Peter Gallagher revisits ‘The Idolmaker’ - The Buffalo News
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Peter Gallagher revisits ‘The Idolmaker’

Peter Gallagher has had a long and steady acting career on stage and screen. You may know him as Sandy Cohen on “The O.C.,” Arthur Campbell on “Covert Affairs,” Larry Levy in “The Player” or Buddy Kane in “American Beauty.” Talk to him for a bit and suddenly he’s reminiscing about his friendship with Paul Newman, or recalling meeting Cary Grant.

And “The Idolmaker” helped make all those things possible.

Having its Blu-ray debut this week, “The Idolmaker” starred Ray Sharkey as Vincent Vacarri, a songwriter and frustrated performer in 1959 who decides to make his mark by finding, grooming and marketing other singers: first Tommy Dee (Paul Land) and then, even more spectacularly, a busboy he molds and renames Caesare (Gallagher).

It looked wisely at the music business in the teen idol era, mixing smart drama with solid musical numbers choreographed by Deney Terrio. It was the feature-film debut for director Taylor Hackford (whose later credits included “An Officer and a Gentleman”), and the first film for Gallagher and Joe Pantoliano.

While the movie tanked when it premiered in 1980, it has been discovered and rediscovered over the years as it was shown on cable, videocassette, laserdisc, DVD and now Blu-ray. In fact, the commentary by Hackford on the Blu-ray dates back to the laserdisc. But the movie survives across formats thanks to the story, the songs (by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jeff Barry) and the performances by Sharkey, an actor who never achieved the stardom he deserved, and Gallagher.

In a recent telephone interview, Gallagher said, “A couple of times in my life and career, I’ve had the feeling I’m doing exactly what I should be doing, I’m right where I belong. I had that feeling ... on that movie. I got to sing and dance and act. I thought, wow, this is the way things are going to go, this is going to be amazing.”

Gallagher had been working mainly on stage at the time, including in a late ’70s Broadway revival of “Hair” and as Danny Zuko in the road company of “Grease.” “It was a perfect role to be preparing to do Caesare with,” Gallagher said.

Caesare’s big concert scenes were set up like real concerts, down to the girls rushing Caesare on the stage with such zeal that “I think a couple of girls got hurt.” Gallagher was reluctant at first to believe the movie was going to be big, but the signs all seemed to be there.

“When I was in rehearsal, I took dance classes to get strong and limber enough to do those leaps and splits and things like that,” he said. “Our ballet teacher, Jennifer Nairn-Smith, invited me to a party at Edith Head’s house. And introduced me to Cary Grant ... If I had had half a brain, I would have recognized 90 people there who were legends of old Hollywood.”

Slipping into an imitation of Grant’s voice, Gallagher recalled him saying, “ ‘Jennifer tells me you’re quite the young actor.’ First of all, he was the most amazing-looking man I’d ever seen in my life. And oh, my God, he was interested in what I had to say. It was one of those marvelous moments when someone was taking me seriously.”

Then there was a premiere at Radio City Music Hall “with 6,000 fans. We got stormed just like in the movie and I started to think, wow, this could really work. And then for whatever reason it didn’t set the box office on fire.”

Still, the movie helped Gallagher along a career path that led to things like “Covert Affairs.” (and he had no plot twists to reveal, saying “they never tell me anything”). And he earned some places in pop-culture history. When Caesare has a fling with a young journalist, she was played by none other than Maureen McCormick. Unaware of her TV fame at the time, Gallagher said, “I just thought she was terrific and she was a nice person. And then it was Dude! You’re in bed with Marcia Brady!”

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