Role Recall: John Turturro on Doing ‘the Right Thing’ and Bowling for ‘Lebowski’


What hasn't John Turturro done? With more than 90 projects under his belt, the 57-year-old actor's career stretches from a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance in Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull," through repeated collaborations with the Coen Brothers, and more films with Spike Lee than Denzel Washington.

Turturro has also directed five films, from the Cannes Film Festival winner "Mac" (1992), his first, to "Fading Gigolo," which brought Woody Allen in front of the screen for an odd-couple comedy that opens in theaters on April 18.

Yesterday, the Miami International Film Festival honored the Brooklyn-born actor-director with its Career Achievement Award — and we felt it made the perfect occasion for a Role Recall. Turturro gave us great stories about Lee, the Coens, George Clooney, "Bob" De Niro, Adam Sandler, and his latest collaborator, Woody Allen:

"Raging Bull" (1980)
In this Martin Scorsese biopic about famous Italian-American fighter Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), Italian-American screen neophyte Turturro got his first role as the uncredited Man at Webster Hall Table. Still, for Turturro, it was an auspicious start: "I auditioned for a year. I got to say one line, 'Hey, Jake.' I was too young to be in the movie. I was a nervous wreck. My collar wasn't right and De Niro kept pointing at my collar and they had to sew my tie into my collar to correct it.

"I just did a cameo in the movie he made about Roberto Duran ["Hands of Stone"]. Bob kept asking me, Is that the right suit, it's a summer suit?' And I'd say, 'No, it's a cashmere suit.' He's a little bit of a costume designer, a detail freak, Bob."

"To Live and Die in L.A." (1985)
William Friedkin's pitch-black crime drama about a Secret Service agent ("CSI's" William Petersen) avenging his slain partner featured Turturro as felon Carl Cody. According to Turturro, making it was nearly as disturbing as the final product: "Willem Dafoe was in it and it was a crazy movie to make and we were all young actors from the theater. Friedkin set it up as the good guys against the bad guys. I remember the intensity of it. It was my first substantial role in a film, shooting in a prison with murderers. My advisor was a three-time murderer — he was very nice. We had to shoot in a yard where there were guys in the tower with machine guns. It was a little nerve-wracking, especially when the sun started going down. A lot of guys blew me kisses in the yard — and they were much bigger than me."

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"Do the Right Thing" (1989)
Turturro played the racist pizzeria owner Pino in Spike Lee's incendiary early comedy about Brooklyn race relations on the boil. Of his first meaty collaboration with Lee (he would go on to appear in eight more Spike Lee joints: "Mo Better Blues," "Jungle Fever," "Clockers," "Girl 6," "He Got Game," and "Summer of Sam," "She Hate Me," and "Miracle St. Anna"), Turturro said: "Yes, I've worked with Spike more than Denzel. In a bunch of movies I had substantial roles and I've done a bunch of cameos for him. Maybe he feels he needs me for good luck. When I read the script, I could tell right away that this would be exciting. I grew up in a black neighborhood and then I lived in a white neighborhood and was bussed out to all-black schools. I was the racist in the film, and there was all this publicity. The columnist Joe Klein wrote that this movie could create riots. I was worried because I'm the guy who says all these things. As it turned out, people only embraced it: 'You’re the guy in the pizzeria.' When you put out truthful things, sometimes people are relieved. It's cathartic."

"Quiz Show" (1994)
In the Oscar-nominated, Robert Redford-directed period drama about the 1950s quiz show scandal, Turturro played underdog contestant Herbie Stempel opposite Ralph Fiennes's high-class cheater Charles Van Doren: "That was a more substantial experience for me. I liked what it was about and I loved working with Redford. He was a lot of fun and helpful. Plus, Redford always smelled good and he was very affectionate with me. He was such a sexy director. Also, I used to have to warm my voice up really high, because in reality Stempel had a squeaky voice, and I used to have to do it on the set and everyone would imitate me."

"The Big Lebowski" (1998)
In the Coen Brothers comedy that has achieved cult status — the Dude abides — Turturro played Jesus Quintana, a bowling rival to Jeff Bridges's big-hearted slacker Lebowski. Turturro clued us in on the roots of his character: "It was another one of those crazy movies. I had done something like that character at the Public Theater in the 'Puta Vida Trilogy,' and Joel [Coen] had seen me onstage. I did it small, and they let me try all kinds of crazy things. We're friends and it's like we're in first grade and making each other laugh. The movie has only gotten bigger with age. The first time I thought it was funny, I thought Jeff was great. Now it's beyond a cult classic, beyond 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show.' It's become a mantra for guys of a certain age and people who never age. I went to the theater with my oldest son, Amedeo, and people know all the lines."

"O Brother, Where Art Thou" (2000)
In another Coen Brothers favorite (and Turturro's fourth with the duo, after "Barton Fink," "Miller's Crossing," and "Lebowski"), he played one of three escaped convicts alongside George Clooney and Tim Blake Nelson on an odyssey outrunning the law in the Deep South: "It was a real blast to do. I think about shaving my hair, and wearing fake teeth — and learning to play a mandolin. Then we shelved that — and then they decided I'd yodel. On set, we were always riding bikes. George bought us mountain bikes and I still have mine. And we were always playing baseball, which was a lot of fun."

[Related: Kevin Costner Reminisces About 'Field of Dreams,' 'The Bodyguard' and More]

"Mr. Deeds" (2002)
While Turturro has worked with the Coens, Lee, and Scorsese, he's also enjoyed collaborating with his good friend Adam Sandler. In this fish-out-of-water comedy, Turturro served Sandler after his small-town schlemiel inherits a mega-corporation. "It was a fun role with Adam. They let me create my own character. Butlers in movies are great parts because they have to do things, serve or be aware, in drama or comedy, 'Upstairs, Downstairs' or 'Downton Abbey.' That part was rewarding because in a zany film you are the quiet center, elegant. I remember a scene we shot in Madison Square Garden and I had a long wig. I like playing basketball and so does Adam. Between takes, I played full court with that wig. We played all day long while we were shooting there. That was just fun. I should play in a wig more often."

"Fading Gigolo" (2014)
Director Turturro cast Woody Allen as the apprentice pimp to his own middle-aged escort in this upcoming comedy. Why Woody? "The guy who cuts my hair cuts Woody's hair. Woody liked the idea of us together and the scenario. On set, he's serious and he works hard. He was like the perfect person to work with: knew his lines, if he improvises he's always great, he comes in with something very succinct. The relationship we have in real life — we worked together in the theater) — there's a real affection there. It was hard sometimes not to laugh. Sometimes I did. He's a funny guy and very smart. He was very easy to work with once you get over your shyness."