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Winning an Oscar almost cost F. Murray Abraham his career — but he bounced back

As nominations for the 2023 Academy Awards are announced, The White Lotus actor F. Murray Abraham, who won the Best Actor Oscar in 1985 for his role as composer Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, reflects on how the award changed his life — and nearly cost him his career.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest today is veteran actor F. Murray Abraham, best known recently for his role in the second season of the hit HBO series "The White Lotus," a performance that earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Abraham won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1985 for his role in the film "Amadeus," where he played an 18th century court composer in Vienna who resents the success of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Among his many roles in TV, film and theater, Abraham is known for playing a recurring character in the Showtime series "Homeland" and a prominent role in the Wes Anderson film "The Grand Budapest Hotel." Now in his 80s, F. Murray Abraham is still busy. Besides his critically acclaimed role in "The White Lotus," he recently played a writer for a team producing a hit video game in the Apple TV+ comedy series "Mythic Quest," and he earned an Emmy nomination doing the voice of an ancient Egyptian god in the Disney+ series "Moon Knight," drawn from Marvel Comics.

F. Murray Abraham, welcome to FRESH AIR.

F MURRAY ABRAHAM: Thank you. It's great to hear those things about myself. It really is. You know, I love a compliment. And I take all that you've said as a compliment.

DAVIES: Well...

ABRAHAM: And the idea that Marvel Comics is using my voice - I have to tell you, that was a great big thrill. I get - believe it or not, I get fan mail from China...


ABRAHAM: ...For that thing.

DAVIES: Let's start by talking about "The White Lotus." And I thought we'd just play a scene here. This takes place at a fabulous hotel on the coast of Sicily where a number of American guests are staying. And one of them is a party of three men from a family, a grandfather - that's you - a father, played by Michael Imperioli, and your grandson Albie, who is played by Adam DiMarco. And you're all there in Sicily to trace your ancestral Sicilian roots. And this is a scene where you're at lunch or dinner after you've just arrived. And we hear you speaking mostly with your son, Michael Imperioli, who's in his 50s. You speak first, and you're flirting with the waitress.


ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) Just flew all the way in from Los Angeles (laughter) just to be here in Sicily because we are Sicilian. Are you Sicilian?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yes, from Catania.

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) Ah. You married?

MICHAEL IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) Dad, why don't you let her put our order in so I can get a drink?

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) My son is a big muckety-muck in Hollywood, so he's very impatient.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I'll bring you your drinks.

IMPERIOLI: (As Bert Di Grasso) Thank you.

ADAM DIMARCO: (As Albie Di Grasso) Thanks. Sorry.

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) Thank you.

IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) Dad, you got to knock it off.

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) Oh, what's the problem?

IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) What are you doing? I mean, what's the point?

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) Flirting is one of the pleasures of life.

IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) Do you actually think you have a chance with any of these women?

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) Oh, don't be rude.

IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) I'm just saying. You're 80 years old.

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) Well, I'm still a man. And I get older and older, but the women I desire remain young. Natural, right? You can relate to that.

DAVIES: And that's our guest, F. Murray Abraham, in "The White Lotus." Yeah. That last line is a reference to his son's sex addiction, which he has not left at home. He's hired a sex worker for his visit to Italy. You want to describe this character, Bert, Bert Di Grasso?

ABRAHAM: I will try to describe him, but it's hard because he is so much like so many people in my life.


ABRAHAM: I'm first-generation American. My father's from Syria, and my mother was from Italy. I grew up with people like Bert, and their attitude toward women is very real. And my mother, an Italian woman, treated them like they were the king and the sons were the princes. So that - his offhand references to women - in an odd way, I'm still puzzled by it. So many women like my character even though he's really - he's nothing but a male chauvinist pig is all he - as we used to call them in the old days. I personally am a feminist. But the way he treats women as people to be pursued and won and enjoyed and - it's a pleasure.

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. That's all. And they accept him. And I'm hoping what that indicates is an understanding between generations and a possible communication between generations, which is very difficult these days. There's not much in the way of discussion between, well, political parties, between sexes. And I hope that's an indication that the so-called pendulum is swinging the other way back toward rationale.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, there's plenty of discussion in "The White Lotus" among generations about those very issues. You know, Mike White, who wrote and, you know, ran the series - do you know why he picked you for this role? Did he talk about it?

ABRAHAM: All I can say is I thank my lucky stars for it because that was the best job I think I've ever had in my life.


ABRAHAM: And I've been acting for a long time. It was just heaven. When that show closed after four months in Sicily, I asked him if we could shoot the whole thing all over again. It was really great. It wasn't just the script or his direction. He's a delight to work for. But it was everybody I was working with. And I'm talking about the crew, the cast. I'm carrying on about this because it's a very rare experience.

DAVIES: Yeah. And you were all together at this beautiful place, living, working together, kind of a summer camp with people that you were happy to share time with.

ABRAHAM: A very expensive summer camp.


ABRAHAM: But the place was closed up. We were the only residents. And everyone lived in the hotel. Crew, cast - we were all together. So sometimes we were able to show up for makeup in our pajamas. It was idyllic. What that contributed, I think, to the making of the film 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.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, you were there with this cast in this beautiful setting for this four-month shoot. And I read that you and Michael Imperioli would just do some rehearsals on the side of your own. Did you improvise stuff?

ABRAHAM: Yes. We improvised. It was encouraged by Mike to improvise. But the lines themselves were so good, it didn't take too much, really. But we both are serious actors. And when I suggested that we rehearse, he said, absolutely. And we added Adam DiMarco. We invited him.

DAVIES: Your grandson in it, right? Yeah.

ABRAHAM: Grandson. Yes, Adam - yes. He's one - and he said, sure. He'd be glad to. That's not very common, by the way, either. And we rehearsed the scenes ourselves independently. And it paid off. And aside from that, the three of us became quite close because of that. And I think that comes through.

DAVIES: Well, you know, one of the things that struck me is that while your character is, you know, imbued with some pretty outdated ideas about men and women, there's a lightness to him. I mean, a lot of the characters that you're known for are really intense. This guy has a light touch, and that - I wonder if that's what Mike White wanted from you.

ABRAHAM: Well, that's an interesting thing that you pointed out because, in fact, he must have seen what I thought was an essential, charming quality about Salieri in "Amadeus," which is he had a wonderful sense of humor. It was wicked, but it was funny. And people don't think of Salieri as funny, at least the older Salieri. The younger one was far too serious. But I think he saw that. And there's a sense of life and lightness in so much of my work. And he must have caught that. The stuff you're talking about is, you know, the "Homeland" thing. Now, that's interesting.

DAVIES: "Homeland" is this Showtime espionage thriller which stars Claire Danes as a CIA agent who has bipolar disorder. Your character was Dar Adal, who's a black ops specialist in the CIA.

ABRAHAM: That character is really interesting. 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 wore women's underwear.


ABRAHAM: And what the costume - the wardrobe people did was to sew lace on my panties.

DAVIES: No. Seriously?

ABRAHAM: Really. Really. There are certain scenes I am wearing those lace underwear. I'm not going to tell you which scenes they are. But I can give you a hint. They're the most violent scenes.

DAVIES: So that added to your performance, to have that bit of lace?

ABRAHAM: Oh, yeah, those little secrets that actors have. It's OK to talk about it now because I'm not doing it anymore. If I were still doing it, I would never have told you this. But those secrets add something to each character that I do that are no one's business. And it's - I think it adds to the mystery of the character, no matter what I do.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a little break here. We are speaking with F. Murray Abraham. He earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the hit HBO series "The White Lotus." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with F. Murray Abraham. He earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the hit HBO series "The White Lotus." And he's recently appeared in the Apple TV+ series "Mythic Quest" and the Disney+ series "Moon Knight."

You have an interesting background. I mean, you mentioned that your father was Syrian, an immigrant. Your mom was Italian. You were born in Pittsburgh but grew up in El Paso, Texas. Tell us a bit about your childhood. What kind of kid were you?

ABRAHAM: I grew up about four blocks from the Rio Grande. And I grew up with all Mexican friends. And I speak Spanish fluently. And 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 across the bridge. But they never really collected it. If you didn't have the penny, you didn't pay. Well, we would walk across the Rio, no problem at all. It's too bad that there is a wall down there in El Paso because growing up with two cultures is such a benefit. And I grew up with that benefit. I spent a lot of time in Juarez. A lot of my playmates had homes in Juarez. And we would eat in each other's homes. And as I say, I grew up speaking Spanish. The accent that I have in "Scarface," for example - that's pretty much what I sounded like when I was growing up.

DAVIES: Not a Texas accent - a Spanish accent. Yeah.

ABRAHAM: It's a Mex-Tex, but yeah.

DAVIES: As a teenager, I understand you got into some trouble or could have.

ABRAHAM: Yeah. The problem with living on the border was that - and it's still probably true that the Mexicans were treated as second-class citizens. And consequently, a lot of poverty promoted gangs. And it was the beginnings of the Crips and the Bloods, I think, along that border and along the border in San Diego as well. But we had gangs like - they were called the Lords. And I was in a small gang, too. But we were never as violent as they are now. I mean, we didn't have the firepower, for one thing. Nobody was ever killed in any fights we were in. But I did get into trouble. We stole cars. And we did a lot of damage. But we never cut anybody up. But finally, I was going nowhere. And I was ready to just get out of high school as soon as I could and leave.

DAVIES: You stole cars. I mean, you know, back then, cars were different. It's funny. I actually - I grew up in South Texas, I mean, which is a long way from El Paso. But I - you know, I learned, when I was a kid, how you could start a starter mower by taking a screwdriver and connecting the two terminals on the starter engine.

ABRAHAM: (Laughter).

DAVIES: I mean, it was not that hard to - did you boost a lot of cars? And what did you do with them when you got them?

ABRAHAM: Well, we just - we would boost the cars. And we would just drive around, that's all, have a good time and maybe even damage them, by the way, trash them. But in those days, people left keys in cars. That was very common. And it was so common and they were being stolen so often that there was a law that was passed that if your car was stolen because you left the keys in, you were responsible for it. But we - as I said, we didn't have any accidents, fortunately. But we did do rotten things to other people's property. And I spent a little time in jail a couple of times, but briefly. And, you know, my parents would, you know, get me out. I was going nowhere is what it amounts to.

DAVIES: You were skipping school, I assume, doing that, right?

ABRAHAM: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It was not very smart. But anyway, I didn't want to become a mechanic, like my father was, as good as a mechanic as he was. I just wanted to get out and get on my own.

DAVIES: And so you got into acting through a teacher, right?

ABRAHAM: Yeah. What I wanted to do was to graduate from high school as soon as possible. And I took an easy course, I thought, called speech and drama. And sure enough, Lucia P. Hutchins, my teacher, said, you should try this. And she introduced me to Shakespeare. And I did a play. And I won a contest in the state of Texas. I won a scholarship to go to college at Texas Western in El Paso. The scholarship was a hundred bucks. Can you believe that? And anyway, I got through with that first year in college and then thumbed my way to LA. "On The Road" was a very important book to us in those days. And...

DAVIES: Jack Kerouac, yeah, yeah.

ABRAHAM: Jack Kerouac. And thumbing in those days, as you remember, coming from South Texas, was easy to do.

DAVIES: I did a lot of that myself, yes.

ABRAHAM: Yeah, yeah.


ABRAHAM: And I went to LA, and that's where I met my wife. And we stayed together for - oh, well, that's another story.

DAVIES: So you went to LA. And, you know, there was a lot of movie production in LA, opportunities there. Why did you decide you needed to go to York?

ABRAHAM: I'll tell you, the movie business was really tough on me. I had a real problem meeting people. The first time that I went on an interview, I just was - I was a disaster. And I got so scared of the next one that I didn't go out again. I would do plays and readings, and I did some class work, but I was too scared to audition. It's an awful thing to admit, but it's true. And when I finally decided, OK, I'm going to do this play, I'm going to get this play - and I got it, Bradbury's "Wonderful Ice Cream Suit." I did Ray Bradbury's play in LA, and it was a success. We ran for about eight or nine months. And I decided that I didn't like the way actors thought of themselves in LA. I thought I was better than that - I mean, not better than them, but my ideas were of classical theater. And I decided that I wasn't getting the kind of instruction I wanted, and I wanted to find a great teacher. So my wife and I pulled up stakes and went to New York. And I auditioned for Uta Hagen, and she took me. And she was my only teacher.

DAVIES: Wow. Now, let's just pause there for a second. Uta Hagen - I mean, she was legendary for her method of instructing actors. What was the experience like for you?

ABRAHAM: (Laughter) Well, 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 after about a year, I fell under the spell of a great teacher. And every student should keep this in mind. The more charismatic your teacher is, the more you will give up your own talent in order to please that teacher. And that's the route I was taking. And at one point, after having studied with her for over a year, I was really lost. And at one point during an exercise, she stopped me. And she said, this actor has a great talent, and he pisses all over it. And that was the last class I ever had with her. She realized that I was losing it, and she wanted to force me out of the class. And I did. And as soon as I left her, I started finding my feet again. It's an interesting lesson for everyone to learn.

DAVIES: Wow. So you were kind of ignoring your natural instincts and trying some technique that you thought she wanted? Or...

ABRAHAM: That's exactly the right description. I was shutting off my own instincts in order to do exactly what she was saying. That's a dangerous path to follow.

DAVIES: Well, we're glad that you got back to your instincts. It's been great for a lot of audiences. You know, you did - like, you know, so many aspiring actors in New York - I mean, it's not easy - you did commercials. I've read that you - there was a famous Fruit of the Loom commercial. You were one of the bunches of grapes or something, and...

ABRAHAM: Oh, yeah. Well, I - no, I was a leaf, man.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

ABRAHAM: Anybody can be a grape. Baby, I was a leaf.

DAVIES: We do actually have a Listerine commercial that you shot.

ABRAHAM: Oh, that was a prize winner, believe it or not.

DAVIES: Really?

ABRAHAM: Yeah, well, you know, they gave out their prizes to each other.

DAVIES: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

ABRAHAM: (Laughter).

DAVIES: Everybody awards excellence. Well, look. It's short. Why don't we listen to this? This is, you know - we see you, a young F. Murray Abraham, and you're on a wharf - a jacket - kind of a longshoreman, I would guess, sort of a working-class guy. And, you know, you're talking about this great product, so - and you're being coached. Let's listen.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Andy, what do you think of the taste of Listerine Antiseptic?

ABRAHAM: (As Andy) Terrific, really terrific taste. You don't want me to tell them what I really think, do you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You use it.

ABRAHAM: (As Andy) Yeah, I mean, yeah, twice a day. It kills the germs that can give you bad breath, and it lasts for hours. Hey; that wasn't so good. Let me do it over.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) That was fine, Andy.

ABRAHAM: (As Andy) Oh, I get it. Don't call us. We'll call you. Listen, mister. Let me tell you what I really think. I use it, but it tastes crummy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Listerine's got the taste people hate twice a day.

DAVIES: All right, early performance by F. Murray Abraham.

ABRAHAM: (Laughter).

DAVIES: Did you do a lot of commercials?

ABRAHAM: I did a lot of commercials, yes, I'm delighted to say. It's one of the places where I learned how to act in front of a camera. I mean, this - New York was the center for commercial making in those days. And there were lots of commercials being done all over the city.

DAVIES: Let's take another break here, and then, we'll talk some more. We are speaking with F. Murray Abraham. He earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the hit HBO series "The White Lotus." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with actor F. Murray Abraham, who recently earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the hit HBO series "The White Lotus." He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the film "Amadeus" and is remembered for his roles in the Showtime series "Homeland" and the Wes Anderson film "The Grand Budapest Hotel." He recently appeared in the Apple TV+ series "Mythic Quest" and the Disney+ series "Moon Knight."

You did a lot of acting in New York kind of back in the '70s and '80s. And then in 1984, you were cast in the lead role for the film "Amadeus." This was one of these things that everybody knew was going to be a big deal because the play by Peter Shaffer had been such a huge success on Broadway. And I read that the director of the film, Milos Forman, spent a long time and talked to a lot of actors. Do you want to just tell us what your experience was like and how you got the part?

ABRAHAM: Oh, sure, be glad to. You know, that play by Peter was a worldwide success. It was translated into over 30 languages. So everybody in the world wanted that part. Everyone who played Salieri in all the countries where it was done always won the top honors, which indicates that maybe it had to do with the writing as much as anything else. But consequently, everyone wanted that part. And some very famous actors showed up in makeup, with their own costume people. That's how much they wanted it. So the idea that this unknown actor was going to get the role was out of the question.

The only reason that I ever auditioned for him was to meet him. And I knew I didn't have a chance, you know? And it was a British writer. And it was written for a British actor. The point is, Milos did see something in me, invited me to his apartment to do a little rehearsal. We then did a videotape of it. And at the end of the videotape, he said, all right. Now do the old man. And I said, well, Milos, give me a chance to look at it. I didn't even examine it. 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 just - he left the studio before I even got a chance to say anything to him. So I figured, you know, he hated it, you know? And two days later, he called and said I was his first choice. But that was only one step. Then I had to meet the producer and then meet the writer. I still didn't - knew I didn't have it. I just - it was too much to ask, really. It was a dream. And then besides that, I was in a conversation with Brian De Palma at the same time about "Scarface." And he wanted me to do "Scarface." And I kept saying, well, Brian, can you wait on this because...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

ABRAHAM: I got this other thing happening. He says, what other thing? And I said, it's "Amadeus." He says, well, then I'll wait. I'll wait for a while, as long as I can. So he waited and waited and waited. And the point is that I did take "Scarface." And I went to LA to rehearse it with the whole company. And we're rehearsing "Scarface." And that's when I got the call that they wanted me to do "Amadeus."

DAVIES: Now, I heard that Al Pacino, who, of course, starred in "Scarface" and who you were working with - or going to be working with - was also competing for the part of Salieri in "Amadeus." True?

ABRAHAM: Yeah, that's - yeah, Al wanted it like everybody else wanted it. And when he found out that I was going to do it, he came over to me and said, don't try to carry the whole film on your shoulders. Just do your work. I thought that was very generous of him. And it was funny to be able to fly back and forth from Hollywood to Prague, doing "Scarface" and then doing Salieri. And then doing - (laughter) it was very, very romantic.

DAVIES: "Amadeus" is filmed in Prague. And then in LA, "Scarface" is happening. And you're doing both at the same time. Well, listen; I want to play a clip from "Amadeus." Now, you play Antonio Salieri, who was the court composer for the - in the court of Franz Josef, the holy Roman emperor there. You want to just briefly describe Salieri's relationship with Mozart in this story?

ABRAHAM: In this story, Salieri is envious of his talent and angry with God for having given all of this talent to this dirty mouth, potty mouth boy instead of to me, to Salieri, who has devoted his whole life to the church and to his music. And he thus decides that he wants to kill off Mozart slowly and take credit for his work and keep his work from being appreciated in the public.

DAVIES: Well, that's a perfect setup for the scene we're about to hear. I mean, it's kind of in two parts. In the second half, we're going to hear you as Salieri speaking with the emperor, who is played by Jeffrey Jones. And you're badmouthing Mozart so that the emperor doesn't grant him the lucrative job that he wanted teaching a young woman in the royal family. But first, we hear you speaking directly to God about your anger. Let's listen.


ABRAHAM: (As Antonio Salieri) From now on, we are enemies, you and I, because you choose for your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block you. I swear it. I will hinder and harm your creature on Earth as far as I am able.

Majesty, I don't like to talk against a fellow musician.

JEFFREY JONES: (As Emperor Joseph II) Of course not.

ABRAHAM: (As Antonio Salieri) I have to tell you, Mozart is not entirely to be trusted alone with young ladies.

JONES: (As Emperor Joseph II) Really?

ABRAHAM: (As Antonio Salieri) As a matter of fact, one of my own pupils, a very young singer, Maria Theresia Paradis, told me she was, well...

JONES: (As Emperor Joseph II) Well, what?

ABRAHAM: (As Antonio Salieri) Molested, Majesty, twice in the course of the same lesson.


DAVIES: That's our guest, F. Murray Abraham, as Salieri in the film "Amadeus." Again, what a voice.

ABRAHAM: Let me interrupt you there.


ABRAHAM: You hear - in that first cut, you hear crackling in the background.


ABRAHAM: That's the fire. At the end of that scene, I threw a crucifix into the flames. And my mother, who was a very - grew up a very strict Catholic, was horrified. She said, you didn't have to do that. I said, it's a movie. No, no, no. She said, you shouldn't have done that. She was really hurt by it. When I did "Scarface," I told her, Mom, don't go see that movie. Don't see that movie. It's dirty. She did see it. And she said, you tell - she's a very proud Italian - you tell Al he doesn't have to use that language.


DAVIES: Well, you know, there was another great actor here - a great performance in "Amadeus." And that was Tom Hulce, who played the young Mozart, who - people will remember - he had this crazy laugh, and he was this, you know, kind of vain, vulgar, philandering, drinking character. You two were antagonists in the story, of course. I'm wondering, while you were shooting, did you feel that? Or did you feel a rivalry at all?

ABRAHAM: I decided to live away from everyone else as Salieri would have done. I lived in an old, old hotel. They were in the modern hotel. And I thought it was best to keep a distance from everyone. And that's how we did it for six, seven months. I didn't have much to do with him or anyone else, actually, at all. It was not easy. It was hard 'cause I am really a - I like to have a good time. But it was the right thing to do. I, in fact, became very close to a lot of Czechs. That was fun.

DAVIES: Well, you know, it's interesting because, you know, you were talking about shooting "The White Lotus" and how Mike White created this kind of - the cast and crew - you know, kind of created a family, which really, you know, kind of inspired this wonderful, supportive collaboration. This - that's not what you thought - what you needed here?

ABRAHAM: No, it was exactly the opposite with this. I wasn't part of that family at all. And I think it paid off. But I thought Tom was terrific. Well, he got a nomination. Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, that was the other fascinating thing, is that you were both nominated for best actor. And we should mention, by the way, that the film won best picture that year. You know, you also play piano in this, and you direct - you know, conduct an orchestra for operas. Is that something that you knew something about before? Or did you have to learn that?

ABRAHAM: No. (Laughter) No, nothing at all. But I learned. But Milos insisted that we play all the notes. You - we weren't making the sound. They were fake pianos. But we were - he insisted that we hit all the right keys. And when Tom played that piano behind his back, he was hitting the keys. I mean, it's a - it was legitimate. I learned to play several pieces. I don't know anything about playing a piano, but I learned to play the - and there were several that we didn't even use in the film. That really made me crazy 'cause I worked so hard on it. It was so hard. Poor me.

DAVIES: (Laughter) All right. Let's take a little break here. Then, we'll talk some more. We are speaking with F. Murray Abraham. He earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the hit HBO series "The White Lotus." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with veteran actor F. Murray Abraham. He recently earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the HBO series "The White Lotus." He won the Academy Award for best actor for his role in the film "Amadeus."

At the same time, while - that you're filming this Oscar-winning performance, you're then flying occasionally back to LA to continue working on "Scarface." So I thought we would get a sense of that character. You know, this is about a - you know, it's about, you know, a drug operation. And you play an underboss in a Miami drug operation, a kind of a guy who works for a drug lord named Frank Lopez. And in the scene we're going to hear, you're there - you're, I think, in Bolivia negotiating a drug deal with - your character's named Omar Suarez. And along with you on this trip is the Al Pacino character, Tony, who is this young, brash, aspiring gangster. And he's kind of trying to assert himself in these talks. And in this scene, we hear you kind of putting him in his place. Let's listen.


ABRAHAM: (As Omar) I'm doing the talking here, not you. You're here to watch my back. Watch my back.

AL PACINO: (As Tony Montana) Better than your front, let me tell you. That's easy to watch.

ABRAHAM: (As Omar) Close your mouth. I can't wait to see what Frank's going to react to this one. Just shut up. I'm doing the talking here.

PAUL SHENAR: (As Alejandro Sosa) So where were we?

PACINO: (As Tony Montana) Panama. You're looking for a partner, right?

SHENAR: (As Alejandro Sosa) Something like that.

ABRAHAM: (As Omar) Look, Mr. Sosa. We're getting ahead of ourselves here. I am down on Frank's authority to buy 200 keys. That's it. That's my limit. I got no right - nobody got no right to negotiate for Frank Lopez.

PACINO: (As Tony Montana) Omar, why don't you let a man finish, OK? Let him propose a proposition.

ABRAHAM: (As Omar) Hey.

PACINO: (As Tony Montana) And then we can talk more.

ABRAHAM: (As Omar) Montana, you got no authority here, OK? I started you in this business.

PACINO: (As Tony Montana) Frank is going to love it, mate. Don't worry about it.

ABRAHAM: (As Omar) That's up to Frank, not you.

DAVIES: And that is our guest, tough guy F. Murray Abraham, in "Scarface." You know, it's - so you're going - like, you're in Prague doing, you know, Salieri, who is this devoutly religious musician. And then, you're going back and playing this gangster, who, I guess, does not live to see the end of the film, I think. He meets a pretty awful end; doesn't he? What was it like to kind of go back and forth between such different characters?

ABRAHAM: It was a vacation - one from the other - because if they were at all close, then it would have been difficult. But because they were so different, it was really a treat. On the airplane ride between cities, I would study the next character. And you get to Hollywood, and then, you start playing this gangster with this other accent with some very good actors. And that was true both ways. I did it four times, and it was like a relief, in fact. It's hard to believe, but it's true. And it also was glamorous in a way that - old-fashioned way of moviemaking that I don't know if it exists any longer. And I felt like I was in my own, finally.

DAVIES: You know, you describe yourself as a relatively unknown actor before you got the role in "Amadeus."


DAVIES: And then you win the best actor Oscar for the film that wins best picture. It had to change your life.

ABRAHAM: Yeah, it did. It sure did. Suddenly, I was being offered $100,000 a day. I mean, can you believe that? I don't think - before that, I wasn't making $100,000 in three years.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, you know, it's interesting because suddenly getting this kind of torrent of opportunities must have presented a challenge. I mean, I read that Shirley MacLaine, who presented the Oscar - it's funny. You can see your acceptance online, and it's fun to watch. She whispered something to you - right? - about, don't just take the money. Do something you love.

ABRAHAM: Yeah. She said, don't take the first thing they offer you. She was - she's a nice lady, by the way, sweet lady.

DAVIES: So how did you approach what you did after that?

ABRAHAM: Well, I became arrogant. I became too demanding. I became full of myself. I became someone finally I really didn't like. I didn't know I didn't like me at the time, but I afterwards realized I was really doing the wrong thing. I decided that whatever the next job was, it had to be at least equal to "Amadeus," that performance. They told me it was a wonderful performance, and it was deserving of great accolades. When I won the Academy Award, I believed it meant something, and I didn't want to do just any thing that came along. And the films that were being offered were just terrible. I mean, there was a lot of money, but they were just all heavy gangsters and baby killers. And I wasn't interested.

So I did a play for, you know, 90 bucks a week with Geraldine Page. I did "The Madwoman Of Chaillot," which was, you know, a great experience. She and I became very close. But the point is it was the work that was more important. But you can't do that for a long time without Hollywood forgetting you. You've got to keep yourself in the public eye. And I didn't know that.

DAVIES: It is a business. Yeah. And...

ABRAHAM: Yeah. But I took it for granted I was going to be famous forever, you know?

DAVIES: So do you think, looking back on it, you should have handled it differently?

ABRAHAM: Yeah. I should have been a little more calculating, but it just didn't seem right at the time. I really wanted to be known as an artist. And finally, after a while, the money wasn't coming in. So I started doing the things that were necessary to make some money. And I've done a lot of junk out there. I got to tell you - nothing to be ashamed of. But stuff that - like, I paid the rent, so it's OK.

DAVIES: Right. Right. Not every day is magical.

ABRAHAM: (Laughter).

DAVIES: You know, I know that you did a lot of theater. Were there ever any years where the phone just didn't ring at all, where you didn't have work?

ABRAHAM: Oh, after a while, it stopped ringing. And, you know, I can't describe what it feels like because I kept insisting on doing only certain things and refusing - the point is it did stop ringing. And my old agent from William Morris - when he retired, Morris couldn't find an agent to represent me out of all the thousands of agents they have. So I was, like, faced with the possibility of having to start looking for an agent, start all over again. Can you imagine walking in - what it feels like walking into an office to meet someone who's half my age or less and have him say, tell me about yourself. You know, I'll tell you about myself. I'm ready to pop you right in the mouth. You know, you don't get a job that way, you know?

DAVIES: (Laughter).

ABRAHAM: Anyway, I ran into someone who said, I can help you. I'll be your manager. And he's a good friend of mine. And ever since he connected me with my current agent, I've never stopped working. It does take an agent.

DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah, I'm sure. I'm sure. Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a little break here. We are speaking with F. Murray Abraham. He earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the hit HBO series "The White Lotus." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with veteran actor F. Murray Abraham. He recently earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the HBO series "The White Lotus." He won the Academy Award for best actor for his role in the film "Amadeus."

You were in the original production of "Angels In America." You played Roy Cohn. Is that right?

ABRAHAM: That's right.

DAVIES: Tell us just a bit about inhabiting that role, what that was like.

ABRAHAM: There are very few modern roles as great as Roy Cohn. It's one of the best performances I've ever given. I was so happy with it. But it took a long time to get to it because I disliked Roy Cohn so much personally, and the way I discovered him was through a lawyer who told me that he had fought a case against Roy. And as much as he detested him, he couldn't take his eyes off of him. And that was the opening I needed to do the character because you can't play a character that you hate. You can't play if you don't have some respect for him. And that was an opening into Roy Cohn. I'm glad you asked me that question. That's - I can never play Hitler, for example, but I could play Roy Cohn.

DAVIES: So knowing that he was such an arresting person to be in the room with - that somehow it clicked for you?

ABRAHAM: Absolutely. What it did would give him a quality that I could identify with because otherwise, I just couldn't. I couldn't at all with him. But that made sense. He had a real talent aside from his terrific intellect.

DAVIES: You know, you're in your 80s now. And you've got this stuff going where you work with a lot of really young people. I mean, you know, "Mythic Quest" was this TV series that you were on about a group making a hit video game? You know, I will say that, you know, over the years, I mean, as I've aged as a journalist - I spent most of my years covering state and local politics. And over time, I gradually realized that I was increasingly the oldest guy in the room. And...

ABRAHAM: (Laughter).

DAVIES: And one of the things that I loved about staying active and keeping working was that I was around young people who treated me as a peer, as opposed to some random old guy that they would just ignore. And I'm just wondering - you've been doing these projects. Is it fun and exhilarating to be around young people and what they're doing?

ABRAHAM: No, you encapsulated it. You described it perfectly. It's a privilege. And it's great to be accepted, by the way, to be recognized as something possibly valuable. It keeps you - I'm not going to say it keeps you young. But it certainly keeps you on your toes, yeah, because, you know, they don't mess around. And they'll let you know how they feel. And it's also - by the way, it's so exciting to see some of that talent. Some of them are just so damn good. It's great to see. I don't quite understand how they keep it up, considering they don't do as much theater as I think an actor should be doing. So it's a different technique. And it's a different thing that I am now privileged to be a part of. You're absolutely right. It's thrilling. And I'm 83. And I just - I don't feel like there's any end for me. I think I'm going to drop dead on the stage. That's what I - that's my fondest hope.

DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah, go hard until the end. Yeah.

ABRAHAM: (Laughter).

DAVIES: I understand that last year, you lost your wife, Kate. You had been married to her for 62 years. Is this right? Yeah.

ABRAHAM: Yes. Yes, yes.

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, that's - a 62-year show business marriage is almost as much of an accomplishment as an Oscar, maybe more. My wife and I are going to celebrate 40 years this year. I can only imagine...

ABRAHAM: Congratulations.

DAVIES: Thank you. Well, I can only imagine what it's like to...


DAVIES: ...Have your life so drastically change and to lose a partner like that. How...

ABRAHAM: Yeah. Yeah, I'm still trying to adjust to it. There is a play that I was going to do for theater for a new audience called "The Chairs." and I had been planning to do it for some time. It's a great two-hander by Ionesco. And I had to tell my producer friend Jeffrey, who produced "The Merchant Of Venice" for me, by the way - I had to tell him that I couldn't do the play. I had to cancel because at the end of the play, the two - the husband and wife suicide. And I didn't think I could possibly face that play killing myself at the end of each performance. So I canceled out of it. It's affected my life. Absolutely. And I've decided the only thing I can do now is to do comedy just to keep myself off the ground.

DAVIES: You know, the other thing I - it's occurred to me is that, you know, I've - as I've gotten older, I can continue to do, I think, decent, quality work. But my memory isn't what it used to be...

ABRAHAM: (Laughter).

DAVIES: ...Which for an actor is kind of a big deal. Do you have any...

ABRAHAM: No, no. No, no. It's more than a big deal. It's every actor's nightmare - is not being able to retain his lines. But do you do a physical workout? I do. I think it's absolutely - it's necessary. But I also do mental exercises. I memorize sonnets. I want to do - memorize all of Shakespeare's sonnets. I have half of them now. But the point is that you have to exercise that memory muscle, as well. If you're really serious about being worried about your memory, then you should do those exercises. Memorize some poetry.

DAVIES: So you get up, and you recite a sonnet.

ABRAHAM: I either do it in the morning or the evening or both. I sometimes put myself to sleep with my sonnets. I don't know if that's a positive thing, but it's - I absolutely believe in it. And also, I enjoy them.

DAVIES: Well, F. Murray Abraham, it's been fun. Thank you so much for spending this time with us.

ABRAHAM: Thanks a lot.

DAVIES: F. Murray Abraham earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the hit HBO series "The White Lotus." And he won the best actor Oscar for his role in the film "Amadeus." He recently appeared in the Apple TV+ series "Mythic Quest" and the Disney+ series "Moon Knight." On tomorrow's show, we remember the deadly assault on the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, Texas, 30 years ago this spring. Writer Jeff Guinn draws on new interviews with federal agents and surviving Branch Davidians in his account of the confrontation, which took the lives of 86 people, including 23 children. Guinn's new book is "Waco." I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF WRD TRIO'S "CORNER POCKET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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