Carmen Argenziano was doing another death-defying act on his tightrope.
No, the 52-year-old actor hasn't run away from Hollywood and joined the circus, though the vicissitudes of show business could drive anyone to do that. He was instead demonstrating his philosophy of acting, hammered out through more than three decades of study and performance.
"That's a metaphor for performance for me--it's like a tightrope walk," he said, rising from a table and playing Wallenda-pretenda. "The author gives you the rope . . . and how you get to the other side within the context of the play is totally up to you. So, you may falter at times, you may do a theatrical twist on the rope"--he leaped and landed like a cat--"or whatever. But that's part of the showmanship that's inherent in it."
Lately he's been getting to the other side just fine, thanks. A versatile TV and movie actor, Argenziano is winning plaudits as John Fletcher, the quicksilver bureau chief in Rafael Lima's drama "El Salvador" at the Tiffany Theater in West Hollywood. Fletcher is the tequila-swilling, Maalox-gobbling papa bear to a group of jittery young journalists covering the war-torn Central American country in 1981.
Reviving the role he played in an acclaimed 1988 production at Gnu Theatre, Argenziano "master[s] every grimly comic nuance" in the script, Times writer Don Shirley noted in a recent review.
"He's a real piece of work, John Fletcher. He lives on a pretty intense level," Argenziano said. "It's something that initially was hard for me to relate to. . . . I can't understand why he's chosen the life he has, and the moral decisions he's made, but I don't think portraying a character is making those kinds of judgments. You have to find a commonness, something you can relate to, and interweave your own life with his."
Fletcher "is a tough role to cast, as far as I'm concerned," said Jeff Seymour, director of both productions, who settled on casting Argenziano again after a few early readings. "He's a fantastic actor. Carmen will do anything you ask him to do, within reason."
Judging from Argenziano's track record, other directors must agree. While the tag "character actor" seems too limiting to describe his talents, Argenziano has one of those average-guy mugs instantly recognizable to regular TV viewers, even if the name does not ring any bells. He's worked extensively for director John Frankenheimer, playing a passionate lawyer in TNT's Civil War epic "Andersonville" and a prison superintendent in the Attica riot drama "Against the Wall" on HBO. He's also appeared in films such as "The Accused" and "Stand and Deliver" and TV series from "Melrose Place" to "L.A. Firefighters."
But walking the career tightrope hasn't been easy, he admitted. No overnight sensation, his acceptance has been "incremental" since he moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast 30 years ago.
Born and raised in Sharpsville, Pa., a small steel town near the Ohio border, Argenziano left home at 18 to study acting in New York. At the time, he was "kind of a shy, introverted young man" who wanted "to become forceful, to be something other than what I was, which seemed pretty well-contained and not terribly exciting to me."
New York in the early '60s promised plenty of excitement. But after studying for two idyllic years at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he plunged headlong into . . . well, something called reality. With acting gigs few and far between, he odd-jobbed his way into obscurity.
"I finally had to take a job in this silly scam a friend of mine got me in, [where] we were analyzing handwriting, supposedly, with an IBM sorter at Times Square and 47th Street," he said. Discouraged, he finally went back to school, studying acting with Sanford Meisner.
Hoping to get film work, he moved in 1966 to Hollywood, where he literally lived in the Actors Studio, that famous haven for Method actors. "I would mop the floors at night and live in my little room upstairs and go to everything the studio had to offer," he said, including workshops in playwriting and directing.
The work finally paid off in the early '70s, when he landed a role in the Roger Corman film "The Hot Box." He played a Latin revolutionary who kidnaps a quartet of beautiful American nurses. "It was a typical Corman exploitation film," he said with a laugh. "You can guess what happens to these four American nurses."
That led to other Corman movies, a bit part in "The Godfather Part II" and a flood of TV work. Through it all, he kept testing himself, finding ways to keep the material fresh. In an episode of "Columbo," for instance, he played a coroner examining a corpse played by Leslie Nielsen. He and star Peter Falk rehearsed the scene according to the script, but during shooting Falk suddenly ad-libbed a line, asking Argenziano what exactly had killed the victim.
"It was not scripted at all, which gave me pause," Argenziano said. "I looked at Peter Falk, I looked at Leslie Nielsen, I looked back at Peter Falk. I had a moment! I said, 'I'm not sure.' And when I saw that moment on film, I said, 'That's what acting is.' That was a big lesson to me about . . . about trying to infuse a freshness or spontaneity into whatever you do."
At the moment, he's content to pull back a bit and devote more time to his wife, Lisa (he married for the first time three years ago), and their two young children. But that drive for spontaneity will likely keep him working onstage, where he finds plenty of rope for his tightrope walks.
"There's this stigma attached to L.A. theater [that] the only reason actors do it is for important movie people to come and give them a job," he said. "And realistically that's true, that element exists. But that shouldn't downplay the intention of the actors. We're doing it because the work is part of our lives."
"EL SALVADOR," Tiffany Theater, 8532 Sunset Blvd. Dates: Thursdays to Sundays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends Aug. 18. Prices: $25-$28. Phone: (310) 289-2999.