Published On: Mon, Aug 14th, 2017

F Murray Abraham on his favourite photograph while filming Amadeus


“Doing Amadeus in 1984 was such a life changer for me. Everyone who played the role of Salieri seemed to win awards and it’s such a brilliant piece of work, so I knew we were making something special.

It sounds funny, but I felt that my responsibility as an American actor was to let the British know we can act as well as they can. I felt I had something to prove so winning the Oscar [for Best Actor] was thrilling. My family went, ‘At last! You’ve done well. Now we know it’s OK for you to be an actor.’

It also guaranteed me work for the rest of my life. Some of the movie roles that came in were just terrible so I didn’t take them, but I’ve had some great jobs in the theatre, doing all the Shakespeare I could eat.

That said, acting as a career never entered my mind when I was a boy in El Paso, Texas, although I loved going to the movies for a double feature on Saturdays. There was no theatre, but the orthodox church there was very theatrical.

I had no grand plan. All I wanted was to get through high school, leave town and do whatever I fancied. The only reason I signed on for a speech and drama course was because I thought it would be easy, but as soon as I stepped on the stage I thought, ‘This is exactly where I belong.’

After I finished school I headed for Los Angeles, thinking, ‘Movies. Beaches.’ But I wanted to do serious stage work so I upped sticks and moved to New York to study. I did the usual day jobs to support myself – waiting on tables, washing dishes, parking cars, anything to pay the rent. I was a terrible waiter, by the way. I was very charming but I’d forget what people had ordered so I was constantly going back and asking, ‘What was that again?’

In the 1970s I did a lot of commercials, which was a good way to learn how to act in front of a camera. But the roles I was offered weren’t great, so I decided to stay home and raise our kids (Mick and Jamili, who are now in their mid-forties), while my wife Kate worked as a school assistant.

It was a bit tough to swallow at first, given my macho Texas background, but getting the kids ready, cleaning the house and doing the cooking made me a better man, I think.

Eventually the work came in and I got some really good movies like Scarface and Amadeus, of course, and The Name Of The Rose, but most of my favourite jobs have been in the theatre – and that’s why I’m so happy to be doing The Mentor, which is a really juicy comedy.

I’m a comedian at heart and I really can make people laugh, but ever since Amadeus all I seem to do is play dramatic roles and villains.

That said, I love doing Homeland and it’s astounding how popular that show is. Wherever I am in the world, I get people going, ‘It’s Dar Adal’ in many different accents. 

It’s as if all of my Shakespeare and all the other work I’ve done is forgotten. Being mean to Mandy Patinkin, who plays Saul, is easy because he’s an old friend and he doesn’t take it personally. 

Claire Danes, who plays Carrie, is also wonderful. On a recent trip home from London, the customs officer in the States told me, ‘You really shouldn’t be so mean to Claire,’ which really made me laugh.

As for my Amadeus Oscar, it’s appeared in every play I’ve ever done since I won it. I give it to the stage managers, who then hide it somewhere out of sight – like in a trash bin or under a table. They often dress him up too. Right now he’s got a tutu on!” 

• F Murray Abraham is starring in The Mentor at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, until August 26. For tickets, call 0330 333 4814 or visit nimaxtheatres.com.


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