If Eddie Mekka isn't the first actor who leaps to mind when you think Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof," it's probably because your image of him is stuck back in the mid-'70s to early '80s, when he was the handsome young dancing fool Carmine on TV's "Laverne & Shirley." We caught up with Shirley's boyfriend after lunch as he was strolling down Main Street in Northport on his way to the John W. Engeman Theater, where he's playing the more mature leading man in "Fiddler."
So what brought you to the role of Tevye?
I played "An Evening With Groucho" by his son, Arthur Marx. He's not that different from Tevye. He uses humor to hide the hurt. When you're able to laugh with someone, you feel for him. So I guess that got directors thinking I could play older. When I was Seymour in "Little Shop of Horrors," they asked me about "Fiddler." I thought for a second, "What role?" I'm too young for Tevye. I played him opposite Sally Struthers - she was Golde - in Algonquin, Maine, summer before last. BT McNicholl directed us. So when he was hired to direct it here, he suggested me. They said, "We don't know if we can afford Eddie Mekka." But we worked it out.
It's been a long time since you were Tony-nominated in "The Lieutenant" in the early '70s. "Laverne & Shirley" came along from 1976 to '83. Did that role open doors for you?
It did and didn't. I got pigeonholed. You'd never expect Carmine to play Tevye, for instance. TV makes you lazy as an actor because you have three or four chances to get it right. Onstage, you get one shot each night. So I did theater whenever I could during hiatus.
Was it like old times when you worked with Cindy Williams again?
We've done "Grease," then a married couple in "It Had to Be You," and a new show, "Kong's Night Out," where I play a Bulgarian producer. I said, "I don't know how to sound Bulgarian." They told me to play it like Tevye, like a Hungarian Jew maybe. Close enough. Cindy plays an old stripper who puts money into the show.
You were Madonna's beau in "A League of Their Own." How did that go?
She's a talented lady and a good businesswoman. I'll leave it at that. Except to say they cut my best line. I'm kissing Madonna and I say, "Is that your tongue or a belt?" Too raunchy for Disney, I guess.
What's next for you?
Thirty-five weeks of "Grease." Vince Fontaine. And I'm doing a gospel version of "Teen Angel" with a wig.
WHAT "Fiddler on the Roof," starring Eddie Mekka as Tevye
WHEN | WHERE Thursdays through Sundays through June 20 at John W. Engeman Theater at Northport, 250 Main St.
INFO $60; engemantheater.com, 631-261-2900