A lot of things happened in New York in 1977: A blackout was followed by widespread looting; the Son of Sam killer was arrested; a feuding Yankees team battled for first place; 20-year-old SUNY–New Paltz student John Turturro spent the summer working at a doughnut shop and living at his parents’ house in Queens. In the new ESPN mini-series The Bronx Is Burning (based on Jonathan Mahler’s book about that year), Turturro and a set of prosthetic ears play Yankees manager Billy Martin. He spoke with Ben Mathis-Lilley about baseball, sexual hedonism, and wearing cutoff dungarees back in the day on Christopher Street.
Did playing Billy Martin change the perception of him that you had growing up in the city?
I remember seeing him on the street a couple of times because I worked in a restaurant near Billy Martin’s, his cowboy-boot store. He was … well, you wouldn’t want to go up to him and say, “Hey, Billy!” and put your arm around him. But, and I remembered this from when I was younger, too, there was something sympathetic about him that made people just go in his direction. He came from a rough neighborhood, he was an overachiever, he was a soulful guy. When his marriage wasn’t working, he went to church every day to pray. He had a nervous breakdown during his playing career.
He also apparently had some good-looking girlfriends for a small guy with big ears.
I was shocked! I didn’t know he was such a ladies’ man. Some of them would be considered a little young, maybe, today.
Not everyone liked him, though.
I think he thought that he could outsmart people. But he was not Machiavellian enough, and Steinbrenner was. Steinbrenner had some positive qualities, but the more you read about him, the more your hair stands on end. He would collect these people he admired and then treat them dismissively.
How did Reggie Jackson figure into it?
They say Reggie wanted to get you to like him. Once you liked him, sometimes he’d ice you. Maybe he and Martin could have co-existed a little bit better without Steinbrenner. They were all big personalities on that team, though. They lived a different way—I was watching the introductions for the ’77 World Series and noticing the haircuts, the mustaches, some guys had guts. Boozers, potheads. They were out there.
What were your own memories of that summer?
I remember being nervous because of the Son of Sam. But there was this sexual hedonism going on, and if you were 20 years old like I was, you were taking advantage of it. You wore really tight pants, you had big hair, you’d dress like a girl, and there was sex everywhere. I liked it a lot better!
Were you doing any acting at the time?
I was directing a play at my church with my mom and my brother, and I was doing these rock-and-roll musicals down at the Westbeth. My friend Michael Badalucco [an actor who later played David Berkowitz in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam] would give me flyers to hand out … He would cut my white dungaree shorts really short, tell me to wear a tank top, and I’d go down to Christopher Street and the piers and hand out these flyers. So of course people thought I was handing out flyers to a gay play, and I would get all kinds of, you know … I’d have to lay down when I got back. At first when I put on the pants that I wear in the series, I was like, “My God, they are so tight.” But after a couple days, I was like, “I’m back in the saddle.”
The Bronx Is Burning
Premieres July 9. ESPN.