Actor Vincent Gardenia, who died of an apparent heart attac in Philadelphia yesterday, loved Italian restaurants and loved the theater. The final role of his lengthy career gave him a chance to indulge both passions.
Baltimore audiences were among the last to see the 71-year-old actor portray Lou Graziano, an Italian-American restaurateur, in Tom Dulack's comedy, "Breaking Legs," which completed a monthlong run at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre on Sunday.
Gardenia had played one preview performance of the show's subsequent engagement, at Philadelphia's Forrest Theater, Tuesday night. Company members discovered his body in the kitchen of his hotel suite yesterday morning. A spokesman for the production said the Philadelphia run would continue as scheduled, with an understudy in Gardenia's role.
In an interview prior to the Mechanic Theatre opening, Gardenia appeared tired. However, he admitted that one reason he agreed to the tour of "Breaking Legs" -- in which he also starred for 13 months off-Broadway -- was because it gave him a chance to enact his fantasy of owning a restaurant.
"I never went into it because it's a terribly tough business," he said. Asked if theater wasn't also tough, he quickly replied, "Theater is easy."
On the large and small screens, the craggy-faced actor's best known roles included Cher's father in "Moonstruck"; the owner of the flower shop in "Little Shop of Horrors"; the cop in "Deathwish" (I and II); Archie Bunker's neighbor, Frank Lorenzo, on "All in the Family"; and Roxanne's father on "L.A. Law."
But the theater and touring were in his blood. Born in Naples, Italy, Gardenia made his theatrical debut at age 5, appearing with his father's Brooklyn-based, Italian-language troupe, the Gennaro Gardenia Dramatic Company, which toured Italian communities in New York as well as nearby states. "It was a wonderful experience," he recalled, with a tinge of nostalgia in his gravelly voice. "It was my playground."
Gardenia -- whose home was in the same Brooklyn neighborhood to which he emigrated as a toddler -- was in his 30s before he performed his first English-speaking role. He vividly remembered the trepidation he felt when he discovered he would have to memorize lines, unlike the practice in the Italian theater, where the lines were prompted. However, his English-language career flourished, eventually winning him a Tony Award for "Prisoner of Second Avenue" and Academy Award nominations for "Bang the Drum Slowly" and "Moonstruck."
Despite his extensive touring history, Gardenia didn't appear in Baltimore until 1988, when he starred in "I'm Not Rappaport" at the Mechanic. He enjoyed the city immensely, and Mechanic subscribers returned the compliment, voting him their "favorite performer in a play" that season. Last year, the Baltimore Film Forum honored him with its "Biffy" Award and a screening of "Age Old Friends," a 1989 HBO movie for which he won an Emmy.
A life-long bachelor, Gardenia is survived by a brother. But even though he died away from home, in a way the road was his home, and other actors were his family -- particularly the actors in "Breaking Legs," whose closeness he praised when he was in Baltimore. Funeral arrangements were incomplete at press time.