THE GODFATHER COMES TO DAYTIME
More European mystery man than Mafia figurehead, Joe Mascolo (Stefano) is helping to make DAYS an offer viewers can’t refuse.
By David Church
I’m in the Valley. The San Fernando Valley. Better known these days as the “Infamous Valley,” courtesy of Moon Unit Zappa’s hit song, “Valley Girls.” However, as the Valley Girls scower the smog-baked streets, trekking from shopping mall to shopping mall and shrieking “Gag me with a spoon” (a line from “Valley Girls”) at regular intervals, I’m safe inside the cooling confines of Les Halles, which not only qualifies as one of Southern California’s best French Restaurants, but also as its least pretentious. All is rural Normandy. All is at peace. Almost.
I say almost because Joe Mascolo has just entered the restaurant. Wearing a pair of black sun glasses and a tailored jacket which is draped over a shirt that has been liberally unbuttoned in order to expose his barrel chest, Joe saunters through the restaurant to greet me. Honestly, this guy is so macho it looks as if instead of shaking my hand, he’s going to ask me to arm wrestle.
Are you beginning to get the impression that I’m not looking forward to this interview? I have my reasons. Read on …
I first met Joe Mascolo a week before on the set of DAYS. Taping was behind schedule but he expansively urged me into his dressing room, urging me in his Neapolitan accent to, “Sit, sit, I will return.” Either this guy was kidding around or there was more of Stefano DiMera in Joe Mascolo than I’d previously imagined. An hour and a half later, taping was still in process and I explained to Joe that I had to leave for another appointment. He apologized loudly and we made plans to meet for lunch another day. But the apology had an ominous tone to it. He wanted to know where my appointment was — who was I meeting? I told him. He pondered and then slapped me sagely on the back. “Very good. I forgive you. We will eat. We will talk.” And with a sharp turn into his dressing room, he was gone. I felt like I’d been made an offer I couldn’t refuse.
So imagine my surprise a week later when I discovered that gone was the Italian accent, gone was the bully-boy personality, and gone was Stefano DiMera, the sophisticated thug. In his place was Joe Mascolo, one of the kindest, most cultured and intelligent actors I’ve ever interviewed. It would seem that the only thing about Joe Mascolo that’s an act, is the act.
“The accent?” He chuckled lightly. “I hope that didn’t throw you, but from the minute I walk in the door, I am Stefano DiMera. It makes for a more natural performance and it helps me to actually think in terms of the language. When I first started on the show, some of the actors and most of the crew had wagers on whether the accent was real or not.”
Actor Charles Durning (currently winning praises as the side-stepping Governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) confirmed Joe’s gift for mimicry. “We were doing ‘That Championship Season’ on Broadway at the time, and one weekend, Joe had a big party and I brought along my wife, who’s Italian. When Joe found this out, he decided to try and pull a trick on her. He spoke in an Italian accent all evening long — but only to her — to the rest of the guests he was just plain Joe. And my wife bought it. Finally, he gave in and told her the truth and she nearly killed the both of us.”
But enough about accents. And a little on personal history. Joe was born and raised in West Hartford, Connecticut, and he claims his youth was “a lot like Andy Hardy.” His varied interests found a focus with music, and at the age of 14 he began to seriously study the clarinet. Not the most manly of endeavors, particularly when you’re from a mano-a-mano European heritage. A tuba, maybe. But a clarinet? “I was fortunate with my father because he’d take me to the boxing matches one night and to the ballet the next. I never had a problem with that because above all, my father was a gentleman and he taught me to appreciate all avenues of life.”
It was in college that Joe encountered his first fascination with acting. As a favor to a professor of his, he appeared in a play, and after the production was over, he was advised by several knowledgeable faculty members to seriously consider acting as a profession. And so, while he played at night with the Metropolitan Opera, or appeared as a guest soloist with symphonies around the country, he studied acting with Stella Adler, finally debuting on Broadway as Robert Duvall’s replacement in “A View From the Bridge.” From there he worked several seasons at Lincoln Center, made numerous television appearances and landed roles in a few bad movies (“Shaft Big Score”) and in a few good ones (“Diary of a Mad Housewife” and “Sharkey’s Machine”). The came DAYS OF OUR LIVES.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a soap opera,” admits Joe. “I had just finished ‘Sharkey’s Machine’ with Burt Reynolds and ‘Yes, Giorgio’ with Luciano Pavarotti (in which he sings a duet with the famed tenor), but the character of Stefano was so intriguing, as was the potential for the character. I had done a similar role in an NBC mini-series called ‘The Gangster Chronicles’ but I wanted to go even deeper than that — I wanted to make Stefano as good and as exciting as possible — our producer, Al Rabin, and our (ex) headwriter. Pat Falken-Smith, agreed with me. Of course, Pat Smith left the show not long after, and that was a shock to me because she’d given birth to my character, but even with the changes in the writing staff I’m still happy with the character. Except … “ Except? Joe pauses momentarily. “The thing I dislike about soap operas in general are the simplistic black and white characters. They’re so Goddamn boring. I want to do a more full-fleshed character and I’m fighting for that at the moment. Stefano was introduced as a mysterious figure, now he’s more of a stock villain. There was a strong love interest with Brenda Benet’s character (Lee) and mine, but that has ended. Stefano has no one to expose his vulnerability to. And that’s essential for a character. You have to see his love for his family, so when you see this guy on a tough track it makes it even tougher.” Will there be a future love interest for Stefano? “The mail indicates that there should be another woman in his life,” replies Joe. “I hope so. But love interest or love interest,” he smiles, “Salem would be pabulum without the DiMeras. They’ve added a lot of color to the show.” And so has Mascolo. He is able to get along with everyone on the soap, but no one is closer to him than Thaao Penghlis (Tony DiMera).
“When I heard that Thaao was on the show and that, if I took this role, he’d be playing my son, I thought — wait a minute — this is going to be fun, because I know Thaao from my theater days in New York and I know how serious he is about his work. We’re good friends outside of the show, too. I don’t cook and he’s practically a gourmet chef. And in exchange for cooking lessons, I’m teaching him about music — and weaning him away from Greek pop tunes!” Joe pauses and laughs heartily. “You know, we’ve got a running joke. I’m playing Thaao’s father, but in reality I’m only seven years older that he is. When I first came on the show they were going to put gray in my hair and I decided no, it’s not going to be makeup, it’s going to be attitude.” Indeed, the fact that Stefano is an even match for his son in the virility department gives the scenes between Joe and Tony an added edge.
Thaao Penghlis agrees. “Joe is a breath of fresh air. The majority of actors on soaps act like they’re on soaps. They just run through the motions. And I can honestly say that when Joe came onto the show, the level of acting rose considerably. One day,” remembers Thaao, “Joe was able to do a scene with an actress who shall remain nameless. During the rehearsal, the actress was barely walking through her role, while Joe was giving his usual hundred percent. During a break he begged her to put some life into the rehearsal or the scene would fall flat when they taped it. She smiled condescendingly and said, ‘I’ve played this same scene with a dozen other actors.’ And Joe looked her straight in the eye and said, ‘Maybe so honey, but you’ve never played it with me.’ Needless to say, the actress relented and the scene played beautifully.”
Aside from the DAYS cast, the actors Joe admires are Marlon Brando, Sir Laurence Olivier Marcello Mastroianni and — surprise — Burt Reynolds.
“I didn’t know Burt until I worked at his dinner theater down in Jupiter, Florida,” explains Joe. “As an actor I’m impressed with him because he makes things look so easy which, make no mistake, it a very difficult thing to do. As a man, I respect him because he’s one of the few people in this business who’s willing to put something back. A lot of people get the big money or the fame and they run with it. But didn’t. He built a theater, which by the way is wonderful, and then he started an apprentice program where young actors get to work with professionals — an invaluable experience. What’s more, he’s created a place for actors to get together and do good work.” Indeed, the theater housed the likes of Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Charles Nelson Reilly, Jim Nabors and Florence Henderson, as well as producing original plays and musicals, instead of the standard, worn-out sex-farces that one tends to find at other dinner theaters. Joe sums it up in one simple sentence, “I adore the guy.
Also high on Joe’s adoration list are his wife Fran and his 17-year-old son, Peter. While Joe is adamant about keeping his professional and personal lives separate, he does admit that Peter may resurrect the musical line in the family heritage by way of the piano, instead of the clarinet. But why the secrecy about his personal life? “When I leave stage,” explains Joe, “I don’t go to actors’ bars, I don’t go to a shrink. I go home. I enjoy my family. I work in my garden. It keeps me sane and it keeps me happy.”
He’s got a lot to be happy about these days. Stefano’s popularity is growing in direct ratio to the rising ratings of DAYS, author Gerald DiPego is writing a play for Joe called “The January Man,” which he hopes to do on Broadway in the near future, he’s only received two negative letters to date criticizing Stefano’s ties to organized crime (“We have never mentioned the word ‘Mafia’ on the show — we’re not out to offend anyone”), and he was recently made an honorary captain to the police force of Salem Township in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
“Not bad for Stefano DiMera, huh?”, muses Joe, as he stretches back, laughing delightedly.
Not bad at all.
This interview appeared in the December 7, 1982 issue of Soap Opera Digest.