I WAS HOME ALONE A LOT, growing up. My mother worked, but she would take me to the theatre to see all the movies. And the next day, all alone, I would act out the movie at home, playing all the roles. I saw The Lost Weekend at a very young age. Probably too young to see something like that. But I was very impressed with it. I didn't know what was going on, but the passion was interesting to me. Ray Milland won an Oscar for that. In it, there's a scene where he's looking for a liquor bottle. When he was drunk, he hid the bottle in the apartment. Now he's sober and he wants to find it. He knows it's somewhere, but he forgets. He looks for it and finally finds it. I used to do that scene. On occasion, when my dad used to visit me, he'd take me to his relatives in Harlem and say, "Show 'em the bottle scene." I'd act it out and they'd all laugh. And I'd be thinking, Why are they laughing? It's a very serious scene.
ONE OF THE MOST striking things I've ever experienced was in the South Bronx, in one of those vaudeville houses that had been turned into a movie house. It seated thousands, and this travelling troupe came through. I was 14 and had never seen grown-ups act on a stage, though I'd been onstage myself. In elementary school, I was in a show where there was a big pot - the melting pot - and I was the representative from Italy, stirring. I can remember the kids in school asking for my autograph, and I would sign it "Sonny Scott." It was catchy, you know.
Anyway, this troupe was doing The Seagull by Chekhov. There were about 15 or 20 people in the audience, all of us clumped together in the middle of a theatre that seated thousands. The play started and then it was over. That's about how fast it went for me. It was magical. I remember thinking, Who was the person that wrote this? I went out and got a book of Chekhov's stories. Then I went into the High School of Performing Arts.
AND ONE DAY I go into the Howard Johnson's near the school for something to eat and the star of that show is pushing coffee behind the counter. My jaw dropped. I was in awe of this guy. I had to tell him. I remember that exchange. He was so grateful in a way, kind and understanding. He had to be all of 25. There he was, waiting on me at the Howard Johnson's. Things are relative.
MY BIG BREAKTHROUGH came when I was 21. I was doing Creditors, a translation of an August Strindberg play. My friend Charlie Laughton directed it in an obscure theatre in the bowels of SoHo, which at the time wasn't SoHo but just a bunch of warehouses.
The play takes place in Sweden at the turn of the century, and the character I played is named Adolf. It was the first time I had the opportunity to explore a world that I hadn't come in contact with - and then to find myself actually inhabiting that role. It wasn't the literal thing of being Swedish but the feeling that I was connected to the metaphor. It was a transforming experience, tantamount to falling in love.
It felt like I didn't need to do anything else in life but that. It was like discovering you could write. Suddenly you had an outlet. The concern was no longer whether you were going to get paid for it or whether you were going on to be successful or famous. It was, as they say, no longer the destination but the journey.
I was homeless at the time. I would sometimes sleep at night in the theatre where I performed. Sometimes Charlie would put me up at his place. It was hard, but at that age you can sleep anywhere. At the time, I even thought it was cool. I was alive to what I was doing.
There's a time in your life when that happens to you if you're lucky enough to have it happen. Then it goes. You start to make a living. But, you know, from time to time I try to think about life back then... and to stay in touch with it.
I WAS A YOUNG MAN when I went to shoot The Godfather. I remember being in Sicily, and it was so hot. If you haven't slept and you're not feeling well and it's 120 degrees and you're dressed in all wool, well, you just want to go home. You start feeling, What am I doing? I'm just shooting this over and over again and I don't know what this is anymore.
All these Sicilian extras were lined up. They all got wool clothes on, too. This one guy, this Sicilian extra, says in Italian, "We've been out here all day. It's hot. I'd like to take a break." And the production guy says, "You take a break and you're off the picture." Now, the extra obviously has no money, which is why he's doing it in the first place. He looks at the production guy, shrugs his shoulders, says "Mah!" and walks away. And I said to myself, This guy, he's my hero.
These are the things that stay in my head. I loved that guy. Could I have done that? No. Could I do it now? Nahhhhhhhh. That was freedom. For a moment, that guy made me feel good. Suddenly, the wool was OK.
I didn't know what was gonna happen with the movie - and then, the most amazing thing happened. We were in New York, doing the burial of Don Corleone. We'd shot all day. It's six at night and I'm going home. I see Francis Coppola sitting on the gravestone, and he's crying. Literally bawling. "Francis," I say. "What happened? What's the matter?" And he says, "They won't give me another set-up." Meaning, they wouldn't let him shoot the scene again. So he's sitting on the gravestone crying, and I thought, This guy is going to make a movie here. If he's got that kind of passion, that kind of feeling about one set-up ... That was the moment. I could feel it then. This guy cares. And that's it. That's the way to live - around people who care. It may be a tough ride, but something is going to come out of it.
I DIDN'T KNOW how to drive until I was 24 or 25. I didn't need to, growing up in New York. But I had to learn for films. The money was coming in, and finally I got a car. I went with my friend Charlie and got this white BMW right out of the dealership. We get in the car and drive to my apartment in Manhattan. As we're driving, I'm thinking, Y'know, this just isn't me. It just didn't feel right. But I said to myself, "What the hell, you'll get used to it." I parked it in front of the apartment, and we went up for a cup of coffee. When we came down to drive Charlie home, the car is gone. I remember looking at that space where the car used to be, looking at Charlie, and laughing.
And I had a flashback.
UNTIL YOU ARE famous, you can never understand the haven of anonymity. There's a line from the play The Local Stigmatic that goes like this: Fame is the perversion of the natural human instinct for validation and attention. That's a bit of a hard line. But I'll tell you this: Fame really complicates personal relationships. And when you put together fame and success, that can be a bit of a headache. But as Lee Strasberg, my friend and mentor, once said to me: "Darling, you simply have to adjust."
"You Make Me Feel So Young"
You make me feel so young