EXCLUSIVE: Mindful that David Mamet gave me the best quote I’ve ever gotten in 30 years of trade reporting, I have been chasing him down to try to get him to answer a question on my mind. What does it feel like for a great writer of dialogue to have an actor like the late Sean Connery — who won his only Oscar with the Mamet-scripted Brian De Palma-directed drama The Untouchables — elevate the words like Connery did as the rough and tumble Irish cop Jim Malone? Or, for that matter, when Alec Baldwin and the other stellar stars turned Glengarry Glen Ross in a master class in toxic testosterone.
But when you talk to him, Mamet is like his best plays and scripts: unpredictable. That was the case back in my Daily Variety days, when I got Mamet on the phone to discuss the abrupt exit of actor Jeremy Piven from the stage revival of Mamet’s Hollywood vivisection Speed-The-Plow. The sudden exit came because the actor’s daily sushi consumption led to a doctor to tell him the levels of mercury in his blood stream were elevated. Piven said it forced him to exit the play immediately. The suddenness put the production on its heels, though Piven was replace in the role of Hollywood producer Bobby Gould first by Norbert Leo Butz and then William H. Macy, who with Mamet was a co-founder of the Atlantic Theater Company. Mamet’s assessment of Piven’s exit was brief but got global pickup: “My understanding is that he is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer.”
As for Connery, Mamet said he was a pleasure to work with and that he brought legitimacy to the tough guy cop character he’d written. Said Mamet: “I was talking the other day to somebody whose brother was a cop and who said to her, ‘the best portrayal I’ve ever seen of a cop in a movie was the one by Connery. What Connery exhibits is what every cop needs and many don’t have, and that is common sense.’ Mamet said that was conveyed in scenes that included one where Connery’s Malone confronts Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness on a bridge at night. “Malone says, ‘why are you carrying a gun’ and Ness replies, ‘Because I am a treasury officer.’ When Connery says okay and walks away, Costner says, ‘ Why would you turn away from someone with a gun, just because he claims to be a treasury officer and Connery says, ‘Who would claim to be that, who wasn’t?’ It is the perfect example of the common sense a cop needs,” Mamet said.
I ask how Connery compared to the many other actors who delivered Mamet’s signature tough guy dialogue. The playwright-turned-filmmaker declined to eat the sushi, er, swallow the bait.
“Ever hear that joke, how do you make 99 of 100 little old ladies say, ‘fuck?’ I confessed I hadn’t. “Have the other one shout, Bingo! It’s the same thing here. Why would I alienate innumerable great actors I’ve worked with by picking one over another? I’ve been blessed since the earliest days in my career when we started our theater company in Chicago and I worked with Billy Macy, Joe Mantegna, Patti LuPone, Laurie Metcalf and others. I’ve worked with a lot of real tough guys,, like Dennis Farina, a real tough cop, and Dennis Franz, a tough Vietnam vet. I’ve worked with actual bank robbers, after they came down state, just superb actors.
“I stopped watching the news five months ago, I just couldn’t take anymore, and my wife and I have been watching old movies, pre-code movies, from back when they made 2500 films a year,” he said. “We’re watching King of the Newsboys, which starred Lew Ayres when he played light heavyweights, before Dr. Kildare, and in one scene they are getting drunk sitting at the bar and a woman wakes up, looks around and says, ‘Oh, am I still here?’ I think, that is genius, there’s no other line in the movie nearly that good. What happened? I think about it and figure, she misread the line, most probably.
“I remember a scene from a film I wrote and directed, Heist. Gene Hackman is in a scene with Danny DeVito. I’m crazy about Danny and he’s talking to Hackman on the phone and the line is ‘Are you fucking with me, are you fucking with me, or are you done fucking with me.’ With the emphasis on the world ‘done.’ As we’re shooting, I think, Jesus, no, don’t let him read it with the emphasis on ‘done’ instead of ‘fucking’ with me. And he reads it the correct way, the way a regular guy would. He was great. Sometimes, these things just happen.”
I couldn’t find that scene, but here’s the climactic scene between Hackman and DeVito, with no small help from Delroy Lindo:
Back to Connery?
“My wife [actress Rebecca Pidgeon] is Scottish and I remember running into Sean in Edinburgh one year, maybe it was at the Edinburgh Festival,” Mamet said. Obviously Connery, who was knighted in his home country, would have been wearing the traditional kilt.
“What I’ll say about Sean is, not only did he do everything well, but he looked great in a skirt,” Mamet said.