Back Stage West


January 03, 2002

Being Frank

Playing ordinary Joes or extraordinary jerks, Peter Boyle's distinctive mix of the profound and the goofy always rings strangely true.

By Rob Kendt

Among the highlights of my job are moments like the following scene: I'm interviewing Peter Boyle at Nate and Al's, the Beverly Hills deli that seems like a time capsule from another decade, and no less a personage than Tim Conway cuts in to say hello. There they are: two icons of my entertainment childhood, Young Frankenstein and Mr. Tudball, shaking hands across the table from me.

For his part, Boyle wears such iconic status as offhandedly as the non-descript cardigans worn by Frank Barone, the cranky Long Island grandpa he plays on the hit CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. He's still recognized as much for his breakthrough role in the 1970 cult film Joe—in which he played a straight-talking working-class mook with a lethal disdain for hippies—as he is for Raymond or Young Frankenstein. X-Files fans also cherish his moving 1996 guest spot, which garnered him an Emmy.

There's a lived-in quality to Boyle's performances that transcends acting craft and makes even his most outlandish characters seem to be simply behaving on-screen. It's what makes Frank Barone's often crass put-downs ring with relish but not rancor; it's what made his performance in Young Frankenstein simultaneously sweet and scary; it's what made his frightening turn in Joe, a film he says he thought of as "a goof" when he made it, so bracingly real.

And it's what makes his performance in the new film Monster's Ball rise above the one-note stereotype it's written to be (the script is by Milo Addica and Will Rokos). As Buck Grotowski, a retired executioner in Georgia who has raised two succeeding generations of Death Row corrections officers (played by Billy Bob Thornton and Heath Ledger), Boyle is able to give his character's racist, misogynist venom its full toxicity, while at the same time economically sketching Buck's deep-set disappointment, his resignation, and—shades of a Southern-fried Frank Barone—his wicked sense of a good time. In a chilling scene with Halle Berry, Boyle delivers the goods, rolling back the years to a seedy Deep South racial/sexual paternalism as he mocks and insults her. Boyle really plants us there across the ottoman from him, without a wink or an escape, for a few excruciating minutes. The light in Buck's eyes shows us he's enjoying it.

Boyle's mastery of such ambivalent moments is hard to explain, but it helps somehow to know that he studied both with Uta Hagen and at Chicago's Second City. A Philadelphia native who was raised going to Broadway's out-of-town tryouts, he had old vaudevillians in the family and a dad who hosted a local kid's show on the new medium of television. While the 68-year-old Boyle grew up at the end of the radio age, he bridged the gap to the next generation with a stint as a Christian Brothers monk, and later gained counterculture cred by touring with an anti-Vietnam War show with Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, by being on the ground for the 1968 Democratic Convention melee, and by turning down the lead in The French Connection after the public reaction to Joe showed a disturbing sympathy for the right-wing guy with the gun.

He's since appeared in a mix of material—from the heights of Taxi Driver to the middle ground of While You Were Sleeping and Dream Tream, to the depths of Species II—and suffered a stroke and a mild heart attack. But Boyle, now in his sixth year on the unstoppable Raymond, is going strong. In a recent interview, in which he appeared more serious, soulful, and deliberate than his relatively loose screen persona, Boyle talked about his craft, his career, and the unavoidable craziness of his calling.

Peter Boyle: I know Back Stage. I used to read it desperately when I was a starving actor.

Back Stage West: Back when you studied with Uta Hagen?

Boyle: When I studied with Uta Hagen, I was a little too serious about being an intense dramatic actor. Then I started to do a lot of improv workshops, and they sort of helped me loosen up.

BSW: You have a gift for playing unpleasant people. Do you know guys like that? Do you know that in yourself?

Boyle: Both. We all have mean and crazy thoughts. Most of us are able, as adjusted human beings, to process them out, but I think part of the intention of Monster's Ball was that everybody's insanity is out front. I don't love playing meanie guys all the time, but on the other hand, in this case, because of the script and the nature of the issues, it seemed worth a shot. When I was much younger, I did a movie called Joe, and the guy was very outspoken and crazy, and it was very hard to deal with afterwards. I got recognition, but also people identify you with the part.

What you realize is that people like that don't see their cruelty as cruel. An actor cannot play a negative choice; the "negative" is only a social judgement. Osama Bin Laden thinks he's a good guy. He thinks he's doing God's work. That's what's fascinating. Robert De Niro plays Al Capone in The Untouchables—he weeps at the opera. Hitler hated cruelty to animals. This duality is a source of endless fascination in literature and drama, and part of the human struggle. You really cannot say while you're doing it, "This is a bad guy." This is a guy.

BSW: What I admire is that on the one hand you don't look down at these characters, and on the other hand you don't sweeten them or ask for sympathy for them. They seem rooted in just what they are.

Boyle: Yeah, it's like a tree, you know? There are ugly trees. They're in the ground and they're growing. Like poison ivy.

BSW: So Frank Barone on Raymond is—what, a ficus?

Boyle: Well, that's a different thing. Even though he has an edge and he's a little obnoxious, he thinks he's funny. But because it's a sitcom, it's for laughs. It keeps me off the hook a little bit. But there is an edge to Frank, and that's why I enjoy doing it.

BSW: Have you ever worked on a show for this long?

Boyle: I haven't done anything this long. This is longer than school.

BSW: You didn't do any long runs of plays back in the old days?

Boyle: I was in a touring company of The Odd Couple for two and a half years. That was the longest thing. The same thing kept me going then that keeps me going here: You know it's a long haul, but when the audience comes and you do the stuff, they laugh, and it's great.

BSW: Looking back at your career, your work reminds me a bit of Rod Steiger. I know people think he's a little nutty.

Boyle: Let me ask you something: Do you really want to watch sane people? You've got to be a little daring or risky to even presume to step onstage. Ancient Greek actors worked with a mask, and they thought it was the essence of hubris for an actor to appear onstage with his face to the audience—that it was an offense to the gods. And a modern actor, a guy like Rod Steiger, brings himself to everything. Done the right way, it's a form of healing—not just the feel-good part, but the catharsis, acting out the passion in a safe, controlled environment.

BSW: I read about your audition for Raymond: You got lost and got there late and were flustered.

Boyle: I couldn't get on the studio lot, I couldn't find a parking place, and also I had my entire family with me—my wife and my two daughters and a friend who was staying with us. I was a little hot and annoyed. I wasn't screaming or ranting or anything, but I just had a little steam.

BSW: And it fit the character.

Boyle: I think it did.

BSW: I'm actually a little surprised they had you audition for the part.

Boyle: You know, we're actors. Last time I was in New York, I'm walking in Central Park with my wife and I watch this guy juggling and hand balancing with a crowd of people watching him and he's passing the hat around. And then I look and the crowd goes away and this guy packs up his stuff and gets on a bike. And we're all like that, actors—that's the essence of it, you know? If nobody stops and watches us, we're lost.

BSW: What has kept you going in the leaner times?

Boyle: I don't know—some craziness, some ability to deny reality and have grandiose fantasies of, I'm an actor! It's hard to answer. You meet giants of the movies, people who are famous, powerful, successful, who always think their last job was their last. What's very comforting about the series is I'll go on hiatus and I'll know we'll be back next year. It has improved my mental health. It's brought a stability that's wonderful. Before that, I had a religious trip, I went on other spiritual trips, I did health food trips, I did a crazy, destructive trip. About 70 percent of that is being unemployed. Actors go on diets, get into meditation, we take yoga class, we take self-improvement things, we play softball. We try to find a community. That's the hardest thing for actors, because we all compete with each other.

When you're not working, there's absolutely the bottom point. I get very depressed. If I were a plumber, I wouldn't have had bouts of depression—but if I was a plumber, I'd say, I want to be an actor. You can't analyze it too closely.

BSW: Was there ever a point you felt like you mastered what you do?

Boyle: I thought I did, but it was an illusion. The more I go on the less I feel like the master of anything. The one or two points when I thought I had mastered it were major mistakes. One of the healthy and humbling things about doing this show for six years is that every week I go through at least a day or two just before we do the show where I can't act. I'm in a panic. But you go through the whole process, and when you get enough time to do that regularly, then you come out the other side and go, My God, that was great. It's a wonderful experience to resolve all that conflict and fear with the feeling of being one with the audience, being just sort of a group mind, with that sense of communication that's not average everyday communication. It's like extra-sensory perception with a live audience.

And the whole thing when you're not working is that there's no resolution of all of that. There's no approval from an audience or from other people. When you're not working, you're involved in this sad drama that has no catharsis. You're alone in a room. You're just this wacky person saying, "I know I can do it, but am I crazy?" Every actor asks the question, and you realize you are a little bit.

I mean, as an actor you're working with your own craziness, trying to cultivate and farm it, or transform it in a way that most everyday people don't. They shut down their process. It's like as an actor you're in a state of perpetual adolescence.

BSW: It's strange to hear that you struggle so much. While your performances certainly never look lazy or phoned in, they have a certain loose-fitting ease about them that makes them all the more real.

Boyle: Well, when all the craziness is resolved and comes together, you actually get centered and get a weird feeling of serenity. Sammy Davis Jr. said it best; he had a song called "Yes I Can," and the lyric is, "Gee, I'm afraid to go on/Has turned into, Yes I can." It's scary to stand up in front of a crowd. They're either going to attack you or ignore you. On a very ancient human level, it puts you right into the fight-or-flight response. The wonderful thing for an actor is you don't fight, you act. You act like you're fighting, and at the end of the fight you stand up and take a bow. Or you get stabbed.