon as we got offstage, said, You gotta get the boys together and find out what the hell we did right tonight.
How much did The Wonder Years really boost your career?
That show was a blessing. There are a lot of actors that are much stronger than I am, but they dont have that hook. If you mention my name, people might go, Whos that? And then if you say, the dad from The Wonder Years, they go, Oh, yeah, yeah. . . . Little kids grew up watching The Wonder Years. Casting directors who are 30 now all grew up watching that show. As soon as I walk in, the young casting director will say, You know what my favorite episode of The Wonder Years was? Im very lucky to have that recognition.
The Wonder Years was set on Long Island. So I have to ask, why were there mountains in the background? We dont have any mountains on Long Island.
[Laughs.] Because you're from Long Island, you realize that every time we mentioned a road it was from Long Island, like Jericho Turnpike or Merrick Road. And we had the Jets jackets, so you knew it was the Northeast. I always said to people on the show those mountains don't look like Long Island. But we had a street that looked perfect, and as the show went on, people kept remodeling their homes, and we had to keep angling the camera and we couldn't avoid those mountains.