When Shirley MacLaine gave F. Murray Abraham his Oscar for playing the envious Salieri in Amadeus back in 1985, she whispered in his ear, “Don’t take the first thing they offer you.” He didn’t, and went on to a slew of small parts, teaching at Brooklyn College, and regular work on the New York stage. He spoke with New York about his latest gig, playing two notorious roles in repertory: Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Barabas in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. And he’s not even of the tribe!
What made you want to do this, exactly?
Are you kidding me? A couple of the greatest parts ever written, that’s why! They’ve never been done together in this country before.
Was there something about anti-Semitism that you wanted to address?
It’s all around us—any kind of prejudice, not just anti-Semitism. Who is that guy, Kramer, who said those terrible things?
Where is that coming from? I don’t know that Kramer really knew that about himself. Stirring it up and exposing it is a good thing. Maybe he’ll fix it.
You know, for the longest time I thought you were Jewish. But your father was a Syrian Christian.
Isn’t that interesting? I must have a Jewish soul. And Syria is not Arab—Syria is Semites. We’re all cousins. I wonder why we don’t get along together better. God help us.
Do you worry people will wonder about a man of Syrian descent playing these vicious anti-Semitic stereotypes?
Anybody who says that is the thing they object to. Awful. I think if it’s a decent performance, they’ll see a human being instead of all these stereotypes.
But the stereotypes are in the text …
You’re narrowing it down—it’s much bigger than that. It’s about inhumanity, the mistreatment of one human being by another. [Merchant] has something against poor people, old people, all kinds of people.
You’ve played lots of villains—Salieri, Scrooge, a demon. Does that make these roles easier?
When I played Roy Cohn [in Angels in America], that was hard, because I grew up hating him. It’s easier to do a mythological monster like Mephistopheles or Macbeth. Playing Hitler—I couldn’t do that. I played Stalin, but it was a funny version. But you keep saying villain, and I refuse to use that terminology on a character I’m re-creating. Once I played Salieri, these became the parts that are offered to me. I did The Ritz, and for almost a year, the only parts that were offered were homosexual. I was supposedly a known homosexual. I’ve been married for 46 years. I’m a grandfather! It’s like people saying, “He’s not Jewish?!”—“Oh, he’s not a faggot?!” Come on! I’m an actor, I’m an artist!
Still, do you regret taking Shirley MacLaine’s advice? Maybe if you’d compromised on a part just after your Oscar …
You know as well as I do you can’t talk about regrets. Maybe a little hubris jumped in. But that’s gone now.
What would you like to have done?
I really am funny. I wish I could have a chance to do more humor. There’s quite a bit in these plays, though.
Of a sort. Would you do a sitcom?
If we could shoot it in New York, yeah, I’d love it.
You’ve been known to bring your Oscar to performances and on trips. Will it be onstage in these plays?
My mother has it now. It’ll show up on the stage here—it does all the time, somewhere hidden. They used to dress him up in different costumes. You can’t flash him around—people get the wrong impression. But I’m doing it because of what he’s done for me.
Does it bother you to read headlines like “Whatever happened to … ”?
Well, he’s doing The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta, that’s whatever happened to him. What schmuck asks that—don’t they read the paper? I’ll tell you something. If I could live as I am right now for a thousand years, I would do it.
The Merchant of Venice
The Jew of Malta By Marlowe.
Theatre for a New Audience. The Duke on 42nd Street. February 4–March 11.