Lauria, widely known for playing Jack Arnold, the dad on TV's "The Wonder Years," is a former football player and coach, hails from Lombardi's home turf of Brooklyn and even has a natural gap between his two front teeth, as the late Green Bay Packers coach did.
Reading David Maraniss' "When Pride Still Mattered," the Lombardi biography that inspired Eric Simonson's play, was the starting point for Lauria. In the days leading up to the first preview for the current run at Circle in the Square, the actor spoke to Playbill.com about the process of playing the man behind the myth.
I'm curious to know how much you knew about the man, Lombardi, before this process began.
Dan Lauria: Oh, quite a lot, because I played ball on Long Island — Lindenhurst. It was all Catholics, all Irish or Italian, and Coach Lombardi was with the Giants then. So we knew him before he went to Green Bay. And of course, after he became the legend that he is, I read all the books. I even read David [Maraniss'] book the second it came out, so now it's more about re-reading. …We actually learned a little bit more from the actual players, 'cause we always ask them, "What's not in the books?" Half the stories we can't tell you. [Laughs].
You talked to Lombardi-era Green Bay Packers?
DL: Oh, yeah. Last week we had dinner with [quarterback] Sonny Jurgensen and [linebacker] Sam Huff, and we went to Green Bay. [Our producer] Tony [Ponturo] flew us out to Green Bay…and we met [tackle Robert] Skoronski, [guard] Fuzzy Thurston, you know.
What did you learn about the man that surprised you?
DL: One of the things, which we've added to the play: he loved jokes. And people loved to tell him jokes, because he had this big laugh and he had a pretty good sense of humor, but he was the worst joke teller. And that's in the play, so we've actually added that based on what we've learned… The people who were with us in Green Bay will tell you — we met three of the women. One was his secretary, and one was the wife of a member of the board, and one was one of the ball players' wives. Those three ladies were hysterical. They had us in stitches. [They talked] a lot about [Vince's wife] Marie Lombardi.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
In the play, are you speaking directly to the audience?
DL: I don't, but I refer to the audience as if they're in a locker room, so my locker room speeches are as if the audience was the players. But Keith Nobbs plays a young reporter, and he talks directly to the audience and fills in the history of Lombardi. I think you'll learn a lot about the working of the man, but let's face it, you could do a 90-minute play just on Lombardi's effect on the black players and what he did for them. You could do 90 minutes on how the obsession of winning affected his family. You could do 90 minutes on his negotiation with the New Players' Association, the unions. So Keith kind of fills in a lot of fact, and then we brush over all those things, and you see more the relationship of him and the players. Very misunderstood. You know, there's that old saying, "He treated everybody the same, like dogs." That's not quite true.
He treated everyone according to their individual qualities?
DL: Yeah, he knew the right buttons to push on all of them.
How important was it for you to do an "impersonation" and how important was it for you to just be the essence of the man?
DL: Well, you know, it really isn't one of those things where I have to do an impersonation, because I am so close to him. I'm from Brooklyn, I have the [tooth] gap. I flatten my "A" a little bit in my speeches. I actually scared [NFL linebacker] Carl Banks the other night at the Giants game when I said, "What the hell are we doin' out there!?" He looked over and he goes, "I've heard that tape!" I don't have to change very much.
Was Lombardi a major ego? Was he a bully?
DL: He had this drive to win, and like most good leaders, he didn't demand of his players anything he wouldn't do himself. He drove himself. It was very hard to say he was a bully, because bullies drive other people. They think they're special. He never treated himself [as] special — matter of fact, to his own detriment, because he should have gone to doctors long before, but one of the reasons why he didn't go was, he felt, "My players play in pain. I'll play in pain." [Lombardi died in 1970, at 57, of stomach cancer.]
What made Vince Lombardi great?
DL: I think it's because he knew the sacrifice you had to make in order to win, and he was willing to make that sacrifice. And for us in the theatre, for all the plays we've done and no guarantee of success — I think a lot of theatre people understand that.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Write him at email@example.com.)