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Winning an Oscar almost cost F. Murray Abraham his career — but he bounced back

F. Murray Abraham says his <em>White Lotus</em> character Bert is "nothing but a male chauvinist pig" but that the women who respond to him "understand that he really has a good heart."
Fabio Lovino
F. Murray Abraham says his White Lotus character Bert is "nothing but a male chauvinist pig" but that the women who respond to him "understand that he really has a good heart."

As nominations for the 2023 Academy Awards are announced, The White Lotus actor F. Murray Abraham, who won the Best Actor Oscar in 1985 for his role as composer Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, reflects on how the award changed his life — and nearly cost him his career.

"I became arrogant. I became too demanding. I became full of myself," he says. "And the films that were being offered were just terrible. I mean, there was a lot of money, but they were just all heavy gangsters and baby killers, and I wasn't interested."

Abraham began turning down film roles and continued to do a lot of theater work. "But," he says, "you can't do that for a long time without Hollywood forgetting you. ... After a while, [the phone] stopped ringing."

After Abraham's agent retired, he struggled to find new representation. But an encounter with someone who offered to be his manager paid off: "He's a good friend of mine, and ever since he connected me with my current agent, I've never stopped working."

Among his many roles in TV, film and theater, Abraham is known for playing a black ops specialist in the Showtime series Homeland, and for his prominent role in the Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. But he thinks his performance in Amadeus may have helped convince The White Lotus creator Mike White to cast him as Bert, a chauvinistic (yet occasionally charming) octogenarian on the HBO series.

"[White] must have seen what I thought was an essential, charming quality about Salieri in Amadeus, which is that he had a wonderful sense of humor. It was wicked, but it was funny," Abraham says. "There's a sense of life and lightness in so much of my work, and he must have caught that."

The second season of The White Lotus centers on a number of guests who are staying at a luxury hotel on the coast of Sicily. Abraham's character is vacationing with his son and grandson (played by Michael Imperioli and Adam DiMarco), with whom he argues about masculinity, infidelity and how to interact with women. Abraham says working with the two younger actors and the rest of the cast was a thrill. He's also recently worked on other projects with younger actors, including on the Apple TV+ series Mythic Quest, and the Disney+ series Moon Knight.

"It's great to be accepted, by the way, to be recognized as something possibly valuable [to them]. It certainly keeps you on your toes," he says. "I'm 83 and I don't feel like there's any end for me. I'm going to drop dead on the stage — that's my fondest hope."

Interview highlights

On his White Lotus character's chauvinistic behavior

I'm a first-generation American. My father's from Syria and my mother was from Italy. I grew up with people like Bert, and their attitude toward women was very real. And my mother, an Italian woman, treated them like they were the king, and the sons were the princes. ... In an odd way, I'm still puzzled by [the fact that] so many women like my character, even though he's really nothing but a male chauvinist pig, as we used to call it, in the old days. I personally am a feminist, but the way he treats women as people to be pursued and won and enjoyed ... but I think the women who respond to this character understand that he really has a good heart, that he really is a decent man, just from another time.

Adam DiMarco, F. Murray Abraham and Michael Imperioli play three generations of Di Grasso men in the HBO series <em>The White Lotus.</em>
Stefano Delia / HBO
Adam DiMarco, F. Murray Abraham and Michael Imperioli play three generations of Di Grasso men in the HBO series The White Lotus.

On shooting The White Lotus at a resort in Sicily

All I can say is, I thank my lucky stars for it, because that was the best job I think I've ever had in my life — and I've been acting for a long time. It was just heaven. When that show closed after four months in Sicily, I asked [Mike White] if we could shoot the whole thing all over again. It was really great. It wasn't just the script or his direction. He's a delight to work for. But it was everybody I was working with, and I'm talking about the crew, the cast. I'm carrying on about this because it's a very rare experience.

The place was closed up. We were the only residents and everyone lived in the hotel — crew, cast, we were all together. So sometimes we were able to show up for makeup in our pajamas. It was idyllic. What that contributed, I think, to the making of the [series] is a real joy and a life that comes through the camera, even though there are some real dark things that are dealt with. I think what you get a sense of is family.

On a secret about his Homeland character, CIA agent Dar Adal

I mentioned to the ['Homeland'] wardrobe people that I thought he wore women's underwear and what the wardrobe people did was to sew lace on my panties.

I always thought of him as not only bisexual, I thought he was up for anything. And I mentioned to the wardrobe people that I thought he wore women's underwear and what the wardrobe people did was to sew lace on my panties. There are certain scenes I am wearing those lace underwear. I'm not going to tell you which scenes they are, but I can give you a hint: They're the most violent scenes. ... Those secrets add something to each character that I do and are no one's business. And it's ... I think it adds to the mystery of the character, no matter what I do.

On growing up in the U.S., near the Mexico border

I grew up about four blocks from the Rio Grande, and I grew up with all Mexican friends. And I speak Spanish fluently. Juarez, Mexico, in those days was not dangerous, not like it is now, and we had really free passage back and forth. It cost a penny to get across the bridge, but they never really collected. If you didn't have the penny, you didn't pay. Well, we would walk across the Rio, no problem at all. It's too bad that there is a wall down there in El Paso, because growing up with two cultures is such a benefit and I grew up with that benefit. ... The accent that I have in Scarface, for example, that's pretty much like what I sounded like when I was growing up.

On studying with legendary acting teacher Uta Hagen in New York City

It's great to be liked by someone like Uta Hagen, and I was a favorite, and I became a monitor in her class. ... And every student should keep this in mind: The more charismatic your teacher is, the more you will give up your own talent in order to please that teacher. And that's the route I was taking. And at one point, after having studied with her for over a year, I was really lost. And at one point during an exercise, she stopped me and she said, "This actor has a great talent and he pisses all over it." And that was the last class I ever had with her. She realized that I was losing it and she wanted to force me out of the class. ... And as soon as I left her, I started finding my feet again. It's an interesting lesson for everyone to learn. ... I was shutting off my own instincts in order to do exactly what she was saying. That's a dangerous path to follow.

On landing the role of Salieri in Amadeus, despite being an unknown actor

The idea that this unknown actor was going to get the role was out of the question. The only reason that I ever auditioned for [director Miloš Forman] was to meet him. And I knew I didn't have a chance. It was [written by] a British writer and it was written for a British actor. The point is, Miloš did see something in me, invited me to his apartment to do a little rehearsal. We then did a videotape of it, and at the end of the videotape, he said, "All right, now do the old man [version of the Salieri character]!" And I said, "Well, Miloš, give me a chance to look at it. I didn't even examine..." He said, "No, no, just do it." So I did it and I improvised. And I looked at the script and when I got through, I looked up to see what his reaction was and he was gone. He wasn't even there. He left the studio before I even had a chance to say anything to him! So I figured he hated it. And two days later, he called and said I was his first choice. But that was only one step. Then I had to meet the producer and meet the writer. I still knew I didn't have it. It was too much to ask, really. It was a dream.

Lauren Krenzel and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.