Spencer native, actor Paul D’Amato, of 'Slap Shot' movie fame, dies at 75

In this photo from December 2010, Worcester native Paul D'Amato, right, who played Tim "Dr. Hook" McCracken in the 1977 movie classic "Slap Shot," poses with the Worcester Sharks' Mike Moore after a photo shoot for the team's "Slap Shot" poster.
In this photo from December 2010, Worcester native Paul D'Amato, right, who played Tim "Dr. Hook" McCracken in the 1977 movie classic "Slap Shot," poses with the Worcester Sharks' Mike Moore after a photo shoot for the team's "Slap Shot" poster.
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He skated rings around the competition, including Paul Newman, in “Slap Shot.”

He brought the room down, which included Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken, in “The Deer Hunter.”

He held a knife to Cher’s throat and stabbed Dennis Quaid in “Suspect.”

And he was also the inspiration for artist John Byrne’s depiction of gruffy, sideburns antihero Wolverine in “Uncanny X-Men.”

He’s none other than Worcester-born, Spencer-bred Paul D’Amato, a veteran character actor who died earlier this week., apparently at his home in East Brookfield.

D’Amato started his colorful and eclectic acting career at Mrs. Hickey’s Dance Studio in Worcester.

“I always wanted to act. I took tap-dancing lessons with Mrs. Hickey’s class in the '50s,” D’Amato told the Telegram & Gazette in 2019. “She’s a lady who used to coach me, signing side-by-side ‘When Your Sweetheart Writes a Letter.’ I did it in the Worcester Auditorium when I was a kid. I always liked performing whether it was music or acting. I worked at the Carousel Theater in Framingham for nine years going through high school and afterwards.”

In the 2019 article, D’Amato joked that he made an acting career doing everything his parents taught him not to do when he gets older.

“I played major roles in ‘The Deer Hunter’ and ‘Slap Shot,’ where I played Tim 'Dr. Hook' McCracken. I could take your eye out with a single flick of a stick,” D’Amato said. “With ‘Deer Hunter,’ we won five Academy Awards. I played a Green Beret at the bar. They asked me about Vietnam and I said, ‘(Expletive) it,’ twice. It wasn’t that big, but it was pivotal. Everyone knew what ‘(Expletive) it,’ meant. War’s not good for anybody.”

D'Amato began honing his hockey skills as a youngster in Spencer, where his father had him skating in the backyard.

Obituary Paul G. D'Amato

After a stint in the Army, D’Amato attended Emerson College, majoring in speech and theatre.

“When I got out of the service, I knew what I didn’t want to do. My drill sergeant at one point said, ‘Stop being so dramatical,’” D’Amato said in a Feb. 20, 2014, article of Worcester Magazine. “I’ve always been like that. I’ve always wanted to act. I knew when I was 3 years old and watching ‘Hopalong Cassidy’ that I could do that.

While studying theater at Emerson College in the early 1970s, D’Amato was talked into going out for the hockey team.

"My roommate learned that I could skate, and he said you could get credit for playing hockey," D'Amato said in a 2010 T&G article. "Heck, it was a Division 2 varsity sport at the time, so I figured, let me give it a shot."

D’Amato played for two seasons, skating at forward and defense, at one point centering a line called the Black Aces. D'Amato had three assists for his career without scoring a goal.

In 1975, two years after graduating from Emerson, D'Amato was working with the Cambridge Ensemble, and one of its productions was picked up to go off-Broadway in New York.

The New York Times gave him a rave theatre review for “Death Watch,” which led to him being signed with the William Morris Agency for representation.

At around Christmas that year, his agent asked D'Amato, "What can you do that other actors can't do?"

"I'm the best skater you'll ever have," D'Amato replied.

“I sat down with my agent and he said, 'I have to sell you. How can I sell you?' Well, I said, I ski. Everyone skis, he said. All right, I said, I was a pretty good hockey player, I played in college. 'Next time there’s a hockey film… I’ll let you know' (he said),” D’Amato said in the 2014 Worcester Magazine article. “About a month later, I got a call from my agent, ‘You play hockey right? Do you still skate?’ I said I did. ‘You have an audition at Sky Rink; Paul Newman is doing a hockey film.’"

D’Amato brought his skates to the Sky Rink on West 34th Street in Manhattan at 1 a.m., the only time the casting people could get ice time.

Soon after taking to the ice, D'Amato saw he was one of the few who could skate. After roofing a puck into the net with authority, Steve Mendillo and Brad Sullivan, who were in the movie, asked D’Amato if they could do a couple of rushes with him.

“At the audition I look out, they're already on the ice but they can’t skate and my heart almost leapt out of my chest because I realized at that point I had a shot, that I was better than these guys,” D’Amato said in the 2014 Worcester Magazine story.

After the rushes, D'Amato was asked if he could act. After nodding yes, he was told, "Come see us at 1 p.m. tomorrow." That summer, he was in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for three weeks of filming, 12 hours a day.

In the R-rated “Slap Shot,” Charlestown Chiefs player/coach Reggie Dunlop, played by Newman, places a $100 bounty on McCracken's head prior to the Federal League championship game.

Working with Newman on “Slap Shot,” D’Amato was understandably starstruck.

“I gotta tell you, first line I ever had in a movie — first job, first line — I'm looking at my idol Butch Cassidy, I’m looking at the guy that did 'Cool Hand Luke,' I’m looking at the guy who did 'The Sting' and I have to look him in the eye and say, ‘Dunlop! You (expletive) (expletive)!’" D’Amato said in the 2014 Worcester Magazine story. “I was a little nervous. Working with Newman was like working with a friend. He was great, he was accessible. He was that easy.”

Within the year following "Slap Shot," D'Amato had roles in the television hockey movie "The Deadliest Season," a TV episode of "The Six Million Dollar Man" and the film "Heaven Can Wait."

In "The Deer Hunter," which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1978, D'Amato played the Green Beret sergeant at the bar during the wedding scene with Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1978. Twice in that scene, he uttered a poignant, two-word version of "down the hatch" that can't be printed here.

But when it comes to his most memorable moment of film, D’Amato said it was acting opposite Cher in “Suspect.”

“I got a chance to hold a straight razor to Cher’s throat in 'Suspect,'” D’Amato said in the 2014 Worcester Magazine story. “How many people get a chance to really talk to Cher? That was a memorable moment.”

D'Amato continued to enjoy a successful career on stage, screen and television, including roles in "Law and Order" and "Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” as well as several off-Broadway shows including Sam Shepard’s “Seduced,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and "Our Son's Wedding"

D’Amato did his share of fundraiser appearances over the years, including the Worcester Sharks in 2011 at the DCU Center; Skating for Hope fundraiser, which benefits the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge Worcester, in 2013; a benefit for the Ashburnham-Westminster Community Benefit Committee; Central Mass. Rusty Blades Hockey Club, the annual game to benefit the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, both in 2016; and the Worcester Railers in 2017 at the DCU Center.

In his latter life, D’Amato was a boot fitter at the Mountainside Ski Shop at Wachusett Mountain Ski Area.

D’Amato and his fiancée and partner for 23 years, Marina Re, acted on stage together twice together.

“Being on stage with him was every actor’s dream,” Re said Friday. “He was just an incredible actor to be onstage with and he made everyone around him better. He was just wonderful to work with.”

Re said they both fell in love with each other on their first date.

“He was just the greatest guy I’ve ever met," she said. "And he was so humble. I’ve gone out with a lot of actors. They always talk about their résumé and the blah, blah, blah. But Paul and I on our first date, we never talked about acting. We talked about other life stuff.”

Amato was very proud that comic book artist John Byrne used his likeness from “Slap Shot” as his inspiration for Wolverine, Re said.

“Paul was so proud of that. I can’t tell you,” Re said. “John Byrne is the artist and he saw Paul in ‘Slap Shot.’ He referred to him as having ‘crazy eyes’ and that’s exactly what he wanted Wolverine to look like. And there are photos of his illustration that when I saw it I said, ‘Paul, you should get paid for this. This is a picture of you.’”

Re said he didn’t know how popular D’Amato was until they went to a hockey game together and D’Amato was the guest of honor.

“Paul told me he was famous when I met him. And I heard of ‘Slap Shot’ but I didn’t know it,” Re said. “And then he was asked to drop the puck at some hockey game. To have an entire stadium screaming ‘Dr. Hook! Dr. Hook!’ I was like ‘Oh, my God! You really are famous.”

The last hockey game D’Amato attended was the Worcester Railers last year at the DCU Center, Re said.

As much as he loved hockey and acting, the other thing D’Amato loved was skiing, Re said. The "last beautiful day" D’Amato had outside was Jan. 26 at Wachusett Mountain, she said.

“Dave Crowley (Wachusett Mountain co-owner) has the same rare brain disorder that Paul had,” Re said. “They said Dave made this cart so he can ski. So I called them up and I said, ‘Hey guys, I don’t know if you know but Paul has PSP.’ And they were like, ‘Bring him up here.’ And they had a big Paul D’Amato thing on Jan. 26. He went skiing. He went down four different slopes. They had a lovely little party for him. Everyone he worked with was there…And I think he went, ‘OK, I did want I wanted. I took my last trip down the slope. It’s time for me to go.'”

D’Amato died Monday in his East Brookfield home overlooking Lake Lashaway, after a four-year battle with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disease.

“During this last year, we had some wonderful neighbors here at Lake Lashaway. They all pitched in and helped me so much. There’s a nice community here. They have become my family and they have been wonderful to Paul," Re, a native New Yorker, said. “PSP is a horrible disease. I said to Paul, during this last two weeks, that it's time for him to say his words that were in “The Deer Hunter.” It’s time to say, ‘(Expletive) it.’”

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Remembering Spencer native, actor Paul D’Amato, dead at 75