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Erik Brady: From the West Side to Hollywood, jock-turned-thespian Joe Grifasi turned character into a career

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Grifasi and Yogi

Actor Joe Grifasi idolized Yogi Berra as a child and then got to meet him – and play him – later in life.

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When Joe Grifasi was growing up on Buffalo’s West Side, in the 1950s, he collected baseball cards, just like all the other boys on Congress Street.

The New York Yankees were World Series perennials in those days, so their cards meant the most. Mickey Mantle was America’s favorite. Not Joe’s, though. He loved Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto best. He had a Berra card, of course, and a Rizzuto, too.

“You can imagine, being a short Italian kid, that they’d be my favorites,” Grifasi says. “I could really identify with them.”

And then, one day, he was them — as an actor. Grifasi played Berra in the 2008 ESPN miniseries “The Bronx is Burning,” and Rizzuto in Billy Crystal’s 2001 HBO movie, “61*.”

Grifasi could scarcely have imagined such a thing when he was a kid. He believed he was going to be a real ballplayer. Ah, but then came a pair of epiphanies while he was a student at Bishop Fallon High School.

First, Grifasi found out he couldn’t hit a fastball. And then that he could be a hit in school plays.

Today, at 78, he is one of the great character actors of American film and television. You may not know his name, but chances are you know his face. That’s how it goes for character actors, who often play a sidekick to the leading man.

Take, for instance, “Hide in Plain Sight,” the 1980 movie made in Buffalo, in which Grifasi played James Caan’s best friend, Matty Stanek. Before Grifasi knew he had the part, Caan summoned him to Buffalo for a meet and greet at the Holiday Inn on Delaware.

“He said, ‘Hey, kid, how did you get that Buffalo accent down? Did you work on that?’ And I said, ‘I just spent $10,000 at the Yale School of Drama trying to get rid of it.’ ”

Naked Gun

Joe Grifasi in "Naked Gun."

Accents are often a challenge for actors. Grifasi remembers one time when he and Christine Baranski went off to see a dialect coach so they could master a Northern Irish accent for an off-Broadway play. Both of them are Buffalo-born, but neither yet knew that about the other.

“We were chattering away, trying to get our accents right, and I said to her, ‘That’s terrible. Where did you learn to speak like that?’ And she said, ‘Cheektowaga.’ And I said, ‘Oh, home to the Ja Fa Fa Red Hots.’ Her jaw dropped and she said, ‘How do you know about that?’ ”

The hot dog joint on Harlem Road is gone now. So is Bishop Fallon. But Grifasi is forever grateful for one of his teachers there, the late Rev. John Leddy of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

“I was hyperactive, always hellbent on disrupting class to get a laugh,” Grifasi says. “I was used to being sent to the prefect of discipline for my antics. These particular priests had no qualms about using physical force. Father Leddy wasn’t like that. He would spar with you and meet your jokes with his jokes.”

Father Leddy directed the school plays at Fallon. One day, in English class, he asked Joe to read dialogue with him from a serious play in front of the class. Joe didn’t play it for laughs, surprising even himself.

“I found myself committing to the words,” he says. “I didn’t try to make a fool of myself or the material. I played it straight.”

Dialogue is a way of life for actors. Notice the anecdotes that Grifasi tells here: They almost always include bits of dialogue that he recalls from decades ago.

“Father Leddy said, ‘Look, that was pretty good. I’ve got a play coming up, a comedy. I’ll give you a good role. You’ll get a lot of laughs. Do you want to do it?’ And I said, ‘I guess so.’ And then he said, ‘There’s another part of the deal. You have to let me get a little teaching done in class.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ ”

Grifasi was used to getting laughs from the 32 kids in class. As Dr. Einstein in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” he got laughs from an audience of 150. And that was it: He was hooked.

“You have to understand, high school theater in the 1950s and 1960s was for nerds, not jocks,” he says. “And I thought of myself as a jock, even though I wasn’t much of one.”

His dream of being the next Berra or Rizzuto ended when he didn’t advance beyond Fallon’s junior varsity baseball team. “Someone threw a 50-mile-per-hour pitch,” he says. “It was way outside, and I fell to the ground in fear.”

He made junior varsity football as a junior and then, as a senior, made varsity at last. This meant he couldn’t be in the fall play, though Father Leddy had picked out a choice role for him.

“We were the worst team ever assembled,” Grifasi says. “We lost every game. In the third game, we played Canisius [High School] at War Memorial Stadium, the Rockpile. On a kickoff, I tackled a kid at the 10-yard line. And then I felt this pain in my leg. My season was over.”

He was taken for evaluation back to school, where he sat in a darkened gymnasium. The only light shone on the students practicing the play in the back. A friend of his had the role that Father Leddy had meant for him. Grifasi remembers sitting there — in the dark, in pain — wishing he had that role. Then, a week later, his friend had to quit the play for family reasons.

“Father Leddy said, ‘Do you want the part?’ And I said, ‘Yes!’ And from then on I never looked back. I wasn’t a jock. I was a thespian.”

One day, though, Joe asked Father Leddy why he never got cast as a leading man. The answer stays with him to this day.

“He told me, ‘Joe, character actors always eat.’ ”

At Canisius College, Grifasi spent much of his time in the cafeteria, drinking coffee and amusing his friends. “I always say, ‘My wife is cum laude from Yale, and I’m cum latte from Canisius.”

Grifasi and Jane

Joe Grifasi with his wife, Jane Ira Bloom.

He flunked out after a year and joined the Army, served for a few years, then came back to Canisius on the GI Bill. He was working at Sisters Hospital for $50 a week and living in a rooming house in Allentown for $11 a week and drinking coffee in the college cafeteria by day and other liquids by night at the Park Meadow and Maxl’s. He didn’t go to class much, except for the drama classes taught by a beloved English professor.

“Les Warren, who was my great, great mentor, taught me the value of theater as a forum for ideas, rather than as a place to go act and get a lot of attention,” Grifasi says. “He would say that [Bertolt] Brecht always said theater has two goals — to teach and to entertain— and that they had to be done in equal measure.”

Grifasi was several years older than the other students in his second time around at Canisius. Still, he made great friends.

“That class I was a part of, we had our own version of street theater. We would get up onstage at the bars and read our poetry. Or I would do silly walks. You never knew what was going to happen. It was wonderful.”

After five years at Canisius, including four with the Class of 1970, Grifasi was not even halfway to enough credits to graduate. He had majored in school plays and dropping courses. He remembers attending graduation at Kleinhans Music Hall in May 1970 to see his friends get their degrees.

“They were all robing up and I remember standing next to Dr. Warren and I said, ‘I feel bad.” He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘I should be in those robes.’ And he said, ‘Oh, a bachelor’s degree — first step to mediocrity.’”

Dr. Warren was rarely wrong, but in this he missed the mark — at least in terms of Grifasi’s friends from that class. Michael Healy went on to Harvard and then to write columns for the Courier-Express before becoming a producer for Disney TV movies, including “High School Musical.” Donna Smith went on to Harvard, too, and taught college in England. Nancy Hunt is a professor emerita of special education at California State University in Los Angeles. Elaine Sciolino is a former Paris bureau chief for the New York Times and author of “The Seine: The River That Made Paris.”

And then there is my sister Kristin. She taught English at the University of Western Ontario and was a world authority on Thomas Hardy when she died in an auto accident while on sabbatical in France, in 1998. Joe stood on the altar at the Canisius chapel for her memorial service and read his own remarks and those of the other classmates mentioned here. He has played so many roles in his life, but none better than the dear friend he was on that day.

For me, talking with Joe Grifasi is a remarkable thing. He knows so many of the names I know — my sisters, his English professors, his Class of 1970. And he knows the names that everybody knows — bold-face names of American celebrity. He drank on Frank Sinatra’s yacht. He sang a duet with Bill Clinton. He and Meryl Streep are old friends.

Grifasi Streep Dennehy

Joe Grifasi with his pals Meryl Streep and Brain Dennehy.

All that, of course, was far away on that day at Kleinhans. He remembers thinking: “My class is graduating. I’m 26 years old. What am I gonna do? Should I go to New York and scuff around and try to be an actor? I had no clue how to do that.”

At the time, he had a job in periodicals at the college library. One day he happened upon a brochure for the Yale School of Drama and noticed in the fine print that you could be accepted without a bachelor’s degree (though in that case you could earn only a certificate, not a master’s). So he applied.

“I was working at the library when they called. I thought, ‘Who’s calling me at the library?’ They said, ‘We couldn’t find you.’ I said, ‘Who is this?’ And they said, ‘It’s Yale. How would you like to come here?’ And I said, ‘Holy cow! Would I ever!’ I went, and it was the beginning of my life.”

(Funny that he should remember reacting to the news with “Holy cow” — that was Rizzuto’s exclamatory signature as a Yankees broadcaster.)

Grifasi took a 13-hour bus ride from Buffalo to New Haven, Conn. He met Streep at Yale. He earned his certificate from the drama school and moved to Toronto, where he got some acting gigs. Then, after a year, came a call from the dean at Yale. Would Joe be willing to come back to do some plays at Yale’s repertory theater?

“He said, ‘Do that, and we’ll give you your M.F.A.,’ ” meaning master of fine arts. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s a bargain.’ ”

About a year after that, Grifasi met Jane Ira Bloom, a musician. They fell in love.

“That’s really smart — an actor who is just starting out marries a jazz musician. Can you think of a formula that could provide any less income for two people?”

Grifasi’s first feature film was 1978’s “The Deer Hunter,” with Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Streep. It is ranked among the 100 greatest movies of all time by the American Film Institute. By now Grifasi has credits in some 50 feature films. They include “Moonstruck,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “Batman Forever,” “Splash,” “Brewster’s Millions,” “The Flamingo Kid,” and a couple of the “Naked Gun” movies, where he met O.J. Simpson, who “couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag.”

Grifasi plays deputy prosecutor Tommy Molto in 1990’s “Presumed Innocent,” a legal thriller starring Harrison Ford. Grifasi remembers meeting Ford and director Alan Pakula for what he thought was an audition. When the meeting began to break up, he asked them when he would read for the part. They looked confused.

“And then I realized in the moment, ‘Wait, I have the job. Now I might audition myself out of it. What are you, an idiot?’ I was used to the life of a character actor, where you always audition, no matter what.”

Grifasi’s is a familiar face on TV, too. On “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” he frequently appears as Heshi Horowitz, a defense attorney turned Superior Court judge. He’s a TV judge, too, on “The Good Fight,” Baranski’s star vehicle, and on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

“I work with a lot of famous people, la-dee-da,” Grifasi says. “I know a lot of people, but it’s not like I’m close friends with all of them.”

But he is with some, including Streep and Lewis Black, the comedian. He and Brian Dennehy were good friends, too, before Dennehy’s death in 2020. “Brian was like a First Ward Irishman,” Grifasi says. “I understood him. I think that’s why we became friends.”

Grifasi was back in Buffalo last month for a wedding. He stayed at the home of Meg Lauerman, the daughter of Dave Lauerman, another of his favorite English profs, who died in March. As it happens, the house in the Parkside neighborhood was once owned by my sister Moira and her late husband, John Roberts, who were good friends of Grifasi’s in his first go-round at Canisius. Buffalo, as we know, is like that.

Character actors, the dictionary tells us, appear in supporting roles and play unusual or eccentric characters. That’s true, as far as it goes. But there's more to it than that.

“Character actors often have a sense of timelessness to them,” says Vulture, a pop-culture website. “While an A-lister’s stock may rise and fall with the fashions of the day, a character actor can stay booked and busy for decades.”

Character actors always eat.

Mantle was baseball’s leading man, but young Joe dreamed of being Berra. And when Joe really did get to be him, on screen, he got to meet him, too — like a baseball card come to life.

“Shaking his hand was like shaking a catcher’s mitt,” Grifasi says. “Yogi was a short guy and a smart guy. And he was underestimated all his life.”

Sound like anyone else we know?

Berra was a great character of the American League. And Grifasi is a great character actor of American cinema.

The kid from Congress Street made it to the big leagues after all.

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