Joe Mantegna has staying power. He’s built an acting career of 40 years and counting, including more than 200 film and television appearances as well as producing, writing, directing and staying active in the theater. His current projects include three long-running roles — seven years as the host and producer of Gun Stories for the Outdoor Channel, 11 years as the star of CBS’ Criminal Minds, and an impressive 27 years voicing a recurring character on The Simpsons. He’s equally committed to the charitable causes he supports, especially his longtime advocacy for military veterans, and has hosted the National Memorial Day Concert since 2006.
The 28-year resident is an especially familiar face around Toluca Lake, consistently active in community events such as the Holiday Open House. Deepening the local connection, he and his wife of 42 years, Arlene, are also Burbank business owners, having operated their Taste Chicago restaurant for the past 14 years.
It happened to be Halloween when Mantegna stopped by our office for an interview, but there was no need to prompt him into a Valentine’s Day frame of mind — his love for his wife and daughters, his friends and colleagues, his remarkable career, his Chicago roots and his Toluca Lake neighborhood shone through in every word.
What first brought you to Toluca Lake? I’d been living in Studio City forever, since my wife and I moved out from Chicago in ’78. A dear friend of ours lived in Studio City at the time and we stayed with him for about a month. And when we were able to find an apartment, all I knew was Studio City, so we got a little apartment on Tujunga and Ventura for about eight years. Then my career got a little better and I bought my first house — I still own it and rent it out — in Studio City on Valley Spring Lane.
When I did Godfather III in 1990, we already had one child and my wife was expecting the second, and we needed more space. It was Andy Garcia who told me, “You know, you gotta look in Toluca Lake.” He already lived here, and he told me about Campbell Hall, where his kids went to school. I’d driven through Toluca Lake and it seemed kind of cool. We had looked all over, but my wife and I both realized that we really did like the East Valley. You get more bang for your buck going out to the West Valley, but there’s just something about it — it wasn’t us.
So then all of a sudden, the guy who was looking for houses for us said, “I got a house for you.” We were actually looking for a much smaller place, but he said, “You gotta see this house in Toluca Lake.” You know, I’ll spend a week trying to find the best one of these [points at his day planner], but you know in 10 seconds if you can live in a house or not. Biggest purchase in your life and you know immediately if you want to live there. We saw this house and I knew — I just walked in and said, “This is it.”
How has the area changed since then? Well, it has and it hasn’t, and that’s good news, I think. You go through a slew of changes where what used to be a restaurant is now a Trader Joe’s and so forth. There was no sound wall on the freeway when I bought the house, so that’s an improvement I can specifically remember. And then the people change. We’ve had great neighbors. Garry Marshall was a neighbor and his family still is, Wendell Niles and his father were right across the street from us, and then the Steinkellners, who wrote for Cheers, used to be down the street. So you get to know your neighbors, especially the show business ones because that’s the racket I’m in. I remember the day we moved in, it was like the old-time Beaver Cleaver days where a guy comes and knocks on your door and says, “Hi, I’m your new neighbor, welcoming you to the neighborhood,” with a little gift basket.
People here seem to know not only their neighbors but also the people who used to live in each house before them. Yeah, that is kind of true. Nobody lived in mine, only because it had just been built. The guy who built it, his name was Marvin McCabe. He was a character — he was famous, notorious, in Toluca Lake. I remember when my house was in escrow at the end of ’90, and Godfather III had just opened in the theaters on Christmas Day. Marvin went to see it, and I heard from the person who was with him in the movie theater that during the scene where my character gets killed, he jumped up saying, “He can’t die! We’re still in escrow!”
What makes this neighborhood unique? It’s got that small-town feel to it, quirks and turns. It’s changed, but not too much. It’s like the Valley’s version of Larchmont in some ways, but it hasn’t gotten such popularity that it’s out of control. The only time it gets really crazy is for the Christmas parade, which is great, because then you can really see the impact of the neighborhood. And Toluca Lake is famous for Halloween. I have a friend who owns a candy company in New York, so he sent me 2,000 full-size pieces of candy. And I’m always at the front door. Garry Marshall used to give out candy, and I respected that. We gave out one per kid, and at 9:30 I had to shut the gate because we were out.
Speaking of Garry Marshall, you starred in a play at the Falcon Theatre? I did Trumbo. He asked me to do that about 12 or 13 years ago. Theater’s where I come from — it’s all I did for the first 15 years of my career — so it was great to be working in the neighborhood. I used to own one of those little golf carts, and I used to take that from the house to the theater.
Garry and I have the same birthday, November 13. I remember when The Odd Couple was on TV, [the opening narration] said, on November 13, Felix Unger left his house. And I always used to think, “Wow, that’s my birthday!” Then I realized later, when I got to know Garry, that he put that in there for a reason — it was his birthday. And then we would call each other on the 13th: “How you doing? How’s your birthday going?” “Great, how’s yours?” “Great.”
I did a bit in one of his movies, Valentine’s Day. [Garry Marshall voice] “Joe, please, come on, you do one line, you’ll be done in half an hour, you come in, you come in.” “OK, Garry, I’ll do it.”
What are your thoughts on the new Garry Marshall Theatre? Well, I think it’s great. It was great in the first place that Garry even opened the theater. Look, the guy didn’t need to do anything. He was very successful, he’d lived his life, he’d raised a wonderful family — the last thing you need to do is open up what is probably an iffy business anyway. My hat’s off to my wife for doing the same thing with our restaurant, Taste Chicago. In our 50s, you think you want to open a restaurant? It’s the hardest job in the world. But people, they get this dream and they want to do it, so you do it.
And being an actor, the fact that Garry opened this lovely little theater — it’s not a tiny waiver theater, and yet it’s not the Ahmanson, either. It’s not like there’s an abundance of theaters of that size and quality. So to have it right here in the Toluca Lake/Burbank area is really something. And justifiably so, to now name it after the man who made it happen. I loved working there. For an actor with a stage background, how nice to have a nice little theater that you can walk to from your home.
What’s it like being involved in a business with your wife? The best thing about it is — we’ve been together a long time. I went to Morton East High School and junior college in Cicero, Illinois, and she went to Morton West High School in Berwyn, Illinois. We would do district-wide musicals. I was the lead actor in two of those plays, and she had featured roles in both. So we knew each other, but not romantically at all, and then we went our separate ways.
Then we both got cast in the play Hair in 1969. That was my first professional job, and hers. Something like 4,000 people tried out for that play, and they cut it down to maybe 50 by the last tryout. They had us all at the Schubert Theater in Chicago, and it was like, “Hey, it’s you!” “Oh, it’s you!” As it turned out, we both got cast. And, you know, it turned into something else.
So we’ve been together close to 50 years. That’s a long time, for anybody. We got married in 1975, so we just had our 42nd wedding anniversary. Outside of my immediate family, she’s the only one that’s really taken the ride with me. She’s been able to be part of it all, and contribute toward it all, and do it all, and see my dreams come true, at least in terms of a career, and have children together. So the best thing about the restaurant is that we had the ability to make that dream come true for her.
Do you have any advice for a long and happy relationship? Life in general — it’s all a rollercoaster. You get on this ride when you’re born, and you’ve never been on the rollercoaster before, so you don’t know what it’s going to be like. There’s going to be a lot of harrowing turns, and there’s going to be some stuff that’ll scare the hell out of you, and some that’s going to be exhilarating and some’s going to be fun. And then if you’re doing it with another person, you’re in this rollercoaster together. Your options are: You hang in the rollercoaster, even during the curves that are scary and bad, or you fly out.
But my feeling is, if you fly out of the rollercoaster, you’re going to land in another rollercoaster, and I don’t know if the ride’s going to be any different. Now, I’m not saying you have to say, “OK, I’m in this no matter what.” Obviously, if the rollercoaster starts going off the tracks, you get to jump. You save your life. But if it’s just scary, you’ve got to figure, “I kind of like a lot of this. Can I get through this?” So you hang on tight through the curve. And if you do that, sometimes it’s worth it because the next curve is the fun one.
I won’t say, “Life’s been perfect and I’ve never had a problem, it was all dandy.” I don’t think anybody can say that. But what we’ve done is we’ve hung on, and I think the longer we hung on, the better it got. And the ride has smoothed out. All the big, scary hills — I’m not saying there can’t be others, but we’ve been through so much of it that we know how to handle it now.
The restaurant isn’t your only family business; your daughter Gia is an actor. How does it feel to have her following in your footsteps? It’s funny, for me being an actor is like — sometimes I think I’ve become a man on the moon. Because why should I be an actor? There’s nothing in my family or the way that I grew up that pointed toward it. To give you an idea, my mother just died in April, at 101 years old, so I went back for the funeral in Chicago, and my older brother got up to speak, and he goes, “My brother Joey doesn’t even know this, but when he got Criminal Minds, my mother called me and said, ‘I’m worried about your brother Joey. He’s only working an hour a week.’” And that’s how much my mother understood show business. I remember when I won the Tony Award, she would tell people I won “the Oscar, but for the plays.” She couldn’t comprehend what that was. So I didn’t grow up in a theatrical environment at all.
But all my daughter knew was being around show business types. For me, it was like a mystery world — I just had that bug and I had to solve it. But she missed that step. There’s no hesitation, there’s no fear. It’s an advantage, yes, but she’s still got to back it up. Nobody’s going to spend 10 cents on you if you’re not good. I don’t care whose daughter you are, you’d better back it up. But early on, I knew she could back it up. She’s starring in a TV series now on CW Seed called Life After First Failure. So I’m very proud of her.
And I am proud of my daughter Mia, who has autism. She’s an artist, and she’s had art exhibits in Sacramento and West Covina. She had a show here in Toluca Lake at Pergolina. We donated all the proceeds to Easterseals Chicago, which I’m the celebrity spokesperson for. The owners of Pergolina are our best friends in the world; they lived next door to us in Studio City when we used to live there.
What’s inspiring you creatively right now? I’ve never had a wishlist. Some people go, “This is my next project. I want to buy the rights to this and make this, start this company, do this and this and this…” I always felt that opportunity, whatever it was, was just there. Like let’s say I got the phone call on a Tuesday from the agent: “They’re interested in you playing this part on Criminal Minds.” On Monday, I didn’t know that. So 11 years of my life has been ultimately changed from a phone call. Maybe I’m superstitious, but my feeling is, life is a totally evolving thing. Things have worked out pretty well for me, not planning so much. So I have no aspiration, I’ve achieved my aspirations. If things just continue as they are, I’m the happiest guy in Dodge. You always hope things don’t get worse, and can they get better? Yeah, sure, things can always get better. But I’m not looking for either thing to happen.
So it’s just a question of staying open? Staying open to whatever’s out there and just trying to live your life and enjoy it. Look, I’m going to be 70 years old next month, and that’s a number that never was on my radar. In the real world, they’re like, “Thank you for your service, go lay in the sun somewhere.” But I’m still doing what I do. I’m fortunate I’m in the profession I’m in. I’m not thinking about retiring, because I still like what I do. I really believe in my heart that if for a second I said to myself, “I don’t want to do this anymore,” I’d walk away in a heartbeat and not regret anything. But until that day comes, I’m just going to do what I do, and however the chips fall, they’ll fall. And hopefully it’ll be a gentle fall.
Shemar Moore, who used to be on our show, was being interviewed about his new show, SWAT, and he said, “I’m No. 1 on the call sheet now on my show. On Criminal Minds Joe Mantegna was No. 1 on the call sheet and I learned from him how to treat people, and to keep things calm.” And for him to say that meant a lot to me, it really touched me. Because I do try to do that. Of course, you’re still going to have problems, but right now, 13 years in, we couldn’t be better. The cast is just solid, everybody’s tight, it’s like a lovefest over there. And as it should be. Life’s tough enough. As the saying goes, worry about the things you can change and just go with the stuff you can’t, and try to get through it all. It’s all good.
For a behind-the-scenes look at the Mantegnas’ restaurant, check out “Taste Chicago: A Home Away From Home.”
More From Mantegna
Our conversation with Joe Mantegna spanned many more topics than we could fit in the print magazine. Here are a few bonus questions.
How did your daughter Gia get started in acting? I’d seen her do little bits at school, and I thought, “She does have the personality for it, the chops,” but I would never push it. I didn’t want to be the stage father, the one that wanted you to do it or forced you to do it. I also wasn’t going to be the one to say, “Don’t you do that, I don’t want you to be that.” I said, “If you want it bad enough, go get it. It’s not easy. It’s not for the faint of heart, it’s not for the thin of skin. You’ve got to really want it. If you don’t want it, get out. But I’m not going to influence you one way or another.” And I think that’s the right attitude.
When she was 12 years old, a writer out of Chicago came to me with this movie called Uncle Nino. I read the script and [my character’s] daughter’s name was Gina. (And Gia’s name really was Gina — she changed it later, because my wife had always wanted her name to be Gia, so it took me 18 years to lose that argument. But that’s another story.) And the character was her age. I said, “Did you know I have a daughter?” And they said, “No. Does she act?” I said, “Well, she does — but look, I just do this for a living, I’m not going to go pushing people into a job if they ain’t right for it. But you read her, along with everyone else, and if you think she’s right…” And they came back to me, and they said, “She’s the best of anybody we read, and she looks like you. So why shouldn’t she play your daughter?” So she played the part, and Anne Archer played my wife, and I love the movie. It’s a very heartwarming family movie, just beautiful. And Gia was wonderful in it.
We’re focusing on local pets in this issue. Do you have animals at home? We’ve got two dogs and a cat. My wife and I always had cats in Chicago; we were never dog people. Because we’d always lived in apartments — I never lived in a house until I bought one. I had parakeets when I was a kid and that was it. So having a cat was a big deal.
But Gia always wanted a dog. In Uncle Nino, her character, all she wants is a dog. And in the movie, at first I don’t want to, and then I get her the dog. So that Christmas, of course, the real Gia wanted a dog. And my wife and I realized, “How could we not get her a dog now? We just did in the movie!” So that was when we got our first dog, Chooch, who we lost last year. And then a couple years later we got Roxy, another Maltese. And then an old boyfriend of Gia’s gave her a little Yorkie, which is a great little dog.
The cat we have now, Juliet, she’s a Siamese. My daughter was in France, studying French at the Sorbonne one summer after she finished high school. And my wife went to visit her, and they called me and said, “Gia’s bringing home somebody that she met here in France.” And I’m thinking, “Oh God, no, my 19-year-old daughter met a French guy,” and it turned out it was the cat.
What has it been like to direct episodes of Criminal Minds? I’d directed plays, and then I directed a movie of a play I directed, Lakeboat, but this was the first time I’d directed episodic television. It’s a whole different medium, so you have to adapt and understand it. They asked me after I had been on the show six or seven years; I wasn’t hawking them to develop an episode. But I’d been in it long enough that I thought, “OK, you can learn by doing and I’ve done it, so we’ll see what I’ve learned.”
It’s very demanding, especially when I’m acting as well, so I only do two per season, which is plenty. It’s scary too, because the buck stops with you. Like, 250 people’s jobs are dependent on you, and you’re given this budget of probably around $4 million to play with, and you better deliver, and you’ve got eight days to do it. So it’s daunting, but I waited until I felt I was up to the challenge, and then I did it.
And I do enjoy it, especially because I got to do this whole arc with my dear friend Meshach Taylor, who has since passed away. I directed two of the three episodes that dealt with his character. They had the character actually pass away, as the actor did. To say goodbye to that character, as well as saying goodbye to one of my closest friends of my life, that was pretty heavy for me. And I feel very lucky to have been able to do that, because that lives forever now. He played my [character’s] commanding officer in Vietnam, now homeless on the streets of L.A. So we showed a lot of black-and-white flashbacks of Vietnam, and I love those episodes. And then ultimately, I got to bring him to this place called New Directions for Veterans, which is a real place on the campus of the Veterans Administration over in Westwood. I’m their celebrity spokesman. So being able to have done that as a director on the show has been huge for me.
Combating homelessness for veterans, an issue I champion in my personal life — if I can incorporate that into what I do for a living, why not? It’s a win-win.