Larger Than Life Lombardi
How do you play football’s most storied coach on Broadway?
By Ron Lajoie Catholic News Service
Dan Lauria bears a striking physical resemblance to Vince Lombardi. Same granite jaw, same gap-toothed smile. When he puts on the signature Lombardi 1960s-style, tortoise-shell glasses, his appearance becomes almost uncanny.
He also shares Lombardi’s Italian-American heritage, his Brooklyn birthplace, and for extra measure, he has even played and coached some football himself.
But he admits that what he really shares with the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, whom he portrays in the Broadway production “Lombardi” at the Circle in the Square Theatre, is his attention to detail and his single-minded determination to excel.
Produced by Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser, “Lombardi” is directed by Tony Award-winner Thomas Kail and written by Oscar winner Eric Simonson. It is based on David Maraniss’s 1999 Lombardi biography, When Pride Still Mattered. The NFL is a producing partner.
“I’m a little obsessive about acting,” Lauria acknowledged.
He is best known for his role as the upright dad on TV’s “The Wonder Years.” In the play, Judith Light (from TV’s “Who's The Boss?”) plays his wife, Marie.
“There’s a line that was in the play. It’s not in the play now and I miss it,” Lauria said. “Some young reporter called Coach Lombardi a fanatic, and he looked him in the eye and said, ‘Kid, if I have a heart attack right now, call a fanatical doctor.’ That's Coach Lombardi.”
And to a degree, that’s Lauria, too.
“That’s the price you have to pay to be that good,” he said. “I think I knew that. But it’s just been reinforced. Being an actor, I’ve never been to Europe. I’ve never taken a vacation. I don’t have a family. Is the sacrifice worth it? I don’t know. But most of the guys I went to school with are retired and I’m going to Broadway, so it depends on how you look at it. I think Vince Lombardi would approve.”
Lauria’s attention to detail included reading and researching everything he could on Lombardi (whose five championships included two Super Bowl wins); talking to former players and people who knew the coach personally; and poring over reams of photos and video footage to pick up subtle Lombardi gestures.
Lombardi was a man of immense faith and that part of him is explored in the play. At 15, he entered high school seminary to study for the priesthood. Deciding on a different life path two years later, he transferred to St. Francis Preparatory where he starred as a fullback. Upon graduation, he went to Fordham University where he was a member of the famed “Seven Blocks of Granite” offensive line.
His Catholicism stayed with him throughout his life. In Green Bay, he attended Mass virtually every morning at 7 a.m. before going to practice at Lambeau Field.
But Lauria said Lombardi didn't wear his religion on his sleeve.
“He was a very devout Catholic, always carried a rosary in his pocket,” said Lauria, who is not Catholic. “But he never pulled it out during a game. That wasn’t part of his psyche. He wasn’t praying to win. That wouldn’t even enter his mind. He didn’t lead pep talks with prayers. He felt spiritual things were beyond that. He knew he had a very bad temper. He prayed for patience and understanding.
“He didn’t have much patience and, boy, could he fly off the handle,” the actor continued. “But he had this amazing ability, and I think it's very Italian and very Catholic – he could rip into you one minute and 10 minutes later you would hug him. We try to re-create that in the play.”
Copyright (c) 2010 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops