The Linebacker Who Became an Actor Who Became Lombardi

Dan Lauria has already created one pop culture icon — we’re talking about Kevin Arnold’s dad on The Wonder Years, of course — and he’s now taking on another one, Vince Lombardi, in Lombardi, a Broadway play about the legendary Green Bay coach. Lauria, a former linebacker himself, spoke to The Sports Section about his new role.

So you played football growing up.
Oh sure. I grew up in Lindenhurst, Long Island, and I was captain of my football team. My sophomore and junior years we won the Rutgers Award for the best team on Long Island, and I went to college on a football scholarship and played at Southern Connecticut State University as a middle linebacker. So I knew who Vince Lombardi was before he went to the Packers, ‘cause he was the offensive coordinator for the Giants.

Are you a big Giants fan?
I rooted for them and still do. I almost got killed in Green Bay when I told them I was still a Giants fan — “Hey, hey, we had [Lombardi] first!”

Do any of the games from your youth still stick in your memory?
Winning that Rutgers trophy — actually, my junior year when they presented the award in the spring, Vince Lombardi was the one who presented all the awards, so I actually shook the man’s hand once. Anybody who played ball, especially where I grew up, where it was all Irish and Italian, we knew who he was. So we were so happy when he got to be a head coach, because he was literally the first Italian head coach.

How did the role of Lombardi come to you?
Well, my name was on a short list, but the theater owners didn’t want me — they would rather have Julia Roberts play Coach Lombardi ‘cause it would sell more tickets. But then they hired Tommy Kail, who I’ve known for a long time, even before he did In the Heights — in fact, when he was broke for awhile and I was in L.A., I gave him my New York apartment for free ‘cause I knew he was gonna be good. So when he got the job, he recommended me. The NFL was adamant about having me — they wanted an Italian and they wanted someone who played football. I don’t think they would’ve produced this if the NFL weren’t involved. They read the script, they approved it, they didn’t want it whitewashed, they wanted warts and all, but they didn’t want him to be a clown. And the president of the NFL, he seemed to enjoy the play very much. Last night Sonny Jurgensen came to the play. We had a talk-back with some of the NFL players and Sonny was crying — he loved Lombardi.

You and Lombardi are both Brooklyn natives.
I’m from Bensonhurt, he’s from Sheepshead Bay. It helped a little bit — as an actor, I really understand the prejudice he experienced … ironically, my agent set me up to play the president of a bank, and I told him there hasn’t been an Italian president of a bank on film in years, and they found out I was right — but if I was to rob a bank I’d be Italian! We fight that prejudice all the time. So I understand where Coach Lombardi is coming from.

Your resemblance to him is incredibly striking — down to the gap in your teeth. Had anyone ever pointed it out to you before?
Well, I have a little space, not as big as his, ‘cause I have caps. We put a little black nail polish on [laughs]. But actually, when they have celebrity look-alikes, I’m always put up there with Joe Torre.

It seems like this was an immensely research-heavy role — a great part of which must have been your trip to Green Bay. What kind of a schedule was laid out for you there?
It was with the Green Bay Packers organization and sanctioned by the NFL. Michael Murphy of the Packers gave us a tour, showed us the museum, brought us to practice, and I got to talk with Coach McCarthy, what a great guy. I didn’t want to interfere with practice, I apologized to the coach. We talked for a couple minutes and I was ready to leave, but then he asked me something about Lombardi, and I felt it was untrue, and we ended up sitting on the sidelines talking about coaching. It was very informative. You know, they’ve lost three games by a total of less than nine points; I really think without injuries, they’d be a shoo-in for the Super Bowl. I still think they might make it.

It’s fascinating, in the play, to see what a spiritual connection Lombardi had to the game, which seems very informed by his Jesuit background …
Well, freedom through discipline, that’s the Jesuit slogan, and that was his mantra. The more you study about him the more you realize what it means. The power sweep, when the guards pull out, they don’t know who they’re going to hit, they read the defense as it happens, and you have to have a coach with a lot of confidence in you to do that, and I think that all comes from his Jesuit upbringing.

Do you think the game still allows for coaches like this today?
I think Bill Cowher is like that, Belichick is like that. I think if you pulled Lombardi out of heaven and dropped him into the NFL today he wouldn’t necessarily have done well. But Sonny tells a story of how even on his deathbed [Lombardi] was talking about a new type of offense, and it’s essentially the West Coast offense — he would have been the first — he would’ve put it in the Redskin formation. He was always ahead of the game — he would’ve found a way to win.

It’s a unique moment in theater to have the NFL bankroll a show. Are there perks to being in an NFL-approved show?
I get to talk to all these players I knew growing up, my idols. If I call the NFL and want to talk to Bart Starr, twenty minutes later Bart’s on the phone, “Sure, Dan, whaddya want?” And any footage — the number of times I must have watched him do the power sweep … Every word I’m saying is right out of his mouth. And so are the speeches in the locker room — we cut ‘em down, but that beautiful last speech, that’s all him.

It’s crazy to see (a) the number of heterosexual men this show brings to the theater and (b) how involved they get in the audience.
Yeah, well, you know, Kathie Lee was here with Frank and she said on the air a couple times, “I haven’t seen Frank well up like that in years.” And her partner said she’d never seen so many men in tears. But I think the real surprise is how many women like it.

Are you able to still go to games now, or does being on Broadway make that difficult?
Oh yeah, it’s great! I get free beers! Get to sit up in the box, get Carl Banks to break down a play. At one point I even pointed out, “That linebacker missed a scrape-off, he got his feet tangled up,” and then it was, “Oh you played! You really know what you’re talkin’ about!”

The Linebacker Who Became an Actor Who Became Lombardi