Hollywood talent Richard Portnow dishes on stars

Actor Richard Portnow said that his career as a Hollywood actor over the last 25 years started as a way to get out of serving in Vietnam and to meet pretty girls.

A veteran of stage and screen, Portnow has worked with some of the biggest film directors of our time, and has appeared on shows like “Seinfeld” and “The Sopranos.” His most recent role was as Paramount Pictures head Barney Balaban in “Hitchcock”, starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren.

Portnow was named one of the “Actors We Love” by the actors’ trade newspaper Back Stage West. Back Stage West wrote, “Portnow knows exactly how to hook an audience with every character.”

He also posts lots of jokes on his Facebook page.

He agreed to talk to The Sounds News over the phone about some of the directors he has worked with.

Woody Allen (“Radio Days”)

Radio Days was my first film of any note, and I knew nothing at that stage of the game.

I remember the interview. I was brought in by Marion Dougherty, or maybe it was Juliet Taylor; I don’t remember. I was told in advance that it was going to be very, very quick. “He’s going to say, ‘Hello,’ and that’s it. Basically, you’re going to be in and out; they’ll take your Polaroid, and that’s it.” And, I didn’t know what to expect.

So, she brings me in; she introduces me and leaves the room. And, he was behind the desk. He gets half-way up and says, “We’re doing a movie in February.” And, in trying to embrace high comedy, I said, “I’m available!”

And, I turn around to see where the chair was, the couch, or whatever it was that I was going to sit on. You want to make sure you don’t miss the seat, you know. You don’t want to screw up, so I turn to make sure that I was aware of where the couch was, and I was going to sit down, but there was nothing there. And, I turn back, and he says, “So, thank you very much! We’re gonna take your picture,” and that was it!

And, six weeks later, they called and told me that I had a major role! And I worked on that for six weeks.

I remember that, in the room with him, was his editor Susan Morse and his costume designer Jeffrey Kurland. And, subsequently, Kurland said to me “Don’t ask him any questions. He does not like questions.”

So naturally, the first day of work, all I did was ask him questions. I asked him… because you don’t get to see the whole script, if you’re not in the whole script. If you have a supporting role, which I did, you only see what you’re in. You only see the pages you’re on. You don’t see the whole script, so I really didn’t know where I fit in, what anyone said about me before my entrance to the story or after I departed. I had no idea.

So I asked him “Listen, what kind of a guy do you want Sy to be? I can paint him with any colors you want, you know.” He said, “No, no. Just do what you’re doing. When we get to the big meaty part of the scene, I’ll nip and tuck.”

And, when we got to the big dialogue part of the scene, his one direction to me, because I’m walking down the street with Dianne Wiest, and we’re talking about our day together and my relationship –– leaving my wife and family –– he said “Be more affectionate with her.” So I put my arm around her when we walked. And that was it.

That was all he ever said to me. So, I really didn’t know what to make of the experience. He sure didn’t give me much direction, but I knew it was an important film to be a part of. An auspicious beginning, as one might say.

Barry Levinson (“Tin Men,” “Good Morning, Vietnam”)

I wrote him a letter after the 20-year anniversary of “Good Morning, Vietnam,” telling him how my relationship with him changed my life and career and how important it was. He was duly impressed. He didn’t realize he had that effect on someone.
Levinson really gave me my big shot. Everything changed when I met Barry, because I’m his kind of actor. I like to improvise, I like to play with the script a little bit.

And, he cast me in “Tin Men,” and that started everything for me, really, because “Tin Men” led to “Good Morning, Vietnam”, and “Good Morning, Vietnam” led me to Hollywood.

I had no intention of moving out to Hollywood. I was doing just fine in New York. I was on Broadway, making movies, doing TV shows. And, “Good Morning, Vietnam,” which was the second film in a row I did for Barry Levinson, was shot in Bangkok.

A lot of that stuff I wrote. Two-thirds of the way through the shoot, he said “I’m going to put you back on the air. Come up with some stuff.” And, I spent a day writing it, and then a day learning it, and then a day rehearsing it as Stan “The Man” Levitan. And, then, we shot it, and I got it all into the mag with 12 feet to spare, and some of that wound up in the film!

The sequence where I’m on the air and I say “So, remember, GIs, always rinse your razor with cold water instead of hot. Your face will look, and feel, a whole lot better. That’s it for Hygiene in the Heat. Tomorrow, we’ll be discussing foot care, so be sure to tune in.” So I wrote that.
That wasn’t in the script. And they loved it –– “Hygiene in the Heat.” They almost fell out of their chairs!

I became friendly with his producer. When we wrapped, his producer said, “Well, you have to touch down in L.A. to get back to New York. Why don’t you stay at my house? Your ticket’s good forever. It’s an open, first class seat.” And, I took him up on it, and stopped here in L.A., and they threw work at me, and I never left.

Joel and Ethan Coen (“Barton Fink”)

I had met them for “Miller’s Crossing,” and really wanted in on that film, but I didn’t get the part. The part went to a guy named J.E. Freeman. But, they liked me a lot, and they had me come in for “Barton Fink.”

And, they liked my take on it. They liked the whole thing that I brought to it, so they cast me. And, I was cast before my partner was cast, so they asked me to come into the auditions for the guy who played Deutsch.

They write very economically. The guys are really terrific writers, and I didn’t want to change anything at all, because it was so tight.

But, I saw one opportunity to change something, and I ran it by them, because there’s a sequence of lines, and I said, “What you’ve written, gentlemen, you missed an opportunity for alliteration, which I know you like, so wouldn’t it be more in tune with the rhythm and the cadence of your writing to say ‘I’ll be frank with you, Fink.’?” And they said, “Yeah, man! We missed that. Thank you!” They were very open to it –– regular guys, you know, non-Hollywood.

We were sitting outside between shots, and Ethan came over. I was sitting in one of those little courtesy chairs, and he sat on the ground! And, we started talking about our backgrounds.

I remember one day we were setting up a shot, a high-angle shot, and Joel is tall and Ethan is short. And, Joel says to Ethan, “What do you think?” And, Ethan says, “I can’t see!” So, Joel picked him up and brought him over to the lens! It was hilarious.
They behaved like brothers –– great guys.

Sidney Lumet (“Find Me Guilty”)

That was a treat working with him.

I had read his book, “Making Movies,” before meeting him, and then after I got the part, I read it again just prior to leaving for New York.
When we were shooting –– I was on that film for the duration; I think that was an eight-week job –– I’m watching the guy do page 66, and I said to myself, “Jesus! That’s page 66! He’s doing exactly what he wrote!” And, it was fascinating to watch.

Sometimes, you get just one take, so you better have your stuff together. Very savvy, he knew exactly what was going on all the time.

The trial that the movie exposes lasted 18 months, one of the longest trials in American history. And, it occurred to me one day as we were shooting, and I see the FX guy has snow falling outside the windows of the courthouse, and you can see it. I thought, “It’s winter time, and I don’t hear anybody coughing or sneezing.” So I decided to cough.

And, naturally, the sound guy said, “Is something wrong, Richard? You keep coughing!” And, I said, “Yeah, man. It’s called acting! I am making believe I have a cold. It’s winter time. Hello?”

And, after lunch, I got –– I like to get to the set, I don’t wait till the last minute, so if lunch is from one to two, I get back on set at 10 to two. I just like to be in the pocket a little more, instead of rushing to it. And, so does Sidney, because he was there. And, I was just sitting there on set in my place, going through some stuff. And, he was aware of my presence, and he said, “Like the cough, Richard!” You know, he was very aware of everything that was going on.

So naturally, after I threw the cough in, all of a sudden, everybody’s sneezing and coughing!

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