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The Guy From Chicago Arrives : Joe Mantegna Is Having a Hollywood Dream Season

<i> Hilary de Vries is a Boston-based free-lance writer specializing in the arts. </i>

HE IS, IN THE simplest terms, not a New Yorker. Reared in the shadow of Al Capone and schooled in Chicago-style realism, Joseph Anthony Mantegna is a counterpoint to the American tradition of celluloid heavies. Among the Brandos, Pacinos and De Niros, Mantegna is an actor’s alternative to that brawling, Lower East Side Italian tough guy: a Pinteresque con man with a sharkskin suit and the soul of an ice pick.

He has located himself on the American cinematic consciousness with a series of small, sharply etched supporting roles in big silly movies--"Three Amigos!,” “The Money Pit,” “Suspect,” “Compromising Positions” and “Weeds.” But Mantegna has achieved his greatest distinction as an actor by playing alter ego to playwright and fellow Chicagoan David Mamet. In the dozen years that he has performed in the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s dramas, Mantegna has become “The Guy"--the embodiment of Mamet’s nasty-boy urban brotherhood whose Janus-faced ethos of deceit and loyalty is pounded out in scatological, syncopated riffs. Together, Mamet and Mantegna have created some of the most dazzling and despicable American male characters of the past decade.

Whether he is playing Ricky Roma, the cold-blooded real estate salesman of “Glengarry Glen Ross"--for which he won a 1984 Tony Award--or Bobby Gould, the perfidious Hollywood boss in the 1988 Broadway hit “Speed-the-Plow,” or Mike Mancuso, the manipulative con artist in the film “House of Games,” or even the bungling Mafia hit man in Mamet’s comedy “Things Change,” Mantegna is the new American huckster. It is a characterization more complex than the lead-with-the-fists psychopaths favored by director Martin Scorsese, one that has less to do with the spray of a tommy gun than the hurling of epithets with the reverence of Hail Marys. Mantegna has “a post-De Niro, post-Pacino acting style that strikes that balance between cynicism and idealism,” says Jack Kroll, chief theater and movie critic of Newsweek. “Mantegna plays guys who’ve wised up enough to know it’s all crap, but who can’t leave it there.”

Now, he is poised to take his post-modernist persona into a larger arena. He may not yet be a full-fledged star in Hollywood, but Mantegna is having the biggest year in his career. After jerking Hollywood’s chain two years ago with his cutting performance in “Speed-the-Plow"--a role that was said to be based on former Paramount president Ned Tanen--Mantegna swiftly landed major roles in four films. This month, the actor opens in two of the most anticipated releases of the year--"Godfather III,” Francis Ford Coppola’s $50-million Mafia sequel, and “Alice,” Woody Allen’s new comedy. Both films are expected to increase not only Mantegna’s visibility and asking price but also his reach as an actor.

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Indeed, the two roles are a leap ahead for Mantegna, whose broad Chicago accent and patently ethnic look, just this side of handsome, have so far denied him real leading-man status. In “Alice,” which also stars Mia Farrow and William Hurt, Mantegna plays a jazz musician and gives a rare good-guy performance as well as playing his first romantic role. In Coppola’s saga, Mantegna takes his silkily minimalist malevolence up against Pacino’s in one of the film’s more pivotal roles, Joey Zasa, the powerful rival to the Pacino-led Corleone family. Already some critics are suggesting that “Godfather III” may make stars out of Mantegna and Andy Garcia the way the original “Godfather” films did for Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall.

It is exposure that has been long in coming for the low-key but intense 43-year-old whose first professional theater successes occurred more than two decades ago. The younger son of a widow who could only afford to send him to Morton Junior College, Mantegna grew up in Cicero, Ill.--a tough, blue-collar suburb whose infamous favorite son remains Al Capone. Mantegna’s professional acting career began when he landed roles in the Chicago production of “Hair” and the lead in a Ragu spaghetti sauce advertising campaign. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1978, jobs for an ethnic character actor with few screen credits were so few and far between that he supported himself by running a small photography business--taking head shots of other actors.

Since “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and especially since “Speed-the-Plow,” Mantegna has worked almost nonstop. Says Fred Roos, co-producer of “Godfather III,” “I saw Joe in ‘Glengarry’ and was just knocked out by him. We had been looking to cast him for a long time.” Roos is not alone in his assessment. Next year Mantegna can be seen with John Malkovich, another Chicago actor, in “Queens Logic,” a “Big Chill"-type comedy. Later in the year will come “Wait Until Spring, Bandini,” from the John Fante novel, with Faye Dunaway. He has just finished shooting his third Mamet movie, “Homicide,” a police thriller that will be released sometime next year. And always there will be more Mamet plays to headline. “Joe Mantegna is already one of our best actors,” says Roos. “Will he have the kind of career that Hackman and Duvall have? Yes, he will have that.”

WHAT AM I DOING? What am I doing now, at this moment?” Mantegna asks with staccato, unmistakably Mamet-like rhythms. “At this moment, what I am doing is packing boxes in my garage.”

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It is an early autumn day and the San Gabriel Mountains, just north of Mantegna’s Toluca Lake home, are remarkably free of smog. It is a pleasant afternoon for the actor to pursue one of his longstanding rituals: bundling his family belongings into cardboard boxes for another out-of-town job, this time the three-month location shoot in Baltimore for “Homicide.” “Well, I do it,” he says, carefully writing his name and address on a box cover. “I just do. That’s part of the deal, that we all go together.”

It is a typical Mantegna comment, straightforward, unadorned. It is delivered in his unpretentious Chicago accent, backed up by a steady, assessing gaze. There is no smile--not yet--and in person he is taller, leaner and more handsome than his compact, jowly screen image. He is also utterly unlike the con artists and killers he usually portrays. Contentedly packing up his family’s goods, Mantegna seems trustworthy, this father of two who has been married to the same woman, Arlene, for more than 15 years.

“This is Mamet’s theory, that we travel in a club,” says Mantegna, leading his visitor from the garage into his tidy, three-bedroom ranch with a white, airy living room furnished in oversized white sofas and a corner table covered with dozens of framed family photographs. “I’m going to instantly know 50 people when we get to Baltimore,” says the actor, settling on a sofa. “That’s nice. I travel so much--three, six months out of the year--and I don’t want to be a gypsy. But this is my life. I have a good collection of friends, and I like to keep in touch.”

Indeed, Mantegna is regarded by his wide circle of acquaintances as the most loyal of friends and an inveterate family man, “as good as they get,” says Gregory Mosher, director of New York’s Lincoln Center Theater and Mamet’s longtime director.

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Mantegna’s two daughters, 3-year-old Mia Marie and 4-month-old Gina Christine, are in the next room with their nanny. His wife is out somewhere, scouting new office space for her brownie business. During the next several hours, a limousine must be ordered, schedules must be coordinated, phones answered, children fed. One senses that Mantegna is deeply rooted in his family’s rhythms.

This home-centered contentment is more than just the happy circumstances of the actor’s off-screen persona; it is the hard-won result of a life of hard knocks, the fulcrum for Mantegna’s on-screen rogues’ gallery of tough guys. “He wants to be known as old Joe,” says John Leckel, Mantegna’s first drama teacher. “But he has an iron discipline, an incredible ego and a need for acceptance.”

“Joe is complex without being neurotic,” explains Mosher, who has known Mantegna since the director’s days as artistic head of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. “He has had a long, tough climb. But it’s the guy with a huge heart that is best equipped to play villains, and Joey has vast emotional reserves to create characters with moral and ethical ambiguities.”

Mention these observations to Mantegna, and he becomes predictably self-effacing. “If there is that in my performances--that empathy--then that is what I am after. That’s the secret of playing a character like that. You can scream and be angry, and that’s more fun and easier than being sensitive. But you become stereotypical. There has to be more to it to make it special.”

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Mantegna’s brand of specialness, the result of honing his craft, is just coming to fruition. While he happily acknowledges that “David (Mamet) has given me high visibility with those kinds of characters,” he says that this past year “was an actor’s dream. . . . What I liked about doing Woody’s movie was that he obviously sees something in me, something that other (directors) didn’t. I get to play a regular guy. I’m more anxious to see this movie than the ‘Godfather.’ ”

The regular guy whom Mantegna plays in “Alice” is a musician and divorced father who woos and wins his ex-wife (Judy Davis) as well as the honeyed, moneyed, repressed wife (portrayed by Mia Farrow) of a domineering Wall Street banker (William Hurt). It is a performance that Mantegna describes as “playing me more than a character. I’m playing Joe Mantegna more than at any other time.”

“Joe’s a totally natural talent,” Allen says. “He makes any line of written dialogue sound like a real person talking.” Adds Juliet Taylor, Allen’s longtime casting director: “We were looking for an actor to carry the film’s emotional weight, and there are only so many people who are that compelling. Joe is an actor that a lot of us have admired, but to know him is to know that Joe exudes a warm, appealing reality.”

Mantegna has the reputation of being something close to a director’s dream: “He’s done a lot of work beforehand,” Roos says. “He doesn’t need a lot of direction, and he never pulls any attitude.” Even when discussing the reclusive and demanding Allen, Mantegna simply smiles. “Well, fun is the wrong word. He’s different. If you’re an actor who demands a lot from your director, this is not your guy. It’s not like I could say, ‘Hey Woody, let’s rap.’ He’s so quiet and shy and retiring. But I went into it thinking, ‘It’s Woody Allen, I love what he does, and even if it’s horrible, this too shall end.’ ”

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About Allen’s notorious habit of reshooting, Mantegna shrugs. “Your first impulse is to say, ‘It’s me; they saw the dailies, and they want another actor.’ But usually Woody would just say, ‘What you did the first time was fine.’ I’m not that much of a directing student. Just tell me where to stand, and I’ll do it.”

“Alice,” which was slated to finish shooting in November, 1989, didn’t finish until this April, nearly six months beyond its original wrap date, creating a scheduling conflict for Mantegna, who was needed in Italy for “Godfather III” in December of last year. He had to fly to Rome, film his scenes, then fly back to New York for “Alice.” “Woody didn’t want me to blow the ‘Godfather,’ and he could have wrecked it,” says Mantegna. “I remember I finished in Rome on Monday, flew out on Tuesday and was back in New York shooting with Woody on Thursday.”

It is a similar kind of insouciant professionalism that Mantegna brought to his work in “Godfather III,” one of the more crisis-attended, gossip-mongered productions in recent years. “Yeah, I read the press about how Francis (Coppola) just directs from his monitors in his metal cylinder--the Silverfish. But I found him to give the actors what they needed. I mean, with Francis it’s more grand opera. Let’s face it, it is the ‘Godfather.’ His attention to videos and electronic monitors seems wise. I mean, when you’re making a picture that is like $10,000 a minute, you want to cover yourself.”

“This was one of the easiest roles for Francis to cast,” co-producer Roos says of Mantegna’s Zasa. “A Mediterranean-looking Italian, a man who could be hard but also a bit of a dandy and showoff. We knew that Joe could do all those things.” Mantegna is cautious when describing his own performance. “People ask me, ‘Do you play a good guy or a bad guy?’ I say, ‘Who the hell are the good guys in the “Godfather?” ’ I’m a guy--not a blood relative of the Corleones. I start out as part of the family and go askew of them, a rival-to-the-throne type. It’s not like Al (Pacino) or Andy (Garcia) or the crux of the movie, but it’s a good role, and I’m very happy with it. I mean, I don’t really have career goals. If I just stay where I am at, what could be better?” he adds, sounding less like a Hollywood success story than a guy who feels lucky just to have a job.

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There is something about Mantegna that resembles a kid with his nose pressed to the shop window. He is quick to say, “Ask anybody that knows me, nothing ever comes easy for me.” This actor weathered one of the most visible roles of his life--playing opposite Madonna on Broadway in “Speed-the-Plow"--with a rare facial disease that several producers misinterpreted as the effects of a stroke. But his knock-on-wood fatalism is perhaps most evident in the way he downplays his rather exclusive relationship with one of the country’s leading playwrights.

“David never says, ‘I wrote this for you.’ It’s always, ‘I’ve got this (script) and I think you’d be good.’ That’s it. It’s so informal it’s like a joke.

“When I was in school, so much of what I was reading was written with New Yorkers in mind,” Mantegna says. “You know, knishes and the BMT, and if you’re from Chicago you go ‘What the hell is this?’ Right away you’re at a certain disadvantage. What I feel about Mamet is that you don’t have to do so much homework.”

There is a pause. “I know the kind of people David is talking about. There was this other world out there that intrigued him, and he sought it out and wrote about it. He was from the South Side, his father was a lawyer and he had a little more privileged life. I didn’t have to seek that world out. It didn’t intrigue me , I was part of it. I know what it was like to come home at night and see the cops drag slot machines from the corner bar, see your friends get arrested, get shot. It was just part of life.”

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THE SECOND SON OF second-generation Sicilian and Italian parents, Mantegna, the man for whom “nothing comes easy,” was born in Al Capone’s hometown because of his own family’s misfortune. Tuberculosis had killed his grandfather on the family farm in Oklahoma, “and my grandmother packed my father and my uncle, who had also caught TB from the cows, off to Chicago.” The illness left its mark and imbued Mantegna with a sense of “Italian fatalism,” says one old friend.

“My father had a lot of medical problems,” recalls the actor. “We didn’t see him much when I was growing up. He traveled a lot, and for four years he was in a sanitarium in New York where they wheeled you out in the mountain air.” They were a small family for an Italian household: two boys, an ailing father and a mother who worked, all housed in a tiny apartment. “My father couldn’t really support us, so my mother did,” Mantegna says. “She wrapped packages in the mail-order department at Sears.” He was eight years younger than his brother Ronald, who today is an advertising executive in Chicago. “If there’s an Italian word for mensch , he’s it,” Mantegna says. “He was more like a father to me than a brother.”

Mantegna attended Morton East High School, a sprawling place full of the children of second-generation Czechs, Poles and Italians where “you had the guys who were real criminals, then there were the Beaver Cleaver types. I was somewhere in between,” he says. “I was something of a wise guy.”

It was a largely unremarkable four years except for the influence of one man--John Leckel, the school drama teacher who ran a quasi-professional theater training program at two high schools and junior college. “Jack used to bid on used Broadway sets and get them for our productions,” recalls Mantegna. It is Leckel whom Mantegna credits with having changed his life. “A lot of my friends were going to college, but I didn’t have the money to go anywhere, and Jack said, ‘Stay and do the plays here.’ So I did--'Hamlet,’ ‘Merchant of Venice,’ ‘Brigadoon.’ I was a big frog in a little pond, but I was beginning to get a sense that I might be good.”

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“He was the most outstanding student I ever had,” says Leckel today. “Joe came from no money, had no family ties to the business; he just did everything right. He was a song-and-dance man who was also funny and who could act. You don’t run across a kid like that very often.”

“If it wasn’t for Jack,” Mantegna says, “I don’t think I would be in this business.” It was an almost surrogate father-son relationship; while keeping the crazy late hours of the theater world, Mantegna would frequently wind up on his teacher’s doorstep, where he would be invited in to cook a meal and spend the night on the couch. During his stint playing in a high school rock band, “The Apocryphals,” Mantegna persuaded his teacher to co-sign a $10,000 loan for equipment. “He was always the most responsible kid,” Leckel says. “He was this little adult. He knew how to manipulate those around him.”

It was an attitude that Mantegna took with him to Chicago’s prestigious Goodman School of Drama, which he attended on a partial scholarship. He studied at Goodman for two years, leaving a year shy of graduation because he landed a role in the Chicago production of “Hair” in 1969. After that came a slot in the musical “Godspell.” “I was making 300 bucks a week, which was a lot of money for a 21-year-old kid in 1969,” says Mantegna about those early jobs. “I remember saying, ‘Who said this is tough?’ But I didn’t make that kind of money for the next 10 years.”

For the next several years, Mantegna, newly married to Arlene, a “Hair” co-star, weathered some lean times, working largely at the Organic Theater. “I was the master of unemployment, I really worked that sister,” he recalls. It was the pre-Steppenwolf Chicago theater era, and the Organic, the Goodman and the infamous Second City were the only games in town. Those, and Mamet’s own theater, the nascent St. Nicholas Theatre. “We were pretty much a small group,” Mantegna says, “and we all kept thinking we would eventually have to move to one coast or another, but the work seemed good.”

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It was during this time that Mantegna and a handful of fellow actors wrote and performed a play, “Bleacher Bums,” as a way of getting more work. The play ran for one season in Chicago, then moved to New York and was later televised and taped; the eight actors and director, Stuart Gordon, each received an Emmy. “In a business where it is not the hallmark, Joe was extremely well-grounded,” recalls Richard Fire, artistic director of the Organic Theater and one of the play’s co-authors. “You could really depend on him.”

Later came the move to Los Angeles in 1978, a sort of collective migration of Chicago actors, including Mantegna, Dennis Franz and Richard Gilliland. “I came because it was California, it was warm and I went nuts,” says Mantegna. “I had been in (Studs Terkel’s play) ‘Working’ off-Broadway, and the idea of staying in New York, it was like another Chicago. So I came out here and lived off unemployment and my photography business for years. It took me six months to get an agent, and then they dumped me because I didn’t get any work.”

They were tough but happy times, Mantegna recalls now. He and Arlene lived in a small Valley apartment, making ends meet with a series of odd jobs. “I’d get one acting job about every six months,” says Mantegna. “But it was great. We’d go to the beach, have dinner at a friend’s house.” By 1983, he was back in Chicago debuting Ricky Roma, finally on his way.

THE STORY OF THE first meeting between actor and playwright in 1974 has acquired legendary status among their friends. Mantegna was slogging through his fallow post-"Hair” period by performing at the Organic. “Mamet had seen our work and came to us with ‘Sexual Perversity in Chicago,’ and I said ‘No.’ Smart move,” says Mantegna with a laugh. “But I had already been cast as the understudy in ‘Lenny’ that summer, and they were paying me more. I liked his play, but I didn’t know Mamet from the man in the moon.”

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It would be two years before Mantegna would work with Mamet, in a Chicago production of “A Life in the Theater.” It would be another six years before the two would collaborate again--in the 1982 production of Mamet’s lesser-known work, “The Disappearance of the Jews,” performed at the Goodman Theatre. It wasn’t until Mantegna played Roma, the shark-like, small-town real estate salesman in “Glengarry Glen Ross” in 1983, that the actor-playwright relationship bloomed. The production ran for more than two years--Chicago, a national tour and finally Broadway; Mantegna won a Tony and Mamet the Pulitzer Prize.

“Joe became a very powerful actor with that role,” says actress Lindsay Crouse, Mamet’s former wife, who played opposite Mantegna in “House of Games.” “Joe gained tremendous self-confidence during the run.”

According to Crouse and other acquaintances (Mamet has declined any interviews for several years), the chemistry between actor and writer has less to do with camaraderie than it does with artistry. “Joe is the voice of those characters that David writes best--he is ‘The Guy,’ ” Crouse adds. “As a writer, you search for someone who comes close to that voice in your head, and when Joe opens his mouth, it’s him, and David knows that.”

Mantegna is less certain. “Did Mamet tell you that I’m ‘The Guy?’ ” he asks. “I’ve read that, but never once has he told me that. David is David. It’s the dilemma I have of describing a guy I’ve known for 15 years. We’re very close on some levels, we’re not on others. I like the way he writes, and he sees something in me that he likes as a performer, and I’m comfortable with that.”

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Mosher, who has worked with both actor and writer for many years, calls it a symbiotic relationship that works because of the duo’s shared landscape. “There is nothing European about Joe; he’s not New York, like Pacino or Hoffman. He’s another point on the compass. There is nobody like him, if you think about it.”

Yet being “The Guy” for one of the country’s most acclaimed dramatists, whose use of language has been compared to British dramatist Harold Pinter’s, holds its own challenges. “Mamet’s a guy who is very conscious of writing in a certain rhythm--iambic pentameter. When he writes, you can sometimes see him tapping it out with a pen,” says Mantegna. “Not a lot of writers actually work out the beats. That’s why you can’t casually change a line.”

Mantegna admits that Roma’s first speech in “Glengarry,” a 15-minute monologue, “was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It’s tough enough to do Mamet, but when it’s a stream-of-consciousness thing, it’s like learning the Gettysburg Address in Japanese. There are no external reference points, and if you get lost--like I did on opening night--you just can’t vamp it to get back on track. With David, it’s like doing Shakespeare.”

If the playwright’s use of language has occasionally flummoxed the actor, Mamet’s characters--salty-tongued, tough-minded salesman and hustlers--have proven less elusive. “The trick is that different personalties gravitate towards different occupations,” Mantegna says, “so whether it’s a real estate salesman or a studio head or a con man, the trick is to find that aspect of his personality that makes him do that thing, that job. . . . So I look at the script and say, ‘What is this guy about?’ ”

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Mantegna admits that his approach to acting differs from that of Mamet, who has been an acting teacher. “David is very heavy into Stanislavsky, but that’s not my background,” says the actor. “I look at the script, and I use parts of myself and people that I know to help me become that guy. I put together a composite, and that includes the way I look, talk and behave.”

For most of Mamet’s characters, Mantegna says it comes down to discovering why those characters believe in themselves. “Regardless of how evil a person is--I mean Hitler didn’t think he was a bad guy--they don’t start the day thinking who they can screw that day,” explains Mantegna. “They think what they are doing is best for themselves. Ricky Roma, Mike Mancuso, Bobby Gould, these guys believed in what they did. So I play that character who is totally in love with himself. David does not write guys who don’t love themselves. He writes about strong men, and he will give as much integrity to a thief as he will to an average guy.”

THE SOFT CALIFORNIA afternoon has grown longer. Mantegna’s wife is home, and a crowd of several co-workers, children and the nanny gathers in the kitchen. For a moment, there is a discussion of a moving van and feeding schedules. Mantegna, still on the couch, begins to whistle the theme song from “I Love Lucy,” until his daughter Mia Marie wanders in from her nap. “Yeah, this one,” he says, pulling his child into his lap, “was born four months premature. I could talk to you for hours about that.”

And then he begins to recall the filming of “Weeds,” the 1987 prison drama starring Nick Nolte, which was shot in Stateville, one of the country’s toughest maximum security prisons, in Joliet, Ill.; actual convicts worked as extras. “I remember we shot one scene,” says Mantegna, slowly stroking his daughter’s hair, “and I looked over--there was Richard Speck--remember Speck, who killed about 20 women in Chicago in the ‘60s? Behind those eyes there was just this killer.”

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There is a pause. “Yeah, in the ‘Godfather’ I play a guy who’s killed people. How do I get to that point?” he asks, looking down at his daughter. “I think about what I would do if someone threatened my family. I remember the night she was born. The doctor saying ‘Sign this paper so we can give her oxygen, but it might cause blindness. Now sign this, so we can do this to her, but it might cause brain damage,’ ” he says, looking up. “And there you were thinking you were going to have a kid. What fun. Just like on TV, just like everybody else. Forget about it.

“But it could be worse. She could be dead, but she’s not. She’s healthy, and this is my project for the next 18 years, get her on her way. Yeah, nothing comes easy, but nobody ever promised it me it was going to be a free ride.”

Still stroking his daughter’s hair, Mantegna turns toward the window. “It takes a long time to pay your dues, and I do think the business goes through phases,” says Mantegna. “I didn’t really know what it would be like. It’s torture to come up with a character and do it eight times a week whether you’re sick or not. But for every moment I think of that, I think of the guy who’s stamping out fenders in Pontiac.”


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