With F.I.S.T.s and Fanatic Work, Actor Kevin Conway Fought Up from Harlem into the Heavyweights

updated 04/09/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/09/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

When he was casting Paradise Alley, Sly Stallone suggested that actor Kevin Conway have an eagle tattooed on his forehead—to make the hoodlum he played more memorable. "I told him I wasn't crazy about the idea," relates Conway. "A thing like that could cut down your employment opportunities!" Conway, at 36, is less reconciled to unemployment than most folks in the business. "I was 26 when I got my Equity card," he explains. "I started late, and I've got some catching up to do."

He's doing nicely. Conway was also in Stallone's F.I.S.T. as the union's national president. This week he appears in the PBS version of The Scarlet Letter. He has just completed an off-Broadway run in Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man, one of the most devastating psychological dramas since Equus. And while waiting for that show to move up to Broadway on April 19, Conway flew to Dallas to film a PBS sci-fi property, The Lathe of Heaven. "I don't like to stretch things out," says the stocky 5'7" actor. "I'd rather do a part as quickly as possible and go on to something else." This is not to say he countenances slapdash work. Conway, whose specialty is playing men of menace, is already being compared to the fellow New Yorker who is his idol: James Cagney.

The Harlem-born son of an Irish handyman, Kevin was a chronic runaway until his parents put him in parochial school ("There's nothing like a black-robed figure with a pasty-white face and a wooden club to settle you down"). He joined the Navy out of high school, went AWOL a lot and, three months before his hitch ended, was chucked out for slugging a petty officer. Hired by IBM, he rode herd on employees who failed to meet their monthly sales quotas. "I had an office, a dictating machine, a telephone and performance graphs of all the salesmen in the country," he recalls. "I was a hatchet man."

Then at 22 Kevin saw his first play, Anthony Newley's Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, and a few weeks later, a sign for an acting school. "I thought I might meet some girls there, so I enrolled," he says. "And the lessons were a way to keep off the streets." Indeed, Conway was soon keeping company with Mila Quiros, a Puerto Rican actress whom he remembers as "the belle" of the school. They married in 1966, and when he was fired by IBM that year for concentrating more on his acting, the couple opened an uptown boutique. They have since separated but remain "very close."

"I was too old to bounce around as a waiter so I began doing TV voice-overs [Johnson & Johnson, Eastern Airlines, Corning]," Conway says. He still does, and they bring in a bundle. Meanwhile he got work in regional theater and his break came in 1969, as the psychotic killer in the off-Broadway version of Edward Bond's controversial Saved. In quick succession he appeared in a half dozen stage productions, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1972) and When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder (1973), for which he received an Obie and the Drama Desk Award as off-Broadway's best actor.

Recognition is not bringing relaxation. On a typical day, Conway gets up at 9 in his modest two-room Manhattan apartment, gulps down a cup of black coffee and begins a flurry of meetings to line up jobs—"I always make a work list the night before." He rules out a long TV series or anything that would keep him in Hollywood for extended periods. He adds, in a rare unconvincing performance: "I'm not a total workaholic. I've neglected life in the name of ambition. My idea of heaven is a house in New England and me sitting in front of a fire with a pipe," he insists. "Of course, I don't know if I could stand it."

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