His Meanie Role in Amadeus Makes Nice Guy F. Murray Abraham the Man to Beat for the Oscar
03/18/1985 at 01:00 AM EST
Check it out: slipcovered chairs, mismatched china and end tables. Doggie toys on the floor. You can't picture an Oscar in the humble surroundings of this Brooklyn co-op. But, if New York stage actor F. (for Fahrid) Murray Abraham, who plays Mozart's jealous rival, Antonio Salieri, in Milos Forman's Amadeus, gets lucky on March 25, it could happen. Six months ago most moviegoers had no idea what an F. Murray Abraham was, though his face, with its prominent features, is not altogether unfamiliar. He's been in countless TV commercials (he's the leaf in the Fruit of the Loom ad) and played assorted scum in TV cops-and-robbers shows (Kojak) and in films too (The Ritz, The Big Fix and Brian De Palma's Scarface). Thanks to Amadeus, Abraham, 45, now has a Best Actor Oscar nomination, a Golden Globe and a Los Angeles Film Critics award for a role that was coveted by all Hollywood, including Ben Kingsley, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino. Abraham is trying to keep his cool about this whole Oscar thing. "I never think about winning the Oscar," he says. "I never think about it every second, every day of my life."
Enter his apartment at your own risk. A mammoth poodle named Wolfie (after Wolfgang Mozart) thinks you're a burglar. The Amadeus sound track plays on the stereo. While Murray, dressed in a jogging suit, runs out to pick up the laundry, his wife, Kate, 44, makes tea. She's a Quaker, with no showbiz ambitions. "You couldn't drag me onto a stage," she says. Surprisingly it was Murray, a volatile actor with a menacing persona, who introduced his wife to the pacifist Quaker religion. "I had been attending meetings for over a year before she said she'd better look into it," he says. "I'm still trying to find my way. I won't become a Quaker until I can really commit myself. I still have trouble with my temper." They have two children, a girl, 14, and a boy, 12. Murray will not divulge their names. "I don't want my work to impose on their lives," he says. "It's a delicate thing, this family." Most of their social acquaintances are Quakers, and they are not impressed with Murray's newfound fame.
Obviously Forman took a gamble casting Abraham and Tom Hulce, who won a Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing Mozart. "Milos never told me why he chose me, and I never asked," Abraham says. "I never, ever, thought I had a chance of getting the part. I was as cool as I was because I've had too many disappointments before." Kate recalls that Murray "never talked about that audition." Yet surely the champagne corks must have flown when it appeared Forman was interested? Not so, says Kate. "When it came down to whether or not it was going to happen, I was in the hospital trying to live. I had to have a radical hysterectomy due to a faulty Dalkon Shield. So at the time, Murray's getting the part didn't seem all that important. In retrospect I guess it made the anticipation easier."
Just discussing that tense period makes Abraham antsy. He can't sit still. He puts on a record. Takes it off. He talks about his youth in El Paso. He was named after his father (Fahrid means "the one and only"), a retired mechanic who came to America from Syria at the age of 5. Murray's mother, Josephine, is Italian. "Kate and I are the only children now," Abraham says sadly. His brothers were killed in separate automobile accidents as was Kate's brother. "I really can't tell you any more than that," he says. "I start to cry."
He began acting in high school, winning a drama scholarship to the University of Texas at El Paso. After two years there he left to pursue his career in Los Angeles, which is where he met Kate Hannan, a college student whom he married in 1962. In 1965 they moved to New York, where he parked cars and played Santa Claus at Macy's while auditioning for plays, eventually landing roles on Broadway (The Ritz) and off (Sexual Perversity in Chicago).
The work made him happy but not rich. "The hardest thing about being married to an actor has been the financial insecurity," says Kate, who worked as a secretary to support her husband's career before their kids were born. By the mid-'70s Murray had steady employment and a good income as an actor doing commercials and voice-overs. But in 1978 he decided to give them up. "No one was taking my acting seriously," he says. "I figured if I didn't do it, then I'd have no right to the dreams I've always had." Kate went back to work, as assistant to the head of the Brooklyn Friends School. "I've never minded working," she says, "because Murray always knew he was going to be the best." Between auditions, Murray explains, he became "a house husband. What a thing that was for me to go through! I cooked and cleaned and took care of the kids. It was very rough on my macho idea of life. But it was the best thing that ever happened to me. With my Mediterranean background and a Mexican heritage from growing up on the border, I had very specific ideas about what a man was supposed to be. Homemaking fixed that up. Now in this house, everybody helps."
It's a beautiful day and Abraham is dying to get outside. He suggests a walk through the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Keeping up with him is not easy. He points out trees and birds and statues and shouts, "Hey, paisano!" to a passing gardener. "He helped me chase a mugger," Abraham says. Sitting down in a white gazebo near a frozen pond, Murray says that "life is easier now. I was very intense, but it hasn't been that way in a long time." Amadeus' success brought perks: He did a worldwide publicity tour, and he and Kate met Prince Charles and Princess Diana ("a delightful couple"). But so far the Oscar nomination hasn't brought work, at least not the kind of work he wants. "They always think of me as the heavy," he says. There is talk of a film with Lina Wertmuller, but Abraham hasn't faced a camera since Amadeus wrapped in July 1983. "I want to work," says Murray. "An actor needs to." So he does. Two weeks before the Oscar ceremonies the odds-on favorite for Best Actor is doing children's theater for free around the city—and "loving it." And don't expect a change if he wins the big prize. There'll be more offers, sure, and more money. But Murray lacks the showbiz hustle of his more ambitious colleagues. If Oscar comes, Murray's decided to send it to his mother in Texas "for the mantel." The thought makes him smile. After all, why should his neighbors know he's a star?