ACTOR JOE MANTEGNA SAYS HE'S never sure what's going to happen when he takes his 9-year-old daughter, Mia, out on the town. One night last fall at a play, "Mia jumped up and grabbed the binoculars of the woman in front of us and asked her, 'What's your name?' " he recalls with amusement. On another day, Mia drew quizzical looks when she began singing in the aisles of a grocery store. "She's reciting all the parts of Pinocchio, in different voices," he says. "People start staring at her. Sometimes I want to say, 'Hey, you know what? She's autistic and I'm very proud of her.' "

Mantegna, 49, may have made a career out of playing hard-boiled thugs—like Pippi DeLena in the CBS mini-series Mario Puzo's The Last Don, airing May 11, 13 and 14—but no role has been tougher, or more satisfying, than that of loving father to Mia. While he and his wife, Arlene, 47, do what they can to provide a normal life for Mia, she lives in a private world marked by a combination of compulsive and savant behavior that dazzles as much as it confounds. "There are probably people all over L.A. who've seen my family and think that the Mantegnas have the worst spoiled brat," says Mantegna. "Let them think that."

Mantegna has never been one to suffer much for appearances—except onstage or onscreen. He has thrived as a character actor playing sharks (a real estate agent in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, for which he won a Tony Award in 1984) or ruthless gangsters (The Godfather, Part III in 1990, Bugsy in 1991 and the current Underworld). Having grown up in tough Chicago neighborhoods and Cicero, Ill., hometown of Al Capone, he had an opportunity to learn by example. "One time we were playing baseball in the alley, and this guy came running down with some other guys chasing him," Mantegna recalls of his youth. "I remember it gleaming," he says of the nickel-plated gun one of the plainclothes officers drew. "He shot the guy in the legs."

While Mantegna never succumbed to his bleak beginnings, he knew hard times. When he contracted rheumatic fever at age 8, his parents, too poor to pay for other care, placed him in a charity sanatorium for five months. He saw little of his insurance salesman father, Joe Sr., a hard-drinking chain smoker who spent much of his time traveling the Midwest supervising branch offices and who continued to smoke even after having a lung removed in his 20s (he died in 1970 of tuberculosis). His mother, Mary Ann, a retired shipping clerk who lives in Bellwood, Ill., also worked, leaving young Joe in the care of his older brother Ronald. "I have distinct memories of him taking me to the library and teaching me how to tell time," Mantegna says of Ronald, now 57, a marketing executive who lives in a suburb of Chicago. "My brother is a saint."

Mantegna's acting career began almost accidentally in 1963, when a pal dared him to audition for the Morton East High School production of West Side Story. He got applause but not the part. Still, he remembers, performing "was a great kind of terror." He later sang in a rock group called the Apocryphals (competing for club dates with the band that later became Chicago) and starred in the drama club's biggest plays. It was also in high school that Mantegna met Arlene Vrhel, whom he began dating in 1969, when they were cast by chance in a Chicago production of Hair. "We just had a lot of fun, but we didn't get married for the longest time because we were hippies," says Arlene, a full-time mother. They finally wed in 1975, a few weeks after exchanging private, informal vows at the top of the Eiffel Tower.

It was during those early years that they befriended fellow Chicago actors Dennis Franz of NYPD Blue, Dave's World's Meshach Taylor and Richard Gilliland. Mantegna once threatened to quit a local production of Bloody Bess when Franz was fired (he was later rehired thanks to Mantegna's hard-balling). "No way you can fire Dennis and not think we're going too," Taylor says Mantegna told the director. In 1978, Mantegna, Arlene and Franz decided to try their acting luck in California and packed a U-Haul with their possessions. In Los Angeles, Franz almost backed their belongings off a hillside near the place where the Mantegnas were staying. "When I say we were going to drop their stuff off, I mean really drop it off," jokes Franz.

Mantegna got his big break in New York City, with Glengarry Glen Ross in 1984. "The whole thing: being on Broadway, touring for six months, it was like going from zero to 100," he says. With that came Hollywood interest and a seemingly endless string of roles. And with success came a Tudor-style, five-bedroom house in affluent Toluca Lake near Burbank and the decision to start a family.

Arlene became pregnant in 1986 and had what appeared to be a trouble-free pregnancy—until she noticed the baby had stopped moving as much as it had been. Diagnosing an infection in the umbilical cord, doctors delivered the baby three months early. Mia, born June 5, 1987, weighed only 1 lb., 15 ozs., making her one of the smallest babies born in California that year. Coming out of the operating room in hospital blues, Mantegna "looked like he hadn't slept in 10 years," says Gilliland. Mantegna was stunned by the sight of his tiny daughter, but says his attitude was, "Here's our daughter and she'll be fine.... That was the beginning of the adventure."

At first the couple's lives centered around their struggling daughter, who would periodically stop breathing. "She dodged a million bullets," says Mantegna, who even replaced his white porch bulb with a red one in case he had to call an ambulance and guide the driver to his address. "Then when she was 2½, we discovered she was autistic." (Autism, for which there is no known cure, strikes about 400,000 people nationwide, and three out of four autistics are male.) Mia wasn't talking when other kids her age had started forming words, avoided eye contact and later exhibited a condition called echolalia, the habitual repetition of words and sentences. "You go through a million emotions," says Mantegna. "Your heart flies out of your chest. At first you deny it." It took three years for Joe and Arlene to decide to have a second child, Gina, now 6 and healthy. "She's wise beyond her years and really understands Mia."

The Mantegnas have enrolled Mia in a public school equipped with special-education speech, piano, singing and dance lessons that enhance her naturally prodigious musical aptitude. Mia's pitch is so flawless, says her mother, that if someone sings even slightly off-key, she covers her ears. "She's incredible," says Arlene. "I think her musical skill is a form of expression for her."

So is an occasional run-in with strangers. Whenever she spots a punk rocker, Mia, who is fascinated by tattoos, approaches them and asks, "Where's your tattoo?" Invariably the punkers ditch their cool detachment and show off their body art.

Mantegna hopes that Mia will acquire all the skills to lead a normal life. "She gets better every year," says Mantegna, who, with his wife, raises money for the National Alliance for Autism Research. "We all have our crosses to bear, and if this one turns out to be the biggest one I have until the day I die, then give it to me. I can handle it."

PETER CASTRO
DANELLE MORTON in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Danelle Morton.