Not long ago the venerable actor F. Murray Abraham wanted to get lunch at a favorite restaurant in Greenwich Village. Unfortunately the place was overrun by New York University students shooting a film. As the Oscar-winning star of “Amadeus,” “Angels in America” and dozens of other movies, plays and TV series stood on the outside looking in, one of the students turned to another and expressed his outrage: “Don’t you know who this is? This is the voice of Khonshu!”
Abraham laughed. He gets a kick out of telling the story and the fact that, to many youngsters, he’s best known as a mask-wearing, staff-wielding Egyptian god in the Marvel fantasy series “Moon Knight.” He gets a kick out of a lot of things. He loves that, at age 83, he’s still working regularly, including a plum, often hilarious role on the hit HBO series “The White Lotus” and a far different, darker turn in the Netflix horror anthology “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.” He also made his mark on two seasons of the Apple TV+ workplace comedy “Mythic Quest” as C.W. Longbottom, the head writer on a hit video game.
He punctuates sentences with superlatives — “Isn’t that fabulous?” — and he always sounds like he means it.
“I still am thrilled by acting,” he said in a recent video interview from his Manhattan home. “I still can’t wait for the next project. There’s more work to be done.”
For now, he’s more than happy to be a key part of one of television’s buzziest series. In “The White Lotus” he plays Bert Di Grasso, one of several deeply flawed tourists vacationing at a luxury resort in Sicily. With a glimmer in his eye and a gift for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time (much like Abraham’s “Mythic Quest” character), Bert is traveling with his son, Dominic (Michael Imperioli), and grandson, Albie (Adam DiMarco), hoping to find some distant relatives in the old country. Dominic is a serial philanderer, a trait he seems to have inherited from his dad.
In the second episode of the current season, as the three men and a new female friend named Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) soak up the ancient atmosphere of the Greek theater at Taormina, Bert is compelled to share the story of how, in Greek mythology, Hades raped Persephone nearby. As he keeps repeating the word “rape,” the other characters (and viewers) cringe, much to Bert’s obliviousness. The moment is both painfully awkward and brutally funny, and Abraham sells it for all it’s worth, gusto and wonder in his voice.
Welcoming You Back to ‘The White Lotus’
The second season of “The White Lotus,” Mike White’s incisive satire of privilege set in a luxury resort, begins on HBO on Oct. 30.
- Michael Imperioli: The “Sopranos” star is enjoying a professional renaissance after years of procedurals and indies. In the new season of “The White Lotus” he tries his hand at comedy.
- Season 1: The series scrutinized the interactions between guests and staff at a resort in Hawaii. “It’s vicious and a little sudsy and then, out of nowhere, sneakily uplifting,” our critic wrote
- Unaware Villain: The actor Jake Lacy plays Shane, a wealthy and entitled 30-year-old on his honeymoon, in the first season. Here is what he said about bringing to life the unsavory character.
- Emmys: The series scooped up five Primetime Emmys on Sept. 12, including for best TV movie, limited or anthology series, and best supporting actress for Jennifer Coolidge’s breakout performance.
The scene is an encapsulation of what inspired the “White Lotus” creator, Mike White, to cast Abraham in the role.
“Bert says a lot of questionable things and has kind of a problematic attitude toward sex and women and relationships,” White said in a telephone interview. “I just thought it’d be funny to have an actor who also has this kind of buoyancy and a ‘What me worry?’ type of attitude. There’s something very mischievous about Murray, and he could obviously play the villain. But he also has this likable, unsinkable quality to him.”
That unsinkable quality was an integral part of his otherwise macabre role in “The Autopsy,” one of eight episodes in “Cabinet of Curiosities,” which debuted in October. In it, he plays Dr. Carl Winters, a medical examiner called upon by an old friend (Glynn Turman) to conduct post-mortem procedures on some unusual patients. Dr. Winters carries his own burden into the operating theater: He has cancer, and only a few months left to live.
“It was not an easy performance,” he said. “I see an end. I mean, I’m 83. And when it becomes a reality like that, when you face that and then you try to take that feeling to a script like this, where a man is going to die in six months, that really begins to cloud everything you do.”
Abraham was born in Pittsburgh and raised in El Paso; his father was a Syrian immigrant, and his mother was the daughter of Italian immigrants. As a teen he worked in his father’s auto garage and never thought about acting. Then he enrolled in what looked like the easiest high school class available: speech and drama. He fell under the spell of a teacher, Lucia Hutchins, who taught him that acting could be more than an easy A.
“She introduced me to Shakespeare,” he recalled. “She introduced me to Arthur Miller.” He remembers performing a monologue by Mitch, Stanley Kowalski’s buddy in Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It all went against his working class upbringing: “Acting in our family? Get out of here.” He studied for a year at Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso), then, under the influence of Jack Kerouac, hitchhiked to Los Angeles, where he began pursuing his career in earnest before relocating to New York and studying under Uta Hagen at the HB Studio.
Small parts in film followed. He was one of the cops who busted the Watergate burglars in “All the President’s Men” (1976) and an antagonist of Al Pacino’s in “Scarface” (1983). His big break, and the role that won him an Oscar, was Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s obsessed nemesis in “Amadeus” (1984). “I just understood the script instantly,” he said.
“Apparently it’s so clear that kids love that movie,” he added. “Isn’t that extraordinary? They like that, and they like Khonshu.”
But Abraham still considers himself a creature of the theater. He has been a regular in the plays of Terrence McNally, including “The Ritz” (made into a film, starring Abraham, in 1976). He played Roy Cohn in “Angels in America” on Broadway. He hated the man, but the role taught him a valuable lesson: Don’t worry about being liked. If you’re playing a bad guy, make him bad.
For Abraham, the theater is like a love affair that never ends.
“Eight times a week, you get to do it again and again,” he said. “If it’s bad, then that’s horrible. But when it’s good, there’s nothing like it. It’s like really good sex: Give me more.” He paused. “I sound like Bert.”
Imperioli, who also comes from a theater background but is best known for his roles in “The Sopranos” and “GoodFellas,” found a friend and kindred spirit in Abraham. On off days in Sicily, they would organize impromptu rehearsals with DiMarco and sometimes Richardson.
“We would just read the characters and talk about them,” Imperioli said in a video interview. “He has this command of craft, yet also this incredible depth of soul and truth and honesty. It’s a combination that I very rarely have seen, and I’ve never seen it come to fruition as it does in Murray.”
Abraham and Imperioli ended up getting Covid-19 at the same time, confining them to their hotel rooms. “I had such a bad sore throat I couldn’t even talk,” Imperioli said. “And I could hear Murray upstairs doing his vocal warm-ups every day. Singing. This is an 82-year-old guy with Covid.” Abraham has memorized more than 50 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which, as Imperioli observed, he recites regularly to keep his memory sharp.
For Abraham, the “White Lotus” experience was among the best of his career, thanks largely to White’s writing. “It’s his sense of humanity,” he said. “He’s written real people. I think Bert is absolutely legit — you know he’s for real. I grew up with people like that.”
The whole sun-dappled Sicily thing wasn’t bad, either.
“I got to tell you, man, if there was some way to make it happen, I’d shoot this whole thing all over again,” he said. “The thing about some of these interviews, which I’ve done for many years, is that you try to make nice: You think of the good things that happened; you don’t want to talk about the crap. But this was all good.”