Michael Moriarty was one of the most versatile, fascinating and idiosyncratic young actors to emerge in the 1970s. Since then he has built up a catalogue of compelling performances that always emphasise the humanity and soul of his characters, and the universal nature of their struggles. As powerful and acclaimed whether he is working on the stage, the big screen or the small screen, Moriarty's early films include BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY (1973, opposite Robert De Niro), THE GLASS MENAGERIE (1973, opposite Katherine Hepburn), THE LAST DETAIL (1973, with Jack Nicholson), REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER (1975), WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN (1978) and the TV miniseries HOLOCAUST (1978, with Meryl Streep and James Woods). In the first part of our interview, I talked with Michael about these projects, and others, and also about his approach to acting, his early years, and the decade many feel was a Golden Age for cinema, the 70s.   
Growing up, what moviegoing experiences do you remember the most? 
I remember REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) the most. James Dean’s 'Jim'? That was me!! I even took my stuffy surgeon father to see the film so he might begin to understand. He didn’t. 

Why were you so like Jim in the film?  
The classic adolescent feelings within American teenagers: ''My parents don’t understand me… NO ONE understands me.'' You grow out of that narcissism but it’s an awkward time for everyone around that teenager, particularly inside the teenager. Many parents are like Jim Backus’s father to James. Or like mine, filled with contemptuous dismissal. 

How old were you when you became interested in the idea of becoming an actor? 
About then. I was 14, and a Freshman in a Jesuit High School. Fr. Samuel Listermann was there to lead me into the increasingly dark regions of theater. 

What was the route that took you to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts? 
Joseph Papp was on the auditioning committee and he instantly gave me the Fulbright Scholarship to attend LAMDA. Then he said, ''Don’t go there. Stay here and work with my Shakespeare Festival. You will only pick up bad habits in England.'' I did both. And in a way Papp was right but in a way he was wrong. My favourite giants of acting are mostly British. However, stardom is an entirely different thing than great acting. All my favourite male stars are American. My favourite female star, however, is French: Simone Signoret. At LAMDA I composed my first serious piece for piano and saxophone. The theater wasn’t something I could fall in love with in the same way I had become obsessed with music.  

How was the experience of being in London? 
Horrifying! I am not only American. I’m Irish! And with a name like Moriarty, one does not receive the warmest of welcomes. The details of that year were both the worst and yet the most life-saving. I will keep that melodrama a mystery for now.

What did you like the most about English people? The least? 
What I liked the most about English people were their expressions of sympathy for Americans following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was most sincere, and most heartfelt! What I disliked the most was the Englishman’s Imperial Tone, long after the Empire has fallen.   

What did you gain the most from your studies? 
The opportunity to see Laurence Olivier in Othello. It was a completely opposite and very profane difference from a blindingly impressive encounter I had already had with Paul Scofield’s sacred performance of Don Adriano de Armado in Love's Labours Lost at Stratford, Ontario. I saw the infinite possibilities in both directions! Of course, with very few exceptions, I never reached either of the heights that both Scofield and Olivier achieved. I’m proud of having tried though. And I am not at all disappointed. As I’ve said, all I really wanted to do was compose music. God has now provided me with all the necessities required to do that!   

Did anything about their teachings disappoint you? 
Yes. The secret contempt with which they both taught and directed you. It wasn’t until I had a brief encounter with poor Anthony Hopkins that I understood how bullying was endemically a part of directing in the British theatre and film, and how universal that insultingly tyrannical attitude is among the so-called 'Enlightened Despots' of the British Theatre and film. Anthony Hopkins was – and this was early in his career - having a miserable time in a very successful production on Broadway. The director, whom I should name but I won’t, was driving Hopkins insane by repeatedly demanding that that this extraordinary actor, that genius, move the text along faster and faster and faster. In short, the British Theatre is filled with sadists. It won’t take you long to find one.

How much of a devotee of Stella Adler's approach were you? 
I was only her friend, not her student. After meeting her and hearing her breath-taking praise, I attended one class and found her the most bewitching enchantress before her classroom audience. The theater lost a great actress when she chose to teach more than perform. I just fell in love with her! She visited our apartment, looked around and said, ''I was wondering what you might need for Christmas… and I see ... you need ... EVERYTHING!'' 

What did you take away from your experience of making your first film, MY OLD MAN'S PLACE (1971)?
I never wanted to ever do another film again! It was not at all satisfying, but it was an invaluable introduction to one of the best friends of my acting and my career: the director Ed Sherin. He tried to make the experience as painless as possible but … no … it was horrifying to see my face on the screen for the first time. Instant self-loathing! Later on, Ed Sherin guided me through my Tony-award-winning performance in Find Your Way Home. Being in the theater is so much more exciting for me than being on film or in television. It’s much harder work with 8 performances a week - but there's a greater sense of achievement. 

What are some of the works you have done in the theatre that have stood out for you the most? 
I did a one-man show entitled Pardon My Defense. I performed it at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York, at Joe Stern’s small theater in Los Angeles, and in London, England, at my old acting school, LAMDA, while I was performing in a run of William Saroyan’s play Don’t Go Away Mad.

How different a discipline is it? What do you get out of it that is different than film? 
You get a complete sense of the entire character. Eight shows a week brings you to a greater understanding than the piecemeal of film does, unless of course, like Law and Order, you are that character for four straight years.

Your second film was HICKEY AND BOGGS (1972). 
I felt a little more at home as one of the villains.

Was BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY (1973) a rewarding experience? 
I would have felt more at home in the DeNiro role. I didn’t learn how to play a leading man until Law and Order many years later. I have always been more of a character actor. It's just so much more fun. 

How was working with John Hancock and De Niro? 
Let's just say it wasn't a picnic for either me or John Hancock. De Niro was the hardest working actor I have ever performed with.

After playing the lead in BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, you took a smaller role in Hal Ashby's THE LAST DETAIL (1973). 
I didn’t want to do the role. I hated the whole idea of it! I knew BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY would elevate me to larger roles. On my first take, I so hated being recorded in that role that I began to sweat profusely in a kind of mini nervous breakdown. The extraordinarily gifted and understanding Jack Nicholson, after the first take, offered: ''Love the sweat!'' He then took me to lunch. By the time I got back, I was calmed down and I nailed the performance!

Was Nicholson an actor you admired? 
After that experience I might nominate him for America’s greatest star! He’s everything a production company, no matter what the expensive budget, needs to lead! Despite the 'wild man' image in some of his roles, Jack Nicholson, like Sidney Poitier, is one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever met.  

In the space of four years you won a Tony, a Golden Globe and two Emmys. How did this attention affect you personally, or the way you approached your craft or your career? 
It took me too long to adjust. The sudden attention was shocking. Word of mouth, and then suddenly I'm a somebody?   

Making THE GLASS MENAGERIE with Katharine Hepburn must have been a career highlight for you. You won your first Emmy too. What are your strongest memories of making it?
 It was Divine! Heavenly! And all before I had become famous! Katharine Hepburn was the strongest memory of course. She was a Shakespearean-sized human being! I always felt, standing or sitting next to her, that I was in a verse play of some sort! It was thrilling! And, of course, the play itself, from a man who is still America’s greatest dramatic poet. Not an ounce of realism to him, but he elevates you to heaven and straight to hell, often at the same time. There's nothing mundane about his work.

Did you enjoy working on SHOOT IT BLACK, SHOOT IT BLUE (1974) and REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER (1975)? 
They are somewhat alike, despite the vastly different budgets. Neither was a high point in my life.

How did you feel about Pauline Kael's assessment of your performance in the latter film? 
The New York Times, and that critic's mentor, Pauline Kael, murdered me in that role. She killed the film and my career. Kael went after every film that was I was in. I mentioned that on an interview show that she saw and she said ''Oh, I just thought you were self-conscious.'' I wrote her back, saying, ''As your hero Marlon Brando would say, '''If it doesn't kill you, it'll make you stronger.'' '' I saw the film a few years ago, and except for the final scene, I felt I did a good job. However, the French director Louis Malle, who wanted me for a film at that time, told me ''You were just too old for the role in REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER.''   

What was the biggest challenge of acting in the TV mini-series HOLOCAUST (1978)? 
Making such evil look credible and even remotely part of humanity. Now ISIS is even outdoing the Nazis! Who could have thought, in the 3rd Millennium, that such another Third Reich like ISIS, albeit smaller, could be possible?!

How proud are you of your work in the series? 
I think it is perhaps my best achievement as an actor. Ed Sherin, who produced and directed while I was there, said my acting was so real and immediate at times it became a little unnerving.

Were you impressed by working with Meryl Streep on HOLOCAUST and also THE DEADLIEST SEASON (1977)? 
You can never forget her. I admired her facility. Acting is a walk in the park for her.

When you play real life figures like Wilbur Wright in THE WINDS OF KITTY HAWK (1978) or James Dean's father in JAMES DEAN (2001), or appear in real life stories like HOLOCAUST or THE HANOI HILTON (1987), how seriously do you take the responsibility? 
Not so seriously that the character ends up a stick-figure. You can’t get far with the weight of a legend in your head and your heart. You do the best you can, and then, as my grandmother advised, after that ''Don't give a damn!''

How much do you let the real life connections affect your approach or performance? 
The director of HOLOCAUST, just before the scene in bed with my wife when I tell her that the Reich will lose the war, he showed me a photo from Nazi Germany. It captured the execution of a mother and child enacted by a member of the SS. She was asked to hold the child up in front of her face so the same bullet would go through both brains. I almost couldn’t complete the scene. But we shot that close-up in one take!

Did you enjoy working with Karel Reisz on WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN? 
Not particularly. It was the 'Brit Thing'. With the minimalism he wanted out of me, I eventually felt like a stick figure. I was an obvious contrast to the script’s athletic hero, but it was hardly inspiring for the actor stuck in that concept of the role. I did, however. enjoy working with both Nick Nolte and Tuesday Weld.   

Was the Vietnam war setting something that meant something to you? 
Yes. Very unsettling.

Do you feel that the 70s were a special time for filmmaking? 
Not particularly. I’m not a historian by nature, trying to capsulize the identity of a decade. Film-making has always seemed the same to me, no matter when or where it is being done. Hollywood’s legendary anti-Americanism seemed to reach its peak during the Seventies Vietnam films. However, the actual work of shooting those films for me seemed no different from the films and television episodes to come. 

Part 2 can be read here.

I spoke to Michael by email during September and October 2015 and would like to thank him for his time.

(C) Paul Rowlands.

You can listen to Michael's music on Youtube. 

Michael's political column.

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