F. Murray Abraham’s Academy Award, like its owner, is a bit of a character, adorned with a hamster costume all its own. And it doesn’t gather dust in a display case; it’s a traveling companion. “I hide him on the stage just for fun,” said Abraham. “It’s in the trash can, he’s in a suitcase, he’s in a drawer somewhere.”
What may be surprising about Abraham? He laughs, a lot. What’s not surprising? He is dead serious about his craft. “I can’t imagine not acting,” he said. “My work is my salvation.”
And he’s still delivering – as a sexist, yet charming patriarch in “The White Lotus,” or an ill-fated drug dealer in “Scarface,” or in the role that won him his Oscar, the composer bitterly jealous of Mozart in “Amadeus.”
Watch: F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce in “Amadeus”:
One key to his success, he said, is a six-decade career spent believing in his talent. “The only way to become great is to believe you’re great, and that takes a certain degree of arrogance,” he said. “But a truly great actor has to have a sense of humility as well. And that balance? It took me a lot of years to discover that.”
This will be a discovery to many of you: The “F” in F. Murray Abraham? He effin’ made it up. “My father’s name was Fahrid. He was Syrian. So, I put the F up there in his honor,” he said.
Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz said, “But also, like you sensed that added this tiny little whisper of mystery?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I thought that just ‘Murray Abraham’ doesn’t seem to have a ring to it!”
Born into a blue-collar family in Pittsburgh, Abraham had asthma as a kid, so they moved to El Paso. Cleaner air beckoned; so did trouble. “I was kind of a hoodlum,” he said. “We got in fights. And we stole cars.”
“Very easily you could have had a different life,” said Mankiewicz.
“Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. And I took speech and drama, and the teacher was named Lucia P. Hutchins. And she introduced me to Shakespeare. She saved my life, I think. And I started acting. I won a state contest, I won a scholarship, went to college on that scholarship – $100!”
After college, he moved to New York, where the serious actors were, and where the underwear ads were:
Mankiewicz asked, “So, when you land a Fruit of the Loom ad and you’re the leaf, I mean, do you call your folks?”
“No, they call you. ‘I saw you on television!'” Abraham laughed.
Movie roles soon came. Small, but Abraham made them count – a good cop in “All the President’s Men”; a bad one in “Serpico.”
When he wasn’t looking for work, he was perfecting that distinct style of speech. He said, “I realized that my accent was gonna be in the way, because I began to listen to myself. I began to listen to records by Gielgud and Olivier, because I wanted to do Shakespeare. And I realized that my accent was wrong. It was in the way. So, I began to study what they sounded like, and I began to imitate them.”
It all came together – the accent, the way he carries himself, the confidence that leaps off the screen – when director Milos Forman cast him as Salieri, the villain, in “Amadeus.” It was, Abraham said, “the part of parts.”
“Here again was the very voice of God!” Salieri reviews Mozart’s manuscripts in “Amadeus”:
Abraham beat the odds, then beat Jeff Bridges, Albert Finney, Sam Waterson, and his co-star, Tom Hulce, to win the Academy Award for best actor in 1985. His secret? “I was wearing my lucky socks that night,” Abraham admitted.
And his acceptance speech, he said, was “pretty good”:
“It would be a lie if I told you I didn’t know what to say because I’ve been working on this speech for about 25 years.”
The Oscar came with fame and offers to work. But not the kind of offers Abraham expected, or wanted: “I felt like that award for that performance demanded that I do something equally good, equally as prestigious and as honorable. And all the stuff that was being offered was just terrible. So, I started doing theater for $90 a week.”
“Did that cost you, you think?” Mankiewicz asked.
“Yeah, I think it did. I think it absolutely did. You realize that you need the arrogance to support yourself, otherwise you’re gonna get beaten down, so that when you finally do become successful, you become super-arrogant, and a little bit impossible to get along with.”
There’s also been come controversy. He was fired from the Apple TV+ series “Mythic Quest” last year after allegations of sexual misconduct. In a statement, Abraham said, “This is a sincere and deeply felt apology.” He said he told jokes, nothing more, adding, “I have grown in my understanding from this experience.”
It’s been a difficult last year for Abraham. He lost the person who’s been by his side for much of his life: his wife, Kate, who died last fall.
It was she whom Abraham credited at the end of his Oscar speech: “Half of this statue belongs to my beloved wife, Kate.”
Mankiewicz asked, “You strike me as grounded about things, mistakes that you made in your career and about what went well. I’m gonna guess being married for 60 years had a great deal to do with that?”
Abraham replied, “Absolutely … hmm …” before stopping, and crying. “My marriage is the rock of my life. It’s as simple as that. She never lost faith. And there were some hard times, baby. She supported this family for years. It was the luckiest day of my life, was meeting Kate.”
A few minutes later, he and Mankiewicz got to talking about the vocal exercises Abraham, now 83, does every single day. He recites from memory various Shakespeare sonnets. Clearly, Kate is still on his mind:
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.
Abraham admits it’s hard being in the house without Kate. The good news is, the work keeps coming.
F. Murray Abraham in a scene from “The White Lotus”:
Mankiewicz asked, “Does it feel any different now to be part of an ensemble cast like ‘White Lotus’ in your 80s, than it did to be in your early 40s making ‘Amadeus’?”
“That’s really a very hard question to answer,” he replied. “I believe that I haven’t changed that much in terms of who and what I think I am. But I really believe in the dignity of acting.”
“So, you’re gonna keep at it, I take it?’
“My dream is to die onstage!” he laughed.
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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: George Pozderec.
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