Joe Mantegna is literally in the money in "Greed."
The Tony Award-winning actor ("Glengarry Glen Ross") has just finished a scene from the outrageous satire on the media in which he takes a bath in hundred-dollar bills. He invites a topless young woman to jump in the tub with him because the "currency" is fine.
"Greed" premieres Sunday on Showtime as one of a trio of bawdy tales featured in "National Lampoon's Favorite Deadly Sins." Besides "Greed," the favorite sins are "Lust," which stars Denis Leary, and "Anger," starring Andrew (the comic formerly known as "Dice") Clay.
Mantegna greets his visitor at his trailer door dressed in a sweatshirt and a pair of shorts, appropriately decorated with dollar bills. Relaxing between takes in the rather cramped quarters, the actor explains how he fell in love with the script by Jim Mulholland and Michael Barrie. In light of the media circus surrounding the highly publicized O.J. Simpson and Menendez brothers trials, the film's murderous plot didn't seem all that far-fetched.
"I had read a feature script these two guys wrote," he says. "They write Letterman's [show]. They used to write for Johnny Carson. Letterman's such a fan of Carson's they put these two guys into their stable. I thought this was so funny. I just loved the character so much."
In "Greed," Mantegna plays Frank Musso, an oily TV producer with a penchant for checkered jackets, polyester and gold jewelry. He's also known for his sleazy exploitive TV movies culled from the headlines. But Musso is having a hard time getting a new TV project off the ground because he's being usurped by the younger, even sleazier producer Todd Ferrett (William Ragsdale). Musso sees a potential gold mine when he meets waitress Norma Jean (Cassidy Rae). This beautiful but evil Cinderella hates her nagging stepmother and two ugly stepsisters.
Musso quickly falls in love with the femme fatale and comes up with a grand plan: He gets Norma Jean to kill her step-kin so he can make her a star in the media and produce the TV movie version of her life. But Musso's plan backfires when he begins to neglect the imprisoned Norma Jean.
Brian Keith co-stars as himself and as Norma Jean's good old boy attorney, Noble Hart. Charlene Tilton, Ed Marinaro, Robert Culp, Tanya Roberts and Morgan Brittany have cameos.
Mantegna's trailer door suddenly opens. "We got Pia!" director David Jablin announces. "We got Pia Zadora!"
(Watch for Zadora's appearance at the end of "Greed" when she performs at Musso's overproduced televised execution.)
"The writing is just so clever," Mantegna says with enthusiasm. "You just laugh out loud. As an actor, I relish those times when you start with some really funny material and you can take it from there and embellish it "
As for Musso, Mantegna muses, "there are no real tops to where he is over. It's a real black comedy. David [Jablin] is a wonderful director."
The actor, who has worked with writer-director David Mamet on Broadway ("Glengarry" and "Speed the Plow") and in features ("Homicide," "Things Change"), managed to squeeze "Greed" into his hectic schedule.
Mantegna--"I live to be a character actor; that is what I've always done"--is also shooting the features "Up Close and Personal" with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer and "Eye for an Eye" with Sally Field.
It worked out that both productions didn't need him this month "because they are both fairly long shoots." But during the week after the interview, he is due to report to work on both features.
"It's going to be very bizarre next Tuesday," he says, laughing. "Literally, I am going to one of the sets in the morning and the other in the afternoon."
Mantegna says he hasn't had any problems keeping his characters separate. "I've done repertory theater and that is the same thing," he explains. "You don't walk on stage thinking you are the other guy. It just doesn't happen. "
His first overlapping film experience occurred six years ago when he was making Woody Allen's comedy "Alice" in New York City and Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather III" in Rome.
"That was bizarre," Mantegna says. "It was a little disconcerting because I remember specifically I was doing a scene with [Al] Pacino--my last scene in Rome on 'Godfather III.' Cut. I get on the plane the next day and fly to New York. The next day I'm on the set of 'Alice.' There was a scene [that got cut out of the movie] with William Hurt. He's standing in the same position Pacino was. Instead of looking at Al, I'm now looking at William Hurt.
"It must be like how a baseball player feels when he gets traded. One night they are playing with one team and wearing the uniform. They get traded overnight and the next day fly in [to their new team]. It's exactly the same, but it's different."
"National Lampoon's Favorite Deadly Sins" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime.