For too many people, Burt Young is simply “That Guy from Rocky,” but to a cult that’s included the likes of Actor’s Studio founder Lee Strasberg, Sergio Leone and Jack Nicholson, he’s the actor’s actor par excellence.
Young established his reputation across the 1970s, when he was top of the list for every director who wanted a whiff of real life, real work, rough neighborhoods — a guy who could play grubby-collared plumbers, or killers who’d carry out hits like they were unblocking drains. He’s so convincing in those roles because he’s known those lives. Born in Queens in 1940, son of an ice-delivery man, he had family in the rackets. Before acting, he’d been a soldier and a professional boxer, fitted carpets and collected debts.
Filmmakers like Robert Aldrich and Sam Peckinpah called him time and again to act opposite everyone from his lifelong buddy James Caan to Burt Lancaster. But while he’s done brute force, Young has always had more to his game. His bulging eyes can fill with rage or cunning, or brim with tenderness. In life he’s about the most gentle and modest man you could meet. Strasberg called him “an emotional library.” He’s also been a writer and, most recently, a prolific painter of mysterious, colourful canvases, dreamlike images with the feel of Chagall.
“Yeah,” Young confesses. “I been painting like a son of a bitch.”
The cult continues. In 1999, David Chase cast him in a one-off as a dying hit-man in The Sopranos, and he was terrifyingly brilliant, enough to suggest his greatest work might lie ahead. More recently, he’s shown up in TransAmerica and Wim Wenders’ troubled state-of-the-nation address to America, Land of Plenty.
“Ah. Wim, he’s fuckin’ wonderful. He has a painting of mine in his office. He loves my paintings like crazy. Says to me, ‘You are a possessed man.’ I dunno. I’ve always painted, like I’ve always written — but then livelihood took over. But it takes me over in a good way. Whether it’s laying a carpet or learning a part, I try to lighten the burden of whatever I’m doing.”
DAMIEN LOVE: You started at the Actor’s Studio in the sixties, under Strasberg. How did that come about?
BURT YOUNG: Well, I started pretty old, like 28. I wasn’t too happy at home with this lady I was married to. And I met this other girl. Y’know when things ain’t working with somebody and you think, “Oh if I was with that other lady things’d be wonderful”? I made a campaign to get close to her. I wasn’t a wolf, I didn’t go cheating around on my wife. But I was really nuts to see her. As a last resort, I started talking about her being an actress, and she lit up. She said she’d always wanted to study with Lee Strasberg, but couldn’t get in. I didn’t know who Lee Strasberg was. I thought it was a girl. But I figured maybe if I could help her out, I could hold hands with her. But when I wrote to Strasberg, he took me seriously. I studied with him two years. And I never stopped. I was always a frontline guy, always self-employed. Every business that didn’t need an inventory, I was in. I used to fight professionally, laid carpets, had a, uh, little gambling business. But acting had everything I was fishing for. In my life till then, I’d used tension to hold myself upright. Lee’s great gift to me was relaxation.
Your debut film was The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971), but a lot of people first noticed you as the cuckolded fisherman in Chinatown’s (1974) opening scene. How did you get along with Jack Nicholson?
Jack’s a funny guy. Like an imp. That movie, I had to choose between that and The Longest Yard with Burt Reynolds and Robert Aldrich. Longest Yard was a more substantial part, but Chinatown was the most exquisite script I’d ever read. We did the scene and Jack comes over to me and says, “Thanks buddy, you just made me another $2 million.”
Some people maintain Nicholson based his performance in Prizzi’s Honor (1985) on you.
Well, sheesh. I hope so. It’d be very flattering. I’m sure perhaps some of my stuff’s there. I’ll tell you why I’m sure. I go to a nightclub in New York a while ago, nice place, lotta models. The owner comes over and says, “Jack’s in with his friends, why don’t you go over?” I say, “Aw, no . . .” So one of Jack’s friends comes over and says, “Jack says, are you crazy? Come and sit down” So I go over, and — I don’t wanna sound like I’m bragging — anyway, Jack says hello, and his friend says, “Burt, last night, we were watching” — and he mentions this movie I made — “and Jack had us stop it frame by frame and he kept saying, ‘see, this is a great actor, there’s not one ounce of dishonesty in this guy’s performance.'” And Jack was nodding his head, but not looking at me. So I said, “Jack, y’know when I knew you were great?” And he looks, and says, “No, when?” I said, “When I read in the paper you screwed Margaret Trudeau [ex-wife of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau] in the back of a limousine.” He was like a kid: “Yeah, yeah — that was great!”
You’ve been close friends with James Caan for over 30 years. You first worked together on Cinderella Liberty (1973). Was that when you met?
Funny thing. We come from similar neighborhoods. He was like a neighboring neighbor, but I didn’t know him in New York. He was acting since he was young, and I was just trying to make a living. Some of my guys, a couple of ex-fighters, roughnecks, knew I was going to be doing this film, and they say, “Hey, give Jimmy our best.” I said, “You know Jimmy Caan?” They said, “Well, we don’t really know him. But we jumped him and his guys in a train station one time.” I said, “What the hell kind of introduction is that?” They said, “Well, tell him, even though it was over quick, he showed a lotta heart.” So, I got to Seattle, knocked on Jimmy’s trailer, and I said, “I got regards from the Mangiapane Brothers.” We’ve never stopped being friends since that day. We’ve made three or four movies together. We’re thinking of doing something now, actually. He’s in a good way. I mean, he’s griping all the time, but he has to gripe. His wife, she can beat the shit outta Jimmy pretty good. He’s a little scared of her. He don’t smoke around her, don’t go out. He’s got to make me the bad guy. “Oh, Burt made me do it . . .”
One of the movies you made together was The Killer Elite (1975). How do you remember Sam Peckinpah?
So fondly. He was the closest to a genius of all the directors I ever worked with. He had his own beat. I wouldn’t go to work in the mornings, because I knew he’d have been out at night, because he was usually out with me. I knew he’d be late. One time we were out drinking with Peter O’Toole, funniest night you ever seen.
You were also in Peckinpah’s Convoy (1978). What’s your fondest memory of him?
On Killer Elite, it was a big car stunt. The whole block is all set up, and my daughter was visiting. It took about half a day to set up the street. But when Sam yells action, my daughter comes running out of this store, up to my cab, and shouts, “Daddy, I’m in here,” then runs back into the store. I’m thinking, “Oh. We’ve ruined the shot. He’s going to kill me now.” Sam yells cut, and he looks at me. And he says: “What do you do to deserve that kind of love?” Sam used to send my daughter roses. On every birthday, from wherever he was. One time, that old goat, he said he was gonna propose to her. I said, “You think I want you, you decrepit bastard, for a son-in-law?”
Most people know you as Paulie, Rocky’s perplexed brother-in-law. You’d been a fighter. Was Stallone’s movie at all truthful, or a fairy story?
Oh, a fairy story. But I was so proud of Sylvester’s writing. It was just a fairy story — but it had legs of cement on it. What he wrote, really wasn’t a fighting story, it was a love story, about someone standing up. Not even winning, just standing up.
You played that character 14 years — and now, with Rocky 6, there’s more to come. How did you go about creating him?
Stallone wrote eloquently. I kinda sensed Paulie’s fear. I saw him as a half-empty barrel. Physically threatening, but only as a protective device. I made him arthritic. I made him very wide physically — I’d put on three suits underneath, so he walked with this straddle. That was Paulie to me. I would do things to remind myself. I can’t drink sweet wine. When I was nine, I got drunk on Vermouth. Now I can’t even take it. So I’d rub it on my clothes to remind me. I’d take turpentine and soak my hands, so they’d be tight, remind me I was arthritic. I figured out what he’d been doing in the four years between movies. No one would know, but that’s the kind of homework I like to do.
Just between us, would you have beaten Rocky in the ring?
Oh, yeah. Oh, no question. A couple of times Sylvester raised his hands when we were fooling around. But no. I’m very good. I never lost a pro fight. I still move around and shadow box. Sylvester could’ve been a world class athlete, don’t get me wrong. But fighting’s a different game. Y’know who’s one of the best boxers? Not tough, but a fighter. Jon Voight. He moves pretty good.
You didn’t do The Longest Yard (1974), but you did make three movies with Robert Aldrich — Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), The Choirboys (1976) and All the Marbles (1981). He obviously held you in high regard.
There’s another great guy. Tough guy. Very precise, very strong. We cared for each other. One of his daughters went into landscape gardening. I was living in a big fat house in Beverly Hills and I asked her to do my garden, whatever she wanted. Robert was very sick by then. One day I got a very sad call from one of his kids. This is after she’d done my garden. I go to the hospital, and this is very close to the end. Robert’s laying in the bed, everybody’s sombre, his daughters are there. And I say, “Wait, wait, wait. Hold on. It rained, and all my lawns floated down the goddamn street. Who’s gonna be paying for that?” The kids were shocked. Robert started laughing his ass off, I jumped in bed with him and I hugged him and kissed him.
On Twilight’s Last Gleaming, you were co-starring with Burt Lancaster. How did you find him?
One of those old stars. Wanted courtly treatment. Tough as nails, physically strong. I fucked around with him. And he turns on me, starts saying, “This is an alleycat from Harlem.” Robert Aldrich would look at me and his eyes would say, “Please let it go.” I’d let it go. There was one scene I was supposed to be in a fight. The stunt guy knows I know how to set up stuff, so I was taking a hand, showing this kid where I was going to throw a punch — and Burt wasn’t in the scene, but he puts his face in and says, “That ain’t the way you throw a hook.” I said, “Burt, don’t move a muscle.” And I threw a hook I stopped just off his jaw. His eyes opened up, and he went off the set. And then his behaviour to me changed. I thought, What, he’s not frightened of me? Then I realised: in his mind, either you’re a star or you’re an extra. And unless you took your turf, you were an extra. He wasn’t scared of no man in life. It ended up he loved me. He used to talk with my father and mother in Italian. Once we went to a party in Germany, some Baron, really thoroughbred-looking people. And they’re all fawning over Burt. One lady says, “Burt Lancaster, you are a great actor.” And he said, “No. There’s only one potentially great actor here, and that’s Burt Young. If he gets over his mental illness.”
You had a small, but memorable role in Once Upon a Time in America (1984). How was it being directed by Sergio Leone? His English wasn’t great . . .
No, not at all. But I think he understood more than he let on. Sergio was a big, heavy guy, just radiated warmth. You could just have a plate of pasta with him. All those things, the Spaghetti Westerns, when I worked with him, I didn’t really understand his innovations. I was there with De Niro, Pesci, I knew all those boys, and I just had a good time. I took that character into a funny place. I made him a real gavone. But also, I gave him a heart. He had to talk about “cock insurance,” the most brutally ugly verse. I figured I had to make it so garish it wasn’t garish. I took some pastrami, made out like it was a delicacy as I chewed it, and talked about cock insurance, and I was the only one laughing at the joke. I think that worked. Truth is, though, I wanted the Jimmy Woods part in that.
A couple of years ago, you were in another gangster great, The Sopranos. Would you accept that as one of your best performances?
Yeah. They were very hospitable to me. I had my ideas for the character. I had to audition. Made me mad as hell. But David Chase is fantastic, he’s into every detail. They dyed my hair, even whiter, and he was right there at the beauty parlor, like he has nothing else to do. That kind of commitment is really what makes that as great as it is.
How close do you think The Sopranos is to the reality of that life?
Well, I come from that life. But see, this is a New Jersey outfit, and Jersey was always a little different from New York. I never heard people cursing like that. But I was always around the older guys. Some of those friends of mine resent the show. But I think it’s authentic, I think it looks at the truth of thing. Yeah, I think it’s on the nose.
If you hadn’t written letters to Lee Strasberg, do you think you’d still be involved in that world?
Yeah, sure. To this day, two of my best friends are doing 100 years. Not for bad things, like rape, but for organisation stuff. Talia Shire, who liked me a lot — and I loved her, I gotta tell you that — when we shot Rocky a lot of it was in my old neighbourhood. She told me, “Burt, if you cut your ties with this, you could go to the moon.” It confused me, because she was very intelligent. I took a couple of days to think about it. But I told her: I want to stay like I am. Rather than flying high, I’m wide. I like being wide.
Do you still own your restaurant in the Bronx, Burt Young’s Il Boschetto?
Yeah. But the law gave me a headache over there. Place has been there 30 years. I came in because friends of mine were involved in freshening it up. It’s a wonderful restaurant. But for every gorilla in the Bronx, it became a waterhole. So from the attention over all the years, I had a little headache.
You’ve gone from classics like Chinatown and Once Upon a Time in America right through to the not-so-greats like Amityville II (1982). Do you like to vary your work, or do you just take whatever job comes along?
No. I’ve turned down some things, and there are things I’ve took because I needed the money. But the bottom line is: I’m a workaholic. I still do plays in broken-down theatres, try to use myself, both hands. I’m a workaholic. People can get me real cheap, because I just need to work. But that can be our secret.