Coming five months after its Broadway opening, the announcement that Rocky’s Sunday, Aug. 17, performance would be its last surprised one of Rocky’s original stars.
“I thought it was going to last for a long time,” said Burt Young, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Paulie Pennino, Rocky’s close friend, and then brother-in-law, in Rocky, and its sequels. “The staging was awesome. We were all thrilled,” he said, recalling the star-studded opening night Rocky, the musical, had on Broadway in March, which was also attended by Sylvester Stallone. Like most actors who’ve succeeded, Young soon turned the page from Rocky’s final curtain.
“There’s never a big break. You’re always looking to move ahead,” he said, reflecting this month on his life and career. Indeed, Young’s stage and screen resume spans decades, and has a Rocky-like arc to it. Now residing in Port Washington, Young talks animatedly about a meeting later this month with an investor who’s interested in financing his one-character play, Artist Found in Port Washington Flat. More on that show, as well as his paintings, can be found online at www.burtyoungartandfilm.com. An aside: During our conversation, he gave this columnist a memorable moment — hearing a favorite movie line recited in-person by the actor who delivered it. But I’ll save that anecdote for the end.
First, here’s Young’s back story. The Corona, Queens, native was invited to leave high school and then joined the Marine Corps as a teenager, where he found success as an amateur boxer. He then went undefeated (17-0) in the professional ranks. With his athletic career behind him, Young was working as a carpet installer, and pushing 30, when he wrote a letter to Lee Strasberg, the famed acting coach, which Young recites word-for-word from memory. The gist of it: I’m treading water; will you meet with me? Strasberg does and, in their first face-to-face encounter, tells Young, “I see in you an emotional library; will you work with me?”
Theater work followed, much of it unpaid at the start. Young credits the late Marion Dougherty with “jump-starting me with casting people” in film and television. The first of his 100-plus movie appearances, he said, came in a motion picture called Carnival of Blood. Other early on-screen assignments were very brief. In The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, for instance, “I stick my head out of the sewer, try to put a bomb under a car, and then blow myself up,” Young recalled.
The Rocky films brought Young to an international audience, and he welcomes to this day being recognized on the street, whether in Nassau County or Europe, by Rocky fans who are pleasantly surprised to encounter the man who played Paulie.
“I got to know people I never would have” because of that role, Young said.
Steady film and TV work followed his Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, so his daughter, Anne, now in her 40s, was raised primarily in southern California. A graduate of Wesleyan University, she is today married and working as a film editor in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
I could not resist telling Young how one of his lines in Back to School, a late 1980s comedy featuring the late Rodney Dangerfield, Sally Kellerman and Robert Downey, Jr., was something I recall vividly. Dangerfield played Thornton Melon, a wealthy father who decides to join his son, on-campus, as the institution’s oldest undergraduate. Young played Lou, the driver and personal valet for Dangerfield’s character. In one scene, Lou tells Jason Melon, Thornton’s son, he must understand his father is nice, and tough. Lou says he’s the same way, and offers his own children as an example.
“My two boys….” I said, quoting Lou. Without missing a beat, Young quickly interjected, “I put one through college, and the other I put through a wall.”
Mike Barry, vice president of media relations for an insurance industry trade group, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBarry@optonline.net