Actor F. Murray Abraham on Syrian refugees and de Blasio’s New York
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He’s been an Italian composer, a Bronx district attorney, a black ops specialist, and of course, Macbeth, but best of all, F. Murray Abraham is a proud resident of Greenwich Village who follows city politics with the same gusto he brings to the stage and screen. City & State’s Jeff Coltin talked to the 1984 best actor Oscar winner about Syrian refugees, his dream role and de Blasio’s New York.
C&S: You’ve testified before Congress on behalf of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. What drew you to that cause?
FMA: Well my father’s from Syria. He came over when he was a kid. My grandfather brought the family over to escape famine – they were dying, people were dying – and the United States of America opened their arms to them. I wish that we could carry on that tradition.
C&S: Are you disappointed that New York isn’t – or can’t – take more Syrian refugees?
FMA: Of course they can. We have the space, we have the money. It’s an odd political situation in our country now. This Islamophobia – which used to be anti-Semitism, which used to be anti-Chinese, which used to be anti-Italian (which is also part of my heritage) – it seems to be a recurring nightmare. We don’t seem to learn from it. It’s like a snake that eats its own tail. I am disappointed in us, and the America that we all, in our hearts, know is what our country is really about. … I refuse to despair. I will not give up hope. It turned around before. We did finally open the doors to the Jews to the benefit of the country. And I think we will finally open our eyes to the needs of these people.
C&S: You used to teach theater at Brooklyn College, and still do guest lectures there. What separates theater programs like that – great, inexpensive schools like CUNY – from the prestige theater schools like Yale and Juilliard?
FMA: The difference is of course the money! It’s extraordinary. But you must well know it was a highly regarded school! Wasn’t CCNY called “the Harvard of the middle class?” There’s some great programs there, really marvelous teachers there. The most important book on theater business was written by the man who used to run that department. It’s the bible of theater business. And (Allen) Ginsberg taught there, the great American poet. The students who go there go because they’re dedicated. Most of them, I think, are working. We’re talking about a full-time schedule, people who work to make their living, to pay their bills and to achieve a diploma. That’s what separates them. It’s not a place to go and just hang out and run out of your father’s money. It’s a place to learn, it’s a place to do something. That’s the difference.
C&S: “Hamilton” is tearing up Broadway. Do you have a dream historical figure to play on stage?
FMA: Hmmm, I haven’t thought in those terms. If I could, if we could find a play good enough, I’d love to play (The Public Theater founder) Joe Papp. He was an idol of mine. I think he was a great man. What he did for the theater, what he did for New York – I mean, are you kidding, the Delacorte Theater in the park? Who would have dreamed that’s possible? That’s vision. That’s a great thing, one of the best things in New York. It’s the great leveler. You don’t have to have any money to go to the theater, that’s the way it should be. You go to that theater in the park and you’re sitting next to millionaires and next to bums. It’s great.
C&S: Have you performed at Shakespeare in the Park?
FMA: Oh yeah! It’s the best. It’s the best thing in New York, for an actor. It’s like summer camp. But I mean there’s not much money involved and that’s OK. It’s just great. No kidding. You take a deep breath to say those fabulous Shakespeare speeches and a bug flies right down your throat! (laughs) You have to learn how to deal with that! You find out what you’re made of. Because that’s exactly what Shakespeare and his company had to put up with! It was an outdoor theater. Of course bugs flew down their throat. How do you handle it? They didn’t have airplanes flying over, but you had other problems!
C&S: Back in 2013, many of your artist and actor colleagues endorsed Bill de Blasio for mayor. Did you endorse? How has he done?
FMA: I did endorse him. I thought it was a terrific thing that he represented. I’m a little disappointed, I’m sorry to say, but I still have hopes for him. I wish he would somehow find a balance between the populace and the police department. You really mustn’t choose sides. I’m a big supporter of the police department, and I also believe that we have to find a way to better communicate between the police and the people in the street. That’s so tricky. It’s a damn shame – for example, “Serpico,” that was a big deal. You look at this movie – it’s a terrific performance by Al (Pacino). And – of course great director, (Sidney) Lumet – I was in that picture, very briefly. The point is, you come away from that picture imagining there’s only one honest cop on the whole force. Well that’s bullshit! And they all suffer. All cops become targets because of that kind of picture. That’s what happened, I think, nationally. There should be a very clear distinction between some people who are really bad cops and so many cops who care, who really give a shit.
I don’t mean to sound like an apologist for violence. I’m not. But I do believe there has to be some kind of better understanding. The idea that this new commissioner (James O’Neill) has come out with, cops who speak the language, literally, of the people on the beat, who come to know the neighborhood and know the people of the neighborhood, I look forward to that time. And I think de Blasio deserves credit for trying to find someone who thinks that way. But otherwise I don’t like the idea of him enlarging government, which is what’s happening under his administration. And I really would like to see more hospitals happening.
I would like a little more evidence of humanity in our government! I’m two blocks from St. Vincent’s Hospital, which has been converted to expensive apartments. I mean what in the world kind of community are we a part of? That’s criminal. I mean that really is criminal. That’s just fucking money. That wasn’t under de Blasio’s administration. That was under Bloomberg, a man I have to admire. But he should not have allowed that to happen.
C&S: One of your first screen roles was in “Serpico” and you appeared in “Bonfire of the Vanities” – do you have a favorite New York City crime story?
FMA: Well I did a “Kojak” once. A long time ago when “Kojak” went to L.A. for a while and then came back to New York. I did the first one they did when they came back to New York. I did it with Eli Wallach and Telly Savalas, who was very nice to me. And that’s when I first met the New York crime scene, by the way. Really met them. With “Serpico” it was very minimal. But I met detectives who are assigned to movie sets when there are guns and evidence. You’ve got to have somebody there assigned to a set whether there are guns or not. And we became friends. I’m a friendly guy, and they were too. And the stories that they had to tell about New York introduced me to a whole other world that people are not privy to, the real danger that’s in our streets that they have to confront every day. And I don’t know that there’s enough help for people on both sides of the fence, psychologically, to address that type of darkness.
C&S: What will you be doing on election night?
FMA: I suppose I should be poll watching, but what I think I’ll be doing is crossing my fingers. And I’m not just talking about the event and the ultimate decision. I’m talking about what happens after that decision. How are we going to gather the country back together again? That’s a toughie. No more red states, no more blue states, how about the United States. We did have a war about the blue and the gray didn’t we? The Civil War, sometime ago? I thought we decided it was the United States, didn’t we?
C&S: You sound like Bill de Blasio.
FMA: Well I was thinking more Abraham Lincoln.