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After the 1985 Oscar-winning ‘I Got Drunk of Myself’: NPR

F. Murray Abraham has his say White Lotus character Bert is “nothing but a male chauvinist pig” but that the women who respond to him “understand that he really has a good heart.”

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F. Murray Abraham has his say White Lotus character Bert is “nothing but a male chauvinist pig” but that the women who respond to him “understand that he really has a good heart.”

Fabio Lovino/HBO

As nominations for the 2023 Academy Awards are announced, The white lotus actor F. Murray Abraham, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1985 for his role as composer Antonio Salieri in Amadeusreflects on how the award changed his life – and almost cost him his career.

“I became arrogant. I became too demanding. I became full of myself,” he says. “And the movies that were offered were just terrible. I mean, there was a lot of money, but they were all just heavy-handed gangsters and baby killers, and I wasn’t interested.”

Abraham began turning down film roles and continued to do a lot of theater work. “But,” he says, “you can’t do that for a long time without Hollywood forgetting about you … After a while, (the phone) stopped ringing.”

After Abraham’s agent retired, he struggled to find new representation. But a meeting with someone who offered to be his manager paid off: “He’s a good friend of mine, and ever since he connected me with my current agent, I’ve never stopped working.”

Among his many roles in television, film and theater, Abraham is known for playing a black ops specialist in the Showtime series fatherland, and for his prominent role in the Wes Anderson film, Grand Budapest Hotel. But he thinks that his achievements in Amadeus may have helped to convince The white lotus creator Mike White to cast him as Bert, a chauvinistic (but occasionally charming) octogenarian in the HBO series.

“(White) must have seen what I thought was an essential, charming quality in Salieri Amadeus, which is that he had a wonderful sense of humor. It was painful, but it was fun,” Abraham says. “There’s a sense of life and lightness in so much of my work, and he must have captured that.”

Second season of The white lotus centers on a series of guests staying at a luxury hotel on the coast of Sicily. Abraham’s character is on vacation with his son and grandson (played by Michael Imperioli and Adam DiMarco), with whom he argues about masculinity, infidelity, and how to interact with women. Abraham says working with the two younger actors and the rest of the cast was a thrill. He has also recently worked on other projects with younger actors, including the Apple TV+ series Mythic Questand the Disney+ series Moon Knight.

“It’s great to be accepted, by the way, to be recognized as something that is possibly valuable (to them). It definitely keeps you on your toes,” he says. “I’m 83 and I don’t feel like there’s any end to me. I’m going to drop dead on stage – that’s my best hope.”

Interview highlights

On his White Lotus the character’s chauvinistic behavior

I am a first generation American. My father is from Syria and my mother was from Italy. I grew up with people like Bert and their attitude towards women was very real. And my mother, an Italian woman, treated them as if they were the king and the sons were the princes. … In a weird way, I’m still amazed (that) so many women like my character, even though he’s really nothing but a male chauvinist pig, as we used to call it, in the old days. I’m personally a feminist, but the way he treats women as people to be pursued and won and enjoyed… but I think the women who respond to this character understand that he really has a good heart that he really is a decent man, just from another time.

Adam DiMarco, F. Murray Abraham and Michael Imperioli play three generations of Di Grasso men in the HBO series The white lotus.

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Adam DiMarco, F. Murray Abraham and Michael Imperioli play three generations of Di Grasso men in the HBO series The white lotus.

Stefano Delia/HBO

On shooting The white lotus at a resort in Sicily

All I can say is I thank my lucky stars for that because it was the best job I think I’ve ever had in my life – and I’ve been acting for a long time. It was just heaven. When that show closed after four months in Sicily, I asked (Mike White) if we could shoot it all again. It was really amazing. It wasn’t just the script or his direction. He is a pleasure to work for. But it was everybody that I worked with, and I’m talking about the crew, the cast. I continue with this because it is a very rare experience.

The place was closed. We were the only residents and everyone was staying at the hotel – crew, cast, we were all together. So sometimes we could show up for makeup in our pajamas. It was idyllic. What contributed, I think, to the creation of (the series) is a real joy and a life that comes through the camera, even though there are some real dark things that are dealt with. I think what you get a sense of is family.

On a secret about his Fatherland character, CIA agent Dar Adal

I always thought of him as not only bisexual, I thought he was up for anything. And I mentioned to the wardrobe people that I thought he was wearing women’s underwear and what the wardrobe people did was sew lace on my panties. There are certain scenes where I wear lace underwear. I won’t tell you which scenes they are, but I can give you a hint: They are the most violent scenes. … These secrets add something to each character as I do and are nobody’s business. And it’s … I think it adds to the mystery of the character no matter what I do.

About growing up in the US, near the Mexican border

I grew up about four blocks from the Rio Grande and I grew up with all Mexican friends. And I’m fluent in Spanish. Juarez, Mexico, in those days was not dangerous, not like it is now, and we had really free passage back and forth. It cost a penny to get over the bridge, but they never really collected. If you didn’t have the shilling, you didn’t pay. Well, we would walk across Rio, no problem at all. It’s too bad there’s a wall down there in El Paso, because growing up with two cultures is such an advantage, and I grew up with that advantage. … The accent that I have in Scarffor example, it’s pretty much like what I sounded like growing up.

Studying with a legendary acting teacher Uta Hagen in New York City

It’s great to be liked by someone like Uta Hagen, and I was a favorite and I became a monitor in her class. … And every student should remember this: the more charismatic your teacher is, the more you will give up your own talent to please that teacher. And that’s the route I took. And at one point, after studying with her for over a year, I was really lost. And at one point during a rehearsal, she stopped me and she said, “This actor has a lot of talent and he pisses all over the place.” And that was the last hour I ever had with her. She realized I was losing it and she wanted to force me out of class. … And as soon as I left her, I began to find my feet again. It’s an interesting lesson for everyone to learn. … I shut down my own instincts to do exactly what she said. It is a dangerous path to follow.

By landing the role of Salieri in the Amadeus, despite being an unknown actor

The thought of this unknown actor getting the role was out of the question. The only reason I ever auditioned for (director Miloš Forman) was to meet him. And I knew I didn’t have a chance. It was (written by) a British author and it was written for a British actor. The point is that Miloš saw something in me, invited me to his apartment to do a little test. We then made a videotape of it, and at the end of the videotape he said, “Okay, now do the old man (version of the Salieri character)!” And I said, “Well, Miloš, give me a chance to look at it. I didn’t even investigate…” He said, “No, no, just do it.” So I did it and I improvised. And I looked at the script and when I got through I looked up to see what his reaction was and he was gone. He wasn’t even there. He left the studio before I even had a chance to say anything to him! So I thought he hated it. And two days later he called and said I was his first choice. But it was only a step. Then I got to meet the producer and meet the writer. I still knew I didn’t have it. It was really too much to ask. It was a dream.

Lauren Krenzel and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

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