PORT WASHINGTON, NEW YORK
October 16, 2011
STRANGER: Burt Young
LOCATION: Louie’s Oyster Bar & Grille, 395 Main Street, Port Washington, New York
THEME: Brunch with an actor/artist/writer
“I’m a very lucky fellow, honestly.”
Burt Young was in a good mood. We were finishing up an enjoyable brunch at a restaurant in the sleepy town of Port Washington on Long Island, a 45-minute train ride outside of Manhattan. As he sipped on a glass of 12-year Glenlivet whiskey, he recounted interesting stories about his life as an actor, a painter, a writer, and a proud father.
I’d been staying in New York City for the weekend and arranged an interview with Burt through his girlfriend, Lisa Scuteri. She picked me up from the Port Washington train station, and then we went to Burt’s apartment, which doubles as his painting studio.
As I walked in, I saw him sitting on a large couch. I’ll admit I made my first mental association with Paulie from the Rocky movies, and I doubt I’m alone — it’s the role that many people are familiar with. Solidly built, with a wry smile on his face, Burt got up to shake my hand. What a handshake it is. The former prize-fighting boxer has a strong grip, which he keeps up with daily boxing practice. He’s even got a punching bag in his bedroom.
Surrounding the punching bag, and littered throughout the rest of his brightly lit place, are examples of his artwork. Painting is one of Burt’s several passions, and he was happy to walk me through the kaleidoscope of paintings.
Among the paintings is a huge storyboard for a movie on a bright yellow background, hanging near a haunting yet tranquil painting of the bedroom of a friend’s child that passed away. All of the artwork is grounded in some basic concept, and whenever inspiration strikes Burt picks up the brush and gets to painting. His styles vary, from somewhat realistic art representing family members, to more exaggerated shapes and colors. He’s clearly proud of his work.
He has every right to be. The canvases are huge, and it’s apparent that a lot of work goes in to the paintings. That work is rewarded, because some of his paintings have sold, and he’s exhibited his work at home and abroad.
But as I’d learn over brunch, giving painting the label “work” isn’t accurate when it comes to Burt. Much like acting and writing, it’s one of the passions that drive him.
After our tour of his apartment-cum-studio, the three of us — Burt, Lisa and myself — drove the short distance to Louie’s Oyster Bar & Grille on the waterfront of Port Washington.
The couple are regulars at the restaurant. It’s a welcoming place, featuring a bright dining room with high ceilings and large windows looking out onto the sleepy water, where incredibly expensive-looking boats are anchored along Port Washington.
Although the town is picturesque and quiet — it reminded me of a New England suburb — Burt said he would prefer to move back to Manhattan.
He spoke fondly of the Big Apple throughout dinner, noting that he even used to own a restaurant in the Bronx. It wasn’t a hands-on deal. Burt wasn’t in the kitchen chopping vegetables or out serving food. But his face was on the canopy and he’d swing by to greet diners from time to time. However, the “old timers” that ran the place decided eventually to retire and the place is no longer operating, Burt said.
If he loves Manhattan, why live in Port Washington?
“She’s the only reason,” Burt said with a smile in Lisa’s direction. “Her and the children.”
Lisa is director of revenue management at the Garden City Hotel in nearby Garden City, New York. It’s a luxury hotel, and her job includes bringing in big-name celebrities and entertainment to stay at the place. The couple actually met at the hotel, several years ago.
At the time Lisa was about 19 years old. Burt was dividing his time between Manhattan and California. He decided to take a break and relax in Long Island, bringing some of his “bent-nose friends” from New York with him. When they got to the hotel, he saw Lisa behind the desk. “She was cute as a button, but a kid. And I’d flirt with her, but just that.”
Fast forward several years to 2005. Burt’s mother passed away and the funeral was to be held out in Long Island. So he figured he’d need accommodations for his family. The hotel was packed, but Lisa was still able to organize enough room for the Young clan. Then when Burt got to the hotel and saw a now grown-up Lisa he thought “she was beautiful, and no longer a little kid.”
He’s also fond of Lisa’s “brilliant” children. When he’s not writing, painting, or acting, he spends time with his girlfriend and her children. It seems to make him happy.
“The truth is she’s the most loving partner anyone could have, always bright, emotionally and in other ways. I’m pretty lucky,” Burt said.
Another mention of “luck” — something Burt, now 71-years-old, thinks he’s benefited from throughout his life. It’s certainly been a varied and busy life.
He was born in the borough of Queens, New York, and his thick New York accent is evident with every sentence he speaks, delivered in a quiet tone.
Just before he turned 16, Burt enlisted in the Marine Corps. He served from 1957 to 1959. After that, he tried “every business that a kid could get into. Some tricky,” he said, hinting at some past professions that might have skirted around the edges of legality.
He didn’t want to elaborate. It was a tough time for him. He got married to his first wife, Gloria, and had a daughter, but said it was a “bad time” in their life. His wife died in 1974.
A heavy experience for anyone. Adversity from his early life is something that Burt appears to have concentrated on overcoming, for problems both big and small. For example, if he’s feeling sluggish mentally or physically, “I know I have to tighten my belt somehow,” he said, and he’ll go a few rounds with the punching bag or shadow boxing. He said he’s always fighting things that could otherwise bring him down.
He has 43 amateur fights to his name. Lost only the first and the last. “I had my first pro fight when I went in the Marine Corps and then amateur fights when I left the military.” However, he was never going to turn professional, in part cause of an image problem among his fellow Italian-American New Yorkers. “I knew it wasn’t for a career, and my friends all frowned at it, we were supposed to be slick guys. We weren’t supposed to sweat.”
So he was still scoping around for a possible career. He hadn’t given a thought to acting. Then one day he met a woman. Her name was Norma, she worked at a bar.
She only worked Wednesdays. So every Wednesday Burt would go to the bar and try to win her over. His various attempts to charm her kept failing. Nothing in response. Then he started telling Norma she should be an actress because was so beautiful. “She lit up,” Burt said, with Norma telling him how she wanted to train with acting coach Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.
Taking the initiative, Burt wrote to Strasberg asking for a meeting.
Strasberg invited Burt over to his house. “I was nowhere near even thinking of dramatic careers,” he said. But the coach kept probing, trying to get answers out of the young man. Burt was giving one syllable answers in response. Eventually, Strasberg told him he couldn’t be an actor.
That’s when something in Burt flipped. He got up and slammed the table in a rage.
Strasberg told him to take a seat, and remarked that he’d never seen such tension in a man’s face as the young Italian-American staring back at him. Strasberg said Burt was an “emotional library” and asked if he’d work with him.
“I nodded, and that’s how I became an actor,” Burt said.
Always keen to help others, Burt then arranged for Norma to audition for Strasberg.
She won a five-minute audition in front of Strasberg, Paul Newman and others. Unfortunately, Norma froze. She couldn’t talk. “That was the end of her, she sort of was crushed,” Burt said. Instead of acting, Norma went to work in a bowling alley.
That’s not the last he ever heard of her, however. In 1977 he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Paulie in Rocky (he didn’t win). When he was nominated, he got two telegraphs. One was from the owner of Norma’s bar, asking for a mention in Burt’s victory speech if he got to deliver one. The other was from Norma, saying, “Remember you owe everything to me.”
The two occasionally run into each other and nowadays, “She’s in good shape,” Burt said.
With his Actors Studio training, Burt started taking on small parts in movies and television shows. But it was never just another job. “I’m devoted to what I’m doing,” he said.
Taking to acting, Burt went out to California “with holes in my pants” in the 1970s to work at the movie studios. Ever the New Yorker, he didn’t want to move to the Golden State on a permanent basis. However, in the short-term at least, he had to rent a home there because it’s where the work was to be found.
Burt thinks his big break — when the public really started to notice him — was following three appearances on the 1970s television show Baretta. He even wrote one of the episodes. Burt said he had done several small parts in movies by then, but the “power of television” meant that the detective show got him firmly in the public eye.
Just a few months later, that notoriety would explode with his role as Paulie, brother-in-law of boxer Rocky Balboa.
As the friendly waiter arrived and set down our food, Burt explained that he thought highly of the script for Rocky, an economical 98-page drama. He’d read the script — written by Sylvester Stallone — out of interest because he was friends with the movie’s producers. “It was brilliant. It was like street prose.”
Before he could tell me how he got the part of Rocky’s brother-in-law, Burt dug into his dish of lobster and eggs. It looked tremendous, and he said it was good. The high quality of the food no doubt explains why he and his girlfriend are regulars at Louie’s.
Lisa went for a chicken salad, and as the picture shows the serving was more than generous. She also had nothing but good things to say about her meal.
I went for the small filet mignon served with hash browns and fried eggs. Tremendous. It wasn’t an adventurous choice by any stretch of the imagination, but it was exactly what I was hoping for. Perfectly cooked, tender steak with flaky hash browns and a small serving of tangy sauce to top it off.
As we ate, I asked Burt to continue his story of how he secured the role of Paulie — taking care to time my questions so I didn’t spit my food in his direction.
Between bites, Burt said he was in the commissary of a movie studio when Stallone approached him, kneeling down by his table. He introduced himself, and Burt lauded Stallone for the quality of the script for Rocky. “I said, ‘Oh shit, congratulations. It’s beautiful. You gotta do it!’”
Stallone said he would, but he wanted Burt to play Paulie.
So it was that he wound up with a role that he would end up repeating for the five Rocky sequels — and unlike the film’s other stars (Burgess Meredith and Talia Shire), Burt didn’t have to audition. “And it’s been mostly a pleasure, so I don’t mind when people come up and say, ‘Hey Paulie!’”
While he continues to take pleasure from acting, he also derives joy from his other passions of painting and writing.
“I like doing them all equally for different reasons,” he said. “The writing — when I compose something I feel intelligent. When I’m acting, usually I feel pretty satisfied. And that’s a wonderful feeling, contentment. With painting, a completion. I don’t wait on an editor, I don’t wait on a sale, it’s what it is. Part of me for the moment,” he said.
A play he’s been working on for a long time is Artist Found In Port Washington Flat.
It’s a two-character play, featuring Burt as an artist. As with all good plays, there’s a twist. He also appears via hologram (that part has already been recorded) as his conscience, weighing in on Burt’s thoughts throughout the show. “I’m trying for years not to admit the loss of a loved one, and the conscience is trying to beat the defenses down and admit it, so that he and me can go into space, so to speak. I’m making it sound more intelligent than it probably is, but I think it’s okay.”
I told Burt he must still get a kick out of acting.
“Not a kick. It’s my whole passion, it’s everything, that’s why I do the play. I want to do it every night, I want to lose myself, I want the pain, the uncertainty. Oh yes. And after I finish the night I’ll give the pain mostly to her,” he said, winking at Lisa.
Ever graceful and friendly, Lisa rolled her eyes and grinned back at Burt.
Then there was a momentary silence as, I think, my dining companions were both taken aback at the speed and extensiveness with which I cleared my plate.
“He licked the whole dish clean! You want my toast?” Burt asked, laughing.
I blushed, but then let greed overtake me as I put in a dessert order.
Burt and Lisa were amused as I took photos of my Key Lime pie. Taking pictures for these interviews is always the most awkward part, but they just watched and laughed.
The pie was pretty good. Made on-site, it was suitably tart with a great buttery biscuit base. Washed down with some strong coffee, it was a nice finish to the meal.
As I made my way through dessert — Burt and Lisa stuck with the one course — we spoke about a few other random topics, including my interview with former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. I’d had cupcakes and coffee with Ed just two days before meeting Burt.
During brunch, Burt was keen to offer advice. The general gist of it being that when you’re knocked down, pick yourself back up. A simple but solid suggestion.
“Your desires, your ambition, your road, sometimes you hit a wall. Most of the time you try to get through it, either over it or under. I’ve come to the conclusion that wherever you bounce, keep your feet landed, but go with that bounce. If it takes you to the left, keep the fervor, keep the fire, go to the left, and that’ll take you somewhere. Don’t just waste time on that brick wall.”
Then he turned to Lisa and, flashing another grin, said, “She has her own advice — don’t drink so much, be nice, you’re eating too much.”
Observing the two interact, they seem to have a caring, relaxed relationship in which a sense of humor is a strong component. Life seems pretty good for Burt. He constantly gets to indulge all his passions — acting, writing, painting and boxing — and all on his terms.
Definitely a lucky man.