"Midnight Crossing,' " Daniel J. Travanti says, biting into his tomato-on-garlic-toast appetizer. " 'Midnight Crossing,' 'Midnight Crossing.' Are you sick of hearing it yet? 'Midnight Crossing.' Faye Dunaway, Tom Laughlin, Kim Cattrall, Ned Beatty and Daniel J. Travanti--but not necessarily in that order--a thriller, coming this spring. From Vestron. Feature film. I want everyone to see this character I play. He's just a little misunderstood and confused. People were bad to him, so it's OK if he does these rotten things. . . ."
Travanti as the villain represents quite a departure from his most famous role: as straight-shooter Frank Furillo on the NBC series "Hill Street Blues" (1981-87). "I said yes to the movie in a minute," he noted. "Of course, I didn't want to get buried as that captain. The show doesn't need me, and I don't need it--anymore. It has a life of its own. It was a wonderful marriage, but it's not who I am. I am not like that guy. As you can tell, I'm not a taciturn, shy fellow. It was just one character, and I kept insisting then that I had a lot more to show."
Lately, he's been doing just that: playing opposite Harold Gould and Dorothy McGuire in a revival of Robert Anderson's family drama "I Never Sang for My Father" (at the Ahmanson through Jan. 31). The production, which originated last August at the Berkshire Festival in Massachusetts, has toured 11 cities and will be taped for PBS' American Playhouse series.
"This play is so rich," he said earnestly. "The joy is in finding new notes, new sets of emotions, colors." And personal truths? He nodded.
Like the play's characters, "My father wanted me to be at home--then we didn't talk, either. But he was not tyrannical, and he wasn't accomplished the way Tom is. I'm the guy who went out and did the impossible. I was the hot-shot student, the hot-shot athlete, won scholarships to lots of colleges, loved being all things to all people."
At the University of Wisconsin, the achievement race continued.
"I graduated in three years, also made Phi Beta Kappa. And I did five major productions during those years. My roommates used to kid me: 'What are you going to do, now that the play's over and you've only got 19 credits to carry?'
"I'm still like that. I'm dressed a half-hour before 'half-hour' (call). I'm the Boy Scout leader on the tour. I'm a teacher's/coach's/director's delight, because I want to please them so. I love my work. I might be impossible: the big mouth, bouncing off the walls--but what kind of student do you want? Excessive."
For many years, he admits, that excess worked against him.
"I did my best to screw up my career," he said dryly. "I drank myself into oblivion, drank myself silly. Alcoholism makes the brightest people stupid. I sidetracked myself, hid my light under a bushel. In New York, I was impressing people all over the place, then stiffing them. . . ."
He shook his head. "I'm glad this (success) didn't happen earlier. I had to learn a few things. The answer is I'm properly grateful these days, despite my shortcomings and dumbnesses."
As for celebrity: "I moan about the incessant phone calls and groan about the piles of correspondence, fan mail. Everyone laughs at me, and I do too." He grinned. "I make fun of it because it's relentless, but the truth is the best thing you can do for anyone with talent is encourage and praise them. You can't hug anyone too much. You cannot do it."
Travanti was less warmed by some of the response he encountered during this tour--people who approached him in a restaurant, saying, "I heard you were somebody. Are you somebody? Can I get your autograph?" The actor winced. "I wanted to slap 'em."
He concedes he's supersensitive.
"We all are--that's why we're in this business. It's a necessary characteristic. So I'm sensitive to everything, all the beauty. I love the weather: the rain, the cold. My life is so rich and throbbing and passionate. I'm very peaceful inside; I'm extremely healthy. But I am volatile. Healthy means laughing and crying, yelling, being angry, happy, sad, feeling pain and feeling joy. The trick is not to give them equal time. I'm not angry nearly as much as I am happy and smiling and positive and energetic."
How, then, does he summon the necessary Angst to play Gene?
"I'm an actor," he said simply, "that's my job--a job I love, and when I'm doing it, I like nothing better. But when it's over, it's gone. When people watch 'Adam' (the TV movie in which he played the father of an abducted child), I hope they have the impression that I'm the grieving father and they believe every moment of it. When they see Gene Garrison, they see a guy who's churning inside--but they certainly don't see me . And that's the way I want it."
What else does he want? Oh, some feature films, theater, the occasional television project. Financial security would be nice, too: "After this play, I'm unemployed. I've got bills to pay. You want to see my house? I won't tell you what the mortgage is, but you can guess. Materialism is a joke--funny, rewarding, complicated and silly. There are eight workers and helpers coming in my house every day: the electrician, the housekeeper, the pool guy. It's ridiculous."
Along with material concerns is the ongoing--and omnipresent--specter of having to prove himself.
"Look at Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, people who fought (for their status) forever," he said. "Come on, how good do you have to be? After 'Hill Street' hit, my agent kept saying to me, 'You don't know how valuable you are.' I said, 'You're right, I don't. And I also don't trust it. I don't believe in it.' I mean, who has it made? Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson? Yeah, maybe. Me? I have yet to make it in movies. 'Midnight Crossing' may be it. 'Midnight Crossing,' 'Midnight Crossing.' Remember the name."