Peter Gallagher has had a long and steady acting career on stage and screen. You may know him as Sandy Cohen on The O.C., Arthur Campbell on Covert Affairs, Larry Levy in The Player, or Buddy Kane in American Beauty. Talk to him for a bit and suddenly he’s reminiscing about his friendship with Northeast Ohio’s Paul Newman, or recalling his meeting Cary Grant.
And The Idolmaker helped make all those things possible.
Having its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, The Idolmaker starred Ray Sharkey as Vincent Vacarri, a songwriter and frustrated performer in 1959 who decides to make his mark by finding, grooming and marketing other singers: first Tommy Dee (Paul Land) and then, even more spectacularly, a busboy he molds and renames Caesare (Gallagher).
It looked wisely at the music business in the teen idol era, mixing smart drama with solid musical numbers choreographed by Deney Terrio. (A soundtrack album is also available.) It was the feature-film debut for director Taylor Hackford (whose later credits included An Officer and a Gentleman and Against All Odds), and the first film for Gallagher and Joe Pantoliano, as Vincent’s partner.
While the movie tanked when it premiered in 1980, it has been discovered and rediscovered over the years as it was shown on cable, videocassette, laserdisc, DVD and now Blu-ray. In fact, the commentary by Hackford on the Blu-ray dates back to the laserdisc. But the movie survives across formats thanks to the story, the songs (by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jeff Barry) and the performances by Sharkey, an actor who never achieved the stardom he deserved, and Gallagher.
In a recent telephone interview, Gallagher said, “A couple of times in my life and career, I’ve had the feeling I’m doing exactly what I should be doing, I’m right where I belong. I had that feeling … on that movie. I got to sing and dance and act. I thought, wow, this is the way things are going to go, this is going to be amazing.”
Gallagher had been working mainly onstage at the time, including in a late ’70s Broadway revival of Hair and as Danny Zuko in the road company of Grease. “It was a perfect role to be preparing to do Caesare with,” Gallagher said. But when the movie launched a talent search for its young stars, “for whatever reason, I had the hardest time getting an audition. I knew guys who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket who were getting seen. Finally my agent got me an audition and narrowed it down to the point where Paul Land and I were on a flight to LA for our screen tests — and we both got the parts.”
They were contrasting types on and off camera. Tommy Dee was a tough veteran of bands in small clubs, while Caesare was untrained in music and naive about life. Gallagher was theater trained, while Land in his view was more of “a force of nature.
“He’d grown up in Hoboken, New Jersey. He had been a model. He hadn’t dedicated himself to acting, necessarily. He was trying a lot of different things,” Gallagher said. Land left acting in the ’90s, reportedly to run a construction business, and died in 2007.
Land’s vocals were dubbed, while Gallagher did his own. But there was more than a little movie magic at work. Gallagher recalled that, for scenes where Vincent teaches Caesare some dance moves, “I had to show him how to do it. And I wasn’t much of a dancer,” Gallagher said with a laugh. “It was the blind leading the blind.”
Still, he said the movie went smoothly for the most part. “We had a good script. We had the right people doing things. We had time to rehearse. It all made sense. We had wonderful actors in all those roles. All the elements seemed to be working,” Gallagher said. Caesare’s big concert scenes were set up like real concerts, down to the girls rushing Caesare on the stage with such zeal that “I think a couple of girls got hurt.” Gallagher was reluctant at first to believe the movie was going to be big, but the signs all seemed to be there.
“When I was in rehearsal, I took some dance classes to get strong and limber enough to do those leaps and splits and things like that,” he said. “Our ballet teacher, Jennifer Nairn-Smith, invited me to a party at Edith Head’s house. And introduced me to Cary Grant … If I had had half a brain, I would have recognized 90 people there who were legends of old Hollywood.” Slipping into an imitation of Grant’s voice, Gallagher recalled him saying, “ ‘Jennifer tells me you’re quite the young actor.’ First of all, he was the most amazing looking man I’d ever seen in my life. And oh, my God, he was interested in what I had to say. It was one of those marvelous moments when someone was taking me seriously.”
Then there was a premiere at Radio City Music Hall “with 6,000 fans. We got stormed just like in the movie and I started to think, wow, this could really work. And then for whatever reason it didn’t set the box office on fire.”
Indeed, it was little more than a blip for moviegoers on first view. United Artists, the Idolmaker studio, had poured tons of money into Heaven’s Gate, which proved a historic box-office disaster right around the time The Idolmaker was opening, so the studio had plenty to worry about besides this little film. When early box-office returns were not good, it was quickly out of theaters.
And, proud as he remains of the movie, Gallagher learned that it was always risky to believe the hype. Indeed, when making American Beauty, which became an Oscar-winning hit, he thought “this is really good, but there’s so much that could still go wrong. But I didn’t have that knowledge when I did Idolmaker.”
Still, the movie helped Gallagher along a career path that led to things like Covert Affairs (and he had no plot twists to reveal, saying with another laugh that “they never tell me anything”). And he earned some places in pop-culture history. When Caesare has a fling with a young journalist, she was played by none other than Maureen McCormick. Unaware of her TV fame at the time, Gallagher said, “I just thought she was terrific and she was a nice person. And then it was … DUDE! YOU’RE IN BED WITH MARCIA BRADY!”
Later, doing theater in Connecticut, he got word from the manager that Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s daughter Clea had seen him in The Idolmaker and wanted an autographed picture. “I didn’t even respond,” Gallagher said. “I thought he was messing with me. And the next week, it was no, seriously, dude, you can’t ignore Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward!” Gallagher met them, and they all became friends. And when Gallagher took a small role as a Dean Martin-like singer doing Memories Are Made of This in The Hudsucker Proxy, Newman — who was co-starring in the Coen brothers movie — came on the set for the scene.
“I sang that live and they intercut in the movie with the adoring society doyennes out there” in the audience, Gallagher said. “But I was singing it to Paul Newman … He was just camera right on the coverage … It was one of those moments, when I’m singing to Paul Newman and he has a big smile on his face and I’m thinking, OK, I love my job.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com.blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.