Dan Lauria sits with a bowl of mushroom barley soup at a diner near the Circle in the Square theater, where he stars in "Lombardi," a new play that opened last week.
The famous gruff TV dad - from "The Wonder Years" - plays legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, with a famous TV mom - Judith Light, of "Who's the Boss?" - as his ever-patient, wisecracking wife. The play reveals the fragile, complicated relationship they maintained while he did the impossible: transform a lousy NFL team into a winning machine that nabbed five league championships in seven years. No other coach has come close to that feat.
Lauria, who has played 70-plus TV roles, also served as artistic director of L.A.'s Playwright's Kitchen Ensemble and has performed, written or directed many theater productions around the country. The Lindenhurst native sat down with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
Everybody says this is the perfect role for you - you look like him, sound like him, you played and coached football. So ... how are you not like Vince Lombardi?
You're the first one who's asked that. Well, I don't have the temper he had. But I'm as dedicated to acting as he was to coaching. Ask the other actors in the cast [he chuckles]. Especially Keith Nobbs . I make him watch old movies.
You mean old football footage?
No, old movies of old actors. One day he said, "Who's Burt Lancaster?" and I almost killed him. So I made him watch "From Here to Eternity." I had him watch Frank Sinatra, Tyrone Power, Cagney. They really had to act. Now it's mass editing and talking heads - you don't need to be an actor to do that. But when you see a four-minute scene without a cut - their body language, the energy. I said, "Now try to use some of that intensity."
Sounds like you're a born teacher.
I wasn't a very good teacher but I liked coaching football. I coached one year at Lindenhurst.
Your alma mater.
We had a good year. But lost the championship by, uh ... three points. We were on the 8-yard line when the guy fumbled with a minute left. We should've had it. Lost to North Babylon, I think. Like Lombardi said, "We didn't lose, we ran out of time."
What was Lindenhurst like back then?
I had a great childhood. My parents were the best. Senior year I was captain of the football team [he smiles]. We hung out at this bar called The Melody Inn. You could drink at 18, so we all had proof at 16 [laughs]. The place was going broke, so the guys in the Varsity Club raised money and bought it. Totally illegal.
You bought the bar?
Someone said, "What are we gonna do when our fathers find out?" And this guy said, "Why don't we beat 'em to the punch and make Saturday night 'Father's Night?'" So we invited our fathers, and they'd come and bitch, "You guys aren't supposed to be here, you know that - let's have another beer." We got close with them.
Was your "Wonder Years" role inspired by those dads?
My dad was mellow. But half my friends had that real stern dad. Back then, the goal was contentment. They'd come through the Depression and World War II. They were like, "If there are no problems this week, that's a good week." Life didn't have to be grandiose. I didn't realize we were poor til I got to college.
Have kids of your own?
No. I live in L.A. with a single mom - not my girlfriend - and my godson. I miss him. I call him every day. He's 4 now. My fourth "Little Brother." You know the "Big Brother" program? It's great. Everybody should do that.
So I took my parents to see "Lombardi," and my dad's a mega Giants fan - he was trying to get people in the audience before the show to yell, "Go Giants!" [He laughs.] I almost got killed doing research in Green Bay when they asked me, "Are you a Packer fan?" and I said, "No, I'm a Giant fan."
Why is Lombardi so revered?
He didn't walk up to you and say, "You're better than that guy you're playing against." He'd say, "You're not!" "But you wanna win? You gotta work harder than him. You've gotta MAKE yourself better." He challenged these guys. He wasn't a George Steinbrenner, buying new players. He appreciated dedication. And if we're successful, that's what the audience leaves with - you'll want to be better at whatever you want to do.