Peter Friedman is an American stage and screen actor who made his Broadway debut in The Great God Brown in 1972. Since then he’s worked on countless productions, including a Tony-nominated performance as Tateh in Ragtime and Drama Desk Award nominated performances in The Heidi Chronicles and The Common Pursuit. Other prominent New York stage credits include 12 Angry Men on Broadway, Donald Margulies‘ The Loman Family Picnic at Manhattan Theatre Club, and the recent, critically-acclaimed productions of After the Revolution and Circle Mirror Transformation at Playwrights Horizons. He was a series regular on the TV show, Brooklyn Bridge, and has numerous other film and TV credits.
He owns a parrot named Midnight (seen here) and likes to laugh. New York Magazine said of Friedman, “Few actors working today can evoke the quick fury and cold terror of the middle-aged male with more humor, bite, and pathos.” He is one of New York City’s most highly-regarded stage actors.
Were you always interested in theater?
Some time around 1964 I discovered the New York Times Sunday section. I’d head into the city from Queens every Saturday and go from theatre to theatre and buy tickets for $2.90 and sit in line. I would see as much as I possibly could.
Were your parents involved in the arts at all?
My dad certainly had a performance streak – there are stories of him performing as a counselor at camp. But there was a war, the Depression, he wasn’t about to go be a full-time actor. My grandmother, actually, on my mom’s side, she always wanted to be on the stage. It meant a lot to her that I was pursuing it. She had a great story about visiting Belle Baker – this woman who made the song “I Don’t Care” famous. Her husband ran the theater that she performed at. And my grandmother went into his office and she played the violin, she sang, she played piano. And he listened to her sing and then then he asked, “Do you have a good home?” She said, “Yeah.” “Do you have parents who love you?” She said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Go home.” And she went home that night and her father said the Yiddish equivalent of: “May he live long and make a habit of it.”
Did you audition for theater colleges?
My parents didn’t want me to be a drama major because they didn’t think it would lead to a, you know, JOB. So they made me do something else. I went to Hofstra and chose a psych[ology] major. Another major one couldn’t do anything with.
But you’d do other theater productions at school despite not being part of the theater department?
My junior year I got a big fat scholarship to the theater department even though I was a psych major. And being a psych major I was sort of this odd duck, this foreigner, and some of the drama majors would just be, like, “What the hell is he doing here? Who is this guy?” Understandably.
When did your parents begin to support your decision to pursue acting?
There was that moment during college that they realized acting was more serious than psychology. At first they were simply worried for me, but eventually they became less worried and soon they were the ones telling me, during the dark times, “Don’t worry, it’ll get better, etc. etc.” You know. They became very supportive.
How was the transition from Hofstra into the “real world?”
I got really lucky. The year before I got out of school I did this Shakespeare Festival at Hofstra. I was Hamlet, and the theater department head invited this big agent friend that he knew. Like he’d been keeping this card for this agent in his pocket, and the agent came for the first half of the show, he left his card, and wanted me [to call] him. And so I got this big agent out of the deal.
Not many people get to start out in New York with an agent.
Right, I got really lucky. But then three years out of college, I was working in New York, and I was at a point where I hated what I was doing. I hated my acting. So I threw myself into a technique class. And while I was enrolled they insisted we not look for other work. And I agreed with them.
But you got parts on Broadway right when you got to New York! How’d you get Broadway roles if you weren’t a good actor?
I don’t know. [Laughs] I stunk. They weren’t real parts, you know, they were very small.
Did you go back to working day jobs while you were taking that class?
I didn’t. And I don’t know why.
Had you saved up?
I don’t think so! I don’t really remember. I only had two out-of-career jobs. One was working for the Harris Poll – executive interviewing. For twenty bucks an hour I’d call up these executives, these heads of companies, and I’d make them take this questionnaire. But outside of that I never waited tables, I showed an apartment one weekend at a building, but that’s about it. During the class I think was when I started getting involved with the Muppets.
What?! That’s amazing.
I was the ass-end of Snuffy four times a week.
How’d you get involved with the Muppets?
I’d heard from a friend that they were auditioning for a workshop. They had all these projects coming up and they wanted to beef up their ranks. So I got myself in there and met all the guys and got to play with them for a week in this workshop, and they put together a group of twelve of us. And I got to do a bunch of Muppet shows in England with them [ed note: Friedman has credits on at least nine episodes of The Muppet Show]. It was pretty amazing. This was the late 70s. And during that time they basically asked me: “Do you want to run away with this circus,” you know, do more of these shows, but I wanted to come back to New York and do this stuff. I wanted to [keep acting]. This was all part of my decision to…never make money [laughs].
So, do you remember specific times back then that money was still a major concern or did you stop thinking about it so much?
I guess I didn’t think about it then as much as I do now – being single and childless then. I do remember the few times I got really ahead. And you’ll go, “This is great, this is amazing. Look at that bank account! What’s going on?”
Were you always comfortable in your decision to pursue acting full-time?
No, of course not. I certainly remember when I made the decision to take the class, to make the change. I remember the depression that came from that. I remember that bag of groceries in my arms and going up the four flights of stairs, realizing that these groceries are the biggest thing in my life, because the other thing had bottomed out. And since then, since I got my technique and started working with that, there have still been lots of times that I’ve bayed at the moon thinking, “How does this work?” At least when it comes to the business side of things.
I heard a great story about Kevin Spacey, this apocryphal story, how he was on Broadway the first time and he bought himself three suits. And every night he invited someone to the show, he took them out, and he worked it. He worked them. And we go, wow, that’s so smart! But you gotta be the right kind of person to do that.
Have you ever tried writing or directing?
I’ve always wanted to do this play about this actor named Philip Loeb. He committed suicide in 1955 because of the blacklist. And I did tons of research for it, but I eventually realized I was not a writer. I’m still looking for a side door into that material.
How did you initially become interested in Philip Loeb?
There was an exhibit at the Jewish museum about this guy – this corner set up as if it was a 50s apartment à la the Goldbergs, and this guy, Philip Loeb, played the dad in the Goldbergs [A TV show from 1950]. And I just thought, “Wow. This guy is really good. Why don’t we know about him?” And I did some research and found out he’d basically worked with everybody except Eugene O’Neill. I mean everybody. Gerswhins, everybody. And we don’t know about him because he got shot down by the blacklist. Right when he had this hit TV show he got shot down and they made him leave the show. And then he got depressed and he killed himself. It really fascinated me.
How did you convince yourself during times of confusion that you were on the right path?
Well, that’s why I started writing. There were a couple times in my grief over the profession that I started investigating other things. I remember there was a Jewish bakery on the Upper West, this very famous bakery called Lichtman’s, that made a certain kind of chocolate pastry thing and I tried to find the living survivors of that bakery.
Did you succeed in finding them?
No. [Laughs] What did I know about baking? I don’t know. But you need to just realize that you have to do what helps you get the best out of yourself. That’s all you can do. And acting always did that. I realize right now that I like where I am career-wise. I’m pretty comfortable right now.
Is this the first time you feel that way?
Uh, yeah! Sure. I mean there are always lulls. Year-and-a-half lulls, two-year lulls. And that’s when I came up with the idea to write this play. And it did make a difference in the quality of my life. I felt like I was working towards something and really loving it. But it took me thirty years to come up with it!
I met my fiance about five years ago. And when I first met her I was still going out to California for about two six-week periods a year to, you know, make my fame and fortune. To get that something, right? And I was getting an episode here and there, I’d pay for the trip, and it was fun. Even though, as a dad, it didn’t make sense to be away for six weeks. And then finally I had gone to an audition where there were five people that I had known all my life, these wonderful actors, and if the casting director had come out and thrown a rock – whoever he hit would have been just great. And I just thought, I can’t do this anymore. So my fiance said, “Why don’t you just keep taking these plays? You’re getting these great offers.” Since then I’ve been really enjoying that decision.
Does your daughter want to act?
She does. I think she wants to go to college for it. She’s really got something, I think she’s got real chops.
Do you have advice you’d like to pass on?
The same grandmother of mine who always wanted to audition used to say, in Yiddish, “A minute before the time is not the time.” That’s been a solace.
So, in other words, you just have to wait… sometimes?
Yeah. [Laughs] It’ll come around.
Interview by Lucas Kavner