From 'Scarface' To 'Sopranos': Remembering Character Actor Robert Loggia
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")
JAMES GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) There he is - the man, the legend, Feech La Manna.
GROSS: That was Tony Soprano after seeing Feech La Manna for the first time after Feech is released from prison. The role of Feech La Manna was played by Robert Loggia. He died Friday at the age of 85 of complications related to Alzheimer's disease. Loggia was probably best known for his role in Scarface as the drug kingpin who gets Al Pacino into the business.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCARFACE")
ROBERT LOGGIA: (As Frank Lopez) You see that fat bastard? That's Nacho Contreras, El Gordo. He's got more cash than anybody in this place. He's a real chaza. (Laughter) You know what a chazzer is?
AL PACINO: (As Tony Montana) No, Frank, you tell me. What is a chazzer?
LOGGIA: (As Frank Lopez) It's the Yiddish word for pig.
GROSS: Loggia was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of a private detective in the 1985 film "Jagged Edge." I spoke with him in 1987, after the release of the film "The Believers," in which he played a tough Irish cop who investigates a series of New York City murders.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BELIEVERS")
JIMMY SMITS: (As Tom Lopez) Oh Christ, did you see what they did to that kid in there? Did you see it?
LOGGIA: (As Lt. Sean McTaggert) I saw it. What do you know about it?
SMITS: (As Tom Lopez) They took my badge.
LOGGIA: (As Lt. Sean McTaggert) Who took you badge? Who took it? Who took it, Tom? Come on.
SMITS: (As Tom Lopez) You don't know what they could do to me.
LOGGIA: (As Lt. Sean McTaggert) Tom, come on, you did a good job on this one. Now we're in tough and you've got to let us have it.
GROSS: I asked Robert Loggia why he got so many roles as heavies and cops.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
LOGGIA: I guess I have a kind of an urban quality. I was born and brought up in New York. It's fortunate that I'm right for that. Let's - you know, I suppose that if we were dealing with a lot of pictures that were, let's say, cowboys and more from rural areas with thick southern accents, I might not be working so much (laughter) so...
LOGGIA: So it's kind of fun.
GROSS: In "The Believers," you play an Irish cop in New York, a police lieutenant. What did you do to get into that role? You grew up in New York, you've met a lot of New York cops in your time. But what did you do to really get into it?
LOGGIA: I know what an Irish cop is, as opposed to an Italian cop or a Jewish cop or a German cop or whatever. The quintessential Holy Name Society Irish cop, I know him. And I wanted to deliver him to the screen.
GROSS: In "Scarface," you played a Jewish-Cuban drug dealer. What did you do to get the accent?
LOGGIA: Well, Al Pacino and I and Steve Bauer studied with the - an acting coach, Robert Easton. And we would work all day working on this very specific nature of the Cuban accent, which would be different from the Mexican accent or a Spanish accent. The Cubans have a different rhythm. It's quite rapid fire.
GROSS: And you had to be able to say Yiddish idioms with a Cuban accent (laughter).
LOGGIA: Let me tell you what a chazzer is, yes.
GROSS: Right (laughter).
LOGGIA: You crazy, Tony Montana. It - yeah, that was interesting to play a Cuban Jew (laughter).
LOGGIA: Talk about character acting. But we talked all day. We rehearsed for three weeks. And if Al and I would go out to dinner at night, we'd continue talking in our accents, so we never let it go.
GROSS: You've played so many heavies and also detectives and cops. Can you ever use that to your advantage? I'm thinking - I don't know if you've ever pulled something like this - but have you ever been on the verge of getting mugged or being in a room with someone who's vaguely threatening? And have you tried to, like, turn on the kind of power that you have in those roles to scare them a little bit?
LOGGIA: No, I've never done that. But it was a danger for a while that I was nailed down because I had - there was a period in my career where I had to make sort of a comeback from oblivion because I dropped out of work for about four or five years. And to reestablish my credentials, so to speak, in Los Angeles, I was - between '74 and '80 I did a lot of episodic television playing heavies. And I wasn't as well-known, so to speak, as I am now. And if I would go into a store, say, quite often there would be - I would notice that the person would look up, see my face, and take an immediate step back. There was a subliminal reaction that this guy's bad news.
GROSS: Like you were going to rob them or something.
LOGGIA: Right, because they had seen an episode of whatever - whether it was "Magnum" or "Mannix," you know, or any of those shows - "S.W.A.T." - that I had been doing. To answer your question, though, I never used that character to scare people or throw my weight around, no. That - I was talking with Burt - I went out to dinner with Burt Reynolds and we became good friends - that when you play a tough guy, you know, that you really have to watch the local yokel coming at you, saying, I can take you, baby, you know, and want to have a fight with you. And I would hate for that to happen, you know, for a guy that want to mix it up because I play - you know, say you're not so tough, that sort of thing - to mix you up with the roles you play.
GROSS: Are you tough?
LOGGIA: Yeah, I am tough.
GROSS: Does feeling you can take someone out make you more convincing in a role when you have to do that?
LOGGIA: Yeah, for sure. Well, I played - I did a series called "T.H.E Cat" - I don't know if you remember, that was back in '68. I was a very physical guy. And when I was younger especially, I played very, very - I'm very gifted physically, and I'm able to do my own stunts and all that stuff. And now I'm on such a role of doing terrific pictures, working with terrific actors and directors - I'm quite happy to have - to be able to express the range that I feel I have.
GROSS: Thank you for talking with us.
LOGGIA: Thanks, Terry, great to talk with you.
GROSS: My interview with Robert Loggia was recorded in 1987. He died last Friday at the age of 85 of complications from Alzheimer's disease. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we talk about mass shootings with Mark Follman, national affairs editor of Mother Jones magazine. He leads an investigative team covering gun violence. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're looking for books to give as gifts, check out NPR's Book Concierge at npr.org/bestbooks. You'll find picks from critics, hosts and staff, including our book critic Maureen Corrigan and FRESH AIR's Sam Briger and Molly Seavy-Nesper. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.