Television viewers of a certain age remember Emmy Award winner Joe Spano as bleeding heart Lt. Henry Goldblume on the hit 1980s series, “Hill Street Blues,” while today’s fans know him as FBI Special Agent Tobias Fornell on “NCIS.” But what neither group might know is that Spano is a founding member of the legendary Berkeley Repertory Theatre. That was before he worked with George Lucas, snubbed Clint Eastwood and inspired Tom Hanks to become an actor.
Starting this week Spano stars in the Laguna Playhouse production of Tony Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens’ quirky July-November romance, “Heisenberg.” “Faline and I picked out this play to do together,” Spano says of co-star, Faline England. “It took a year and now it’s happening and so now we have to pay the price for it.”
Q: Were you concerned about the “ick” factor to the older guy and younger woman aspect of this play?
A: The Georgie character (England), is the mover all the way through this. We were in rehearsals and I said isn’t it amazing how consensual everything in this play is? If you’re doing your work and your work is important to you, and if you know that you’re not doing anything harmful, then you have to go ahead and do it.
Q: With just two actors and a director, it sounds like an intimate process.
A: What it is is a conversation about what’s going on in the play and it’s really a sharing. (Director) Katharine (Farmer) will certainly have questions, questions she’s thought about, but she doesn’t give us answers. It’s just for us to talk about and try, and it’s a really sort of an organic process. She’s young, I’m old and Faline’s in between the two of us.
Q: You didn’t get to talk to playwright Simon Stephens, but you have researched him.
A: Simon talks about how he doesn’t know what he’s written. He knows it has a certain truth and a certain flow and a certain beauty, but he’s not sure exactly what it means. He’s known for (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time”), which was a brilliant stage production, partly because the script and partly because of the director’s visuals. It’s an assault, in a way, and this is so different.
Q: What’s the best advice you ever got about acting?
Q: Talk about your 15-year relationship with Gibbs (Mark Harmon’s character) on “NCIS.”
A: In the first episode, our relationship was different than it is now. We were true antagonists at that point. He shuts me out of a case. It’s actually a great show, the pilot. But something happens and the writers invent things for people and we were given a common ex-wife, and we became closer and closer because the back story became thicker and thicker and gave us more to work with. And the more we worked with it, the richer our relationship. But things happened.
Q: Like what?
A: I got fired by the division and entered a whole new profession and blossomed in a crazy kind of way, as people do when they get older and are less clinging to those necessities of survival. It was great working with Mark (Harmon). I’ve known him ever since we worked next door to each other over at Mary Tyler Moore Productions. I was doing ‘Hill Street’ and he was doing ‘St. Elsewhere.’
Q: And you worked with George Lucas on his first film, “American Graffiti.”
A: I played Vic Lozier, it’s a small part. Charles Martin Smith finally borrows the car and takes Candy Clark out to the famous drive in and this guy sticks his head in the window and says, ‘Hiya Deb, how’s my soft baby …” George Lucas used to work out of this triangular building, North Beach in San Francisco, which is actually Coppola’s building. And I went there for an audition and and I saw him and I said, “Hey, am I still in the movie?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you’re my Vic Lozier.”
Q: And you worked with Clint Eastwood on “Enforcer”?
A: I was such a little snotty idiot at the time. I had my ideas about theater and acting and stuff like that. But something about how he drove a car through the window of this liquor store, screeched to a halt, got out and shot me. And I realized when I saw him do that, that he was really, really skilled at what he did. So, I went up to him and said, “Wow, you’re really good.” Snotty little kid saying that to Clint Eastwood. But he was, and I didn’t realize it.
Q: And evidently we have you to thank for Tom Hanks?
A: Tom Hanks went to Chabot College in (Hayward) and he was in the theater department and they would go on theater trips. And he came to the Berkeley Rep’s production of “The Iceman Cometh,” which I was in. So, years later I start hearing from friends of mine who had interviewed or were talking to Tom and they were telling me about how he referred to me.
Q: And then you worked with him on “Apollo 13.”
A: I went in for a wardrobe fitting one day and I went by this limo and this guy says, ‘Hey, Tom’s in there, he wants to talk to you.’ So, I go inside and he says “Seeing you in ‘Iceman Cometh’ is what inspired me to become an actor.” That’s a really a sweet thing to say. Every once in awhile it’s good to be reminded that people are affected by what you do. And that makes you hopefully be careful about what it is you do, because people are watching.