Earning His Bread by Playing Crumbs, Rocky Veteran Burt Young Has Become the New Toast of Broadway

updated 08/11/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/11/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

What an odd, disorienting scene. Burt Young, 46, has portrayed brutish lowlifes like Rocky's brother-in-law to such sleazy perfection that it's almost impossible to overestimate him. Yet here he is mastering a very different role in the flesh—playing honey-tongued charmer to his girlfriend, Diane Worthington, an aspiring actress half his age. "Ain't she pretty?" Young says of the languorous blonde, whom he met in a New York club one recent spring night. "Handsome guy you're hangin' out with," he says teasingly, gazing up at her with puppy eyes. "You could do a lot better." Worthington, lapping up the attention, shoots him a how-can-you-say-that look, then caresses the wily romantic.

"He has been notorious with women since he was 14, "says Andy Giovingo, the boyhood pal who manages Young from a used-car lot in Queens, Long Island. "Put it this way—he don't need no fixin' up."

Young's career is in no need of repair either. Besides playing Rodney Dangerfield's scruffy chauffeur in Back to School, Young is making his Broadway debut as a wisecracking drug dealer in Cuba and His Teddy Bear. His interest in the gritty street drama was fueled by the industry of first-time playwright Reinaldo Povod, 26, whom he calls "a young guy fighting his way to come somewhere."

With Robert De Niro in the lead and with Young and Ralph Macchio filling supporting roles, Cuba ran for eight sold-out weeks off-Broadway before moving uptown, where it grossed roughly $100,000 during its first 90 minutes of business. Revenues like that have now put Young in a position nearly as singular as his love life. A former boxer and carpet layer from Corona, Queens, who didn't start acting until he was 29, Young has crossed the East River to become one of the hotter attractions on Broadway.

And he's made the trip without spoiling in steerage. Young is still a stand-up guy who's been known to stop tour buses in front of his Beverly Hills home and invite the passengers inside. "He's an ordinary, everyday guy," says Dick McCann, 55, a fireman whom Young befriended while filming Back to School in Madison, Wis. When Dick and his wife, Ann, took their vacation in January, they were picked up by limo at Los Angeles airport and spent five days as Young's house-guests. "He don't look down his nose at anybody," says Dick.

Young, who probably would prefer to gargle with lye than weigh in on the social circuit, inhabits a circumscribed world made up of his friends, his daughter Anne, 18, and his girlfriend. "He's loyal and honest," says Worthington. "Loyalty is a big one."

According to Young, loyalty is the big one. It's a quality he says he learned to value as a member of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang, a dozen or so Corona cronies who hung out at a bakery owned by Giovingo. Young doesn't divulge many details about his old friends. Is he connected? Young finds the question of mob association amusing. "Connected perhaps to working men," he answers, "to guys that are trying."

Young is similarly vague on other subjects from the past, such as his real surname (his grandparents were Italian immigrants) or facts about his wife, Gloria, who died in 1972 or 1974. "I don't remember dates when things are hard or harsh," he says uneasily. "I'm not comfortable discussing them."

He's more relaxed talking of acting, a craft he once dismissed as "too corny, too hambone." That was before 1969, when he enrolled in Lee Strasberg's acting classes, apparently to impress a barmaid. Whatever his motive, Young discovered that he had an ability to "really get in the belly of a character," and he used that ability to depart Corona for Hollywood. Specializing in seedy sad sacks who are best defined by their names—Sgt. Scuzzi in The Choirboys, Pigpen in Convoy or Bedbug Eddie in The Pope of Greenwich Village—Young made his mark by creating what the New York Times called "immediately identifiable figures that are an essential part of the American landscape."

Today Young can afford to be part-owner of a well-regarded light-heavyweight, David Sears, and can provide the tuition to send his only child to Wesleyan University. "I annoy her every chance I get," he says of Anne, who just graduated with honors from Beverly Hills High. Amateur artists, Burt and Anne have filled the house with their paintings; his are dark and brooding, hers bright and cheerful. One painting in the living room is by an outsider—Sly Stallone. It's a portrait of Paulie, Rocky's ne'er-do-well brother-in-law. "Stallone says I'm the only one stupid enough to hang it," says Young.

Whenever he suffers from "feeling banged around and down, or just normal loneliness," Young works out. "It's an important part of my life to stay healthy," he says. "I'll get heavy. Then I'll look at myself and feel like the Pillsbury Doughboy and I'll shape up." Besides running (he finished the 1984 New York Marathon), Young attacks the heavy bag in his upstairs gym, displaying a sledgehammer power that suggests Stallone wouldn't last a round with him. "But he's just as gentle as he is strong," says Giovingo. "The man doesn't have to show no muscle."

Despite his success as an actor, including an Oscar nomination for Rocky, Young's conceal-the-muscle modesty extends to his performances. "I'm never going to change anything in anybody's life," he admits, "but at least I can make them feel less peculiar, less alone. I think I sort of inspire people. They think, 'If this bonehead did it, anybody has a shot.' And it's true."

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