Peter Gallagher and On the Twentieth Century each made their Broadway debuts during the same 1977 to ’78 season. Since then, the musical has rarely been seen, but the actor has had one of those rare careers in which he’s perpetually popped up in most every performance medium and genre without wearing out his welcome or curdling into type. On Broadway, he’s run the gamut from Hair, in which he made that debut in the love-rock musical’s short-lived first revival, to the tragic Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey, to the golden-age musical Guys and Dolls with Nathan Lane. He’s played key roles, usually as a slickster, in films that helped define their times, like Sex, Lies, and Videotape and The Player. On television, Gallagher has matured into authority figures—mostly trustworthy, sometimes not—on such series as The O.C. and Togetherness. He’s even put out an album, 7 Days in Memphis, and toured the country with a cabaret act peppered, like his conversation, with spot-on impersonations of the many legends he’s known.
Gallagher’s work has never gone stale because, even when playing hams like impetuous impresario Oscar Jaffee in the current revival of On the Twentieth Century, the actor keeps things both cool and committed. He finds a simple, direct connection to what makes his characters tick, so we relate to them even if we don’t approve. His blend of uncommonly good looks, easy masculinity, and down-to-earth urbanity was shared by many of the greats from the golden age of Hollywood and Broadway, which helps explain why Gallagher was cast alongside stars from that era during their final working years. Robert Altman called the actor his generation’s Cary Grant, “only 40 years too late.” But it makes him especially right for On the Twentieth Century, in which he stars with Kristin Chenoweth. The musical, by Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, harkens back to the screwball comedies in which Grant excelled, set to the legit, operetta style popular in its ’30s time period. Before a performance, I spoke with the actor, who turns 60 next month, primarily about legacies—what he’s learned from his own experience, his parents, and the people who inspired him.
The list of your co-stars and directors is staggering. Who haven’t you worked with?
I’ve been very lucky to work with people who were part of my mythology. I worked with James Cagney on the last thing he did. I would have been happy to play a hat rack. My mother went to college with his sister, Jean. Art Carney was in the movie too. My uncle used to be a janitor’s assistant at the local New Rochelle bank where Art’s dad would bring him in to tap dance at the Christmas parties. I walked into the first day of rehearsal to Cagney’s suite at the Hotel Carlyle and he looked up at me and said, “Black Irish.” At the end of the day he said, “Gallagher, I want you to meet my wife, Billie, but first we’ve got to find her.” I got behind his wheelchair and we went searching the apartment. “Oh, Billie. Billie.” And there she was hiding behind the curtains. This kind of madness and inclusion did my heart good because, if these guys were talking to me, what could be so bad?
Later, I did a movie for Neil Jordan called High Spirits with Peter O’Toole, and he’d been the reason I’d wanted to be an actor, after I saw Lawrence of Arabia. He had a kind of a divine madness, too, and a humor that just made me feel hopeful. We got along great. And Mike Nichols. Just getting notes from Mike or having lunch with Mike or just being in the same room with Mike—that’s something that stays with you forever. Or Bob Altman.
My happiest experiences have been collaborations with people whose vision I embrace and who welcome me into the process. That’s when good things can happen. I remember when we were doing The Player, Tim Robbins and Cynthia Stevenson were doing a scene and I was up next. Altman said, “Gallagher, I need you to go in there and do something.” I said, “Okay. What?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “When?” He said, “Next take.” “Oh. All right.” “You ready?” “I don’t know.” “Let’s go.” It’s exciting to work with people who have the technique to take the kind of chances that sometimes pay off.
When you’ve been thrown in situations like that, what have you done to help it pay off?
You just think, “Where have you been, where are you going, what story are we telling?” I’ve had wonderful teachers. I worked with my longtime acting coach, Mira Rostova, for 25 years. I’d still be studying with her, but she died a few years ago at the age of 99. She had an extraordinary life experience. She and her family fled the Bolshevik Revolution, then Nazi Germany. And she ended up in New York in time for the Actors Studio to begin. The people you study with transform how you view yourself and what you think is possible. Sometimes you get new information, but the most reassuring thing is getting permission to believe in what you already believe in. It lets you know you’re not crazy.
There were so many people in the theater, when I started out, that sort of recognized who I was and helped me—not just the big directors and choreographers, but stage managers and assistants who’d come up at the knee of the theater greats. They were passing on that knowledge, but when I came back to do Guys and Dolls in the ’90s so many of them had died of AIDS. It was like a whole world disappeared. There are still a few from the golden era. I just had lunch with Hal Prince [director of the original ’78 production of On the Twentieth Century]. I worked with him on the next show Comden and Green wrote after that, A Doll’s Life, which was a big flop. I guess the thing I ache for, and the thing I enjoy most, is that sort of family, where you’re united to achieve a common goal and you do it with a kind of mad delight.
You certainly seem to take delight in the extremes of Oscar Jaffee, but still you ground the production as you did in other pieces that go to extremes, whether it’s the noir of The Underneath on film or the farce of Noises Off on stage.
That’s what I’ve been trying to do my whole life. Growing up, I took care of my mother a little bit because she suffered from depression. But she was brilliant. She was first-generation American, like my father, and became a bacteriologist who helped develop a better milieu for penicillin. She had Alzheimer’s for the last 20 years of her life. And when she was in the depths of it, even after she’d let go of most words, if I touched her, if I’d sing to her, or hold her, or dance with her, she would say, “That was real.”
The thing that the theater has given me, among many, many things, is you get to be present when things happen. And you don’t really have all that much to do with them. You’re more or less a vessel for the writing or the moment. No matter how outsized or comedic or diabolical, it usually has to do with something we recognize as true. We’re not alone anymore. The truth underneath things, the truth you find in a moment on stage with an audience, that’s where the magic is and the solace.
Is that why you’ve been so open to playing characters that aren’t necessarily the most loveable? You’re fine as long as it’s true?
I had a lot of preparation for not being dependent on people’s approval. My father’s dad was a coal miner in Pennsylvania and his mom died when he was really young. In a way, he never grew past that 7-year-old boy. Between that and having been a soldier in the war, he never really talked to me. And then I ended up being this pretty boy. Altman once said, “Gallagher, you’re so good-looking it makes me sick.” I thought, “Even this guy who loves me and keeps casting me thinks this way.” And I do too. You see a guy that’s too handsome walking down the street and you think, “That guy’s never worked a day in his life. Fuck him.” So, in a way, I can side with people who don’t think much of me. But it’s never really slowed me down.
I remember when I was doing Sex, Lies, and Videotape, I didn’t really think about whether he was an asshole or not. I thought it was a comedic performance. When [Steven] Soderbergh and I first met, I asked him how he saw it, and he said, “It’s a black comedy,” so I said, “I’m in.” People hated me. Or people who were really dangerous loved me. But for me it was the delight of cracking the puzzle, of portraying a character who would resonate with people either way.
How did you go about cracking the puzzle of playing Oscar Jaffee?
I did a lot of research, studied [legendary theater impresario and alleged theater ghost] David Belasco a lot, because I knew the role required size. Belasco was regarded by some as a genius and others a hack. That gave a wide spectrum to find the funny and find the true. Ultimately he was a passionate theater artist who believed the more real he could make the smell and the sounds and the look of it, the more he’d succeed in transporting the audience. There’s an essential truth to that which was a good kind of architecture to support you when you’re doing all the other stuff.