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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Joe Mantegna (“Gun Stories”)

Fans of CBS’s “Criminal Minds” have been watching Joe Mantegna on a weekly basis since 2007, but for the past few years, the man who plays FBI Special Agent David Rossi has been keeping busy during his downtime by hosting the Outdoor Channel series, “Gun Stories,” which recently returned to the network for its third season. Mantegna took some time to talk to Bullz-Eye about how he came about the series and what he’s learned in his time as its host, but he also discussed his work on “Criminal Minds” as well as how much fun he’s had giving voice to Fat Tony on “The Simpsons.”

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Bullz-Eye: So how did you first fall into the Outdoor Channel’s gravitational field?

Joe Mantegna: [Laughs.] Well, you know, it was nothing more complicated than them sending me an email. I got an email that Michael Bane and Tim Cremin, the two fellas who produce, direct, and write the shows, and…they sent it to my website, and my assistant, Dan, came to me with this email, saying, “You know, these guys from Outdoor Channel are interested in doing a show,” and he kind of spelled out basically what they had in mind. And they must’ve read somewhere that, throughout my life, I’ve had an interest in the shooting sports. So it was just one of those things where it hit enough of a hot button for me that I said, “Well, you know what? Let’s just see how serious this is!” You know, that it’s not just some weird scheme by somebody out there who’s pretending to be somebody. [Laughs.]

So we contacted them, and they flew in from Oklahoma and Colorado, respectively, and met me at my trailer at “Criminal Minds” one day, and we talked it out, and I said, “You know what? It sounds interesting.” And it’s kind of funny because…Tim tells a story now about how we did our first shoot at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming, and how, after I flew in, when he saw me walking towards the museum, the first thing he thought was, “Oh, my God, he actually showed up!” [Laughs.] It was, like, right up until that moment, I think everybody was not sure whether it was going to happen or not. But that was three years ago, and I’ve had nothing but a good time with everyone involved, and I’m enjoying it. It’s been kind of a great way to spend my hiatus from my day job.

BE: They describe you on the Outdoor Channel as a shooting enthusiast. Even so, this seems like the sort of series that would prove educational to anyone, no matter how much you may have thought you knew going in.

JM: Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Every episode we do, every day I work on that show, it’s been a real educational experience, and one that we hope we’re translating into the same thing for our viewers. So it’s been…I mean, I just like the feel of it. The people involved, they just have such good spirit. I like the way Michael writes, in terms of the way the stories are told, and Tim, as a filmmaker, he’s really got a good sense of visuals and an exciting way to kind of show these things. And each year we kind of stretch the envelope a little more. This year, being able to go to Europe and being able to shoot in Germany and Italy adds a whole other dimension. The first season, they already had a lot of the footage shot with the firearms, so all my stuff was just kind of, like, transitionary and just kind of tying together the chapters of the episodes. But the last two seasons, you’ve seen me shooting every one of the firearms we talk about. So that’s hopefully fun for viewers, but it’s certainly fun for me.

BE: I’m guessing Tim probably has a wish list of things he wants to cover, but have there been particular episodes of the show that you’ve put in specific requests to cover?

JM: Well, yeah, I mean, right away, right from the jump, I thought it was important that we did the 1911, because it’s certainly been my favorite caliber and pistol. That, and the fact that I carry one on “Criminal Minds” intentionally because I feel that kind of the old-school nature of the character that I play, it’d be something that somebody who was a Vietnam veteran would do. So that was kind of important to me, and we did that. I think they threw the tommy gun in there partly because I’m from Chicago. [Laughs.] I think they thought that might be kind of fun. I suggested that we do something that involved over and under shotguns, which we did this season, and the fact that we got to shoot at the Benelli factory in Italy was all part of that. Ruger was my idea. Like, “Hey, let’s not forget to go to the Ruger factory, because Ruger’s probably gonna be represented in more than one instance.” Which, of course, they are. We covered them, of course, with the 10/22, which has become such a standard in the 22 rifle category, and this season I think we also did the Super Redhawk. So, anyway, it’s a collaborative affair. We all have input on what possible firearms we cover. But there are guys who know a lot more about it than I do that are involved as well, so a lot of the more obtuse kinds of things, they’re just exciting for me to do because I don’t know much about ‘em, so they’ll always make the list.

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BE: Is there any particular episode that you’d pick out as a favorite, or maybe just one that someone who hasn’t seen the show might be able to use as a gateway drug into it?

JM: Yeah, y’know, if you’d asked me the first season, it would’ve been easier, but now having done over 30 episodes, it’s more difficult. Because I really do feel like they’re getting better and better, and they’re getting more diversified, and they’re even more interesting, I think, as we continue. So there really isn’t one. I think what happens is that people have their own hot buttons, y’know? A guy who’s more interested in, say, rifle shooting might be more interested in an episode that deals with a 73 Winchester. Or somebody who’s into World War I type of things might be interested in…well, like, we have an episode on the Vickers submachine gun. Things like that. So I won’t say that there’s really one that stands out more than another. It’s depending on what an individual’s interest is.

BE: Do you have a favorite from this new season?

JM: [Long pause.] You know, I’d almost have to look at the list again. It’s all such a blur! I think part of it is the fact that we were able to go to Europe and go to the Benelli factory and got to know some of the people. Actually, Marco, the man who basically invented the M3 and the M4, just to spend time with him and have him take me down into…well, basically, into their skunkworks and show me wha’s coming up. I had to sign a disclaimer that I wouldn’t release this information, because I’m seeing the kind of stuff that it’s in the pipeline, that’s coming up. That was exciting. And I have a soft spot for that one, being Italian myself. [Laughs.] So that’ll be a special episode.

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BE: I wanted to ask you about a few other things you’ve done…or, more specifically, something you’re still doing: “Criminal Minds.” It’s amazing how well the series has continued to be able to reinvent itself, switching out characters and still thriving. Are you still enjoying it?

JM: Yeah, very much so. We start back, in fact, this coming Monday. We’ll start our ninth season. And I do like it, because it really has all the elements that I enjoy about acting, one of ‘em being an ensemble acting platform. In other words, getting to work with six other actors who are all very talented and very different. And that’s the best way to work. I come from a theater background, and, y’know, “Gun Stories” is pretty much a solo affair for me when I’m out there, and that’s fun because of the kind of venue it is, but “Criminal Minds” is a whole different ballgame. With that, I enjoy the fraternity of it. In other words, being able to be out there with all of these other actors and getting to interact with all of them and the stories we tell. And the show’s just…I mean, I won’t say it’s surprisingly successful, but it amazes me how much international success it has. Because, as I say, coming back from an extended European trip, the show has a huge following in many of the European countries, like France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. In Japan, even. And Australia! It’s nice to know. You feel like you’re doing something right. Something seems to be working well. It resonates with an audience.

BE: It’s interesting watching  the way that, like “NCIS” did on the USA Network, “Criminal Minds” reruns on Ion are turning it into an even bigger hit than it already was. Or at least it seems that way.

JM: Yeah, I would say so. I mean, in other words, I think what that has done for us is, it’s opened up a whole new sector of an audience. Because people who hadn’t perhaps followed the show on Wednesday nights on CBS all of a sudden discovered it in reruns on Ion, and then because of that decided, “Well, now, this is interesting,” and go check out what the new stuff is like. So I think syndication and the first-run stuff on CBS kind of help each other, and it’s turned out to be a pretty good thing for us.

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BE: Are you happy with the way Rossi’s character has evolved over the course of the seasons? Have there been any missteps that you didn’t necessarily love?

JM: No, y’know, I think it’s evolved in the proper way. In other words, I think it started off as it should have, being as…well, especially since I was kind of in a way replacing a character who’d been there a couple of years, filing his slot, I think it would’ve been a mistake to say, “Well, let’s pretend nobody else was there and that you just all now love and respect this new guy.” I think I had to earn my stripes, and I think we covered that pretty well in those early episodes, where Rossi was kind of having to make some missteps and had to find his way and kind of earn his way into the team. And once that came about…

What I like about the characters on our show is that they’re all so well-defined. They all have kind of an interesting back story, mine being a guy that helped start the unit initially, had retired, went on to become very successful as a writer and a lecturer, he comes back, money is not an issue because he’s actually fairly wealthy, he doesn’t need to be doing this as a job, but he does it anyway. But because of that status I have, it affords me to do things like have weddings and parties at my home and be able to treat the rest of the name with financial help, and things like that. Which is kind of a little twist. Just as Dr. Reid is the genius that he is, and, y’know, every character, whether it’s Garcia or J.J. or Hotch or Morgan, they all have these little personal back stories that I think add to the depth of the show and the depth of the characters as much as the talking heads. So, yeah, I like the way Rossi’s going. I mean, this past season, we’ve had this whole thing where we discover that I basically had this relationship with the woman that, on the surface, was a terrible antagonistic relationship for a long time. So those little surprises, I think, are kind of fun.

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BE: Of course, I’ve got to ask you about playing Fat Tony, a “Simpsons” character who would’ve seemed to be a one-off but who’s turned into a major recurring character.

JM: Yeah, well, that’s exactly what’s happened…but I’m grateful for that as well! You know, as you said, I did it after my youngest child was born, which coincided with the release of “Godfather III”…and my youngest child is now 23 years old, if that helps you gauge how long I’ve been doing Fat Tony. [Laughs.] But, yeah, I’m actually thrilled and pleased by that. Because I enjoyed doing that very first episode, not even knowing if there would be another one, but the fact that that character has obviously resonated with the Simpsons people and the fans as well, they keep bringing that character back, and I enjoy doing it. You know, as an actor, we like the diversity of things, and so to be able to play David Rossi on a Monday and then Fat Tony on a Tuesday…? It’s a nice kind of situation to be in.

BE: Do you have a favorite Fat Tony one-liner?

JM: One I often use is the one that’s printed on some of the photos I had out, and it basically says [In his Fat Tony voice.] “I don’t get mad. I get stabby.” [Laughs.] That’s one that, once in awhile, fans will throw at me.

BE: When I mentioned that I was talking to you today, one of my friends said, “Be sure to tell him how much I love when he says, ‘It’s funny ‘cause it’s true.’”

JM: [Laughs.] Oh, yeah. That’s a good one. I also get people throwing a lot of lines at me from the episode about the pretzel monies, when Marge is starting the pretzel business. What’s funny, though, is that the fans know the lines much better than I do. They remember ‘em, then they throw ‘em at me like I’m supposed to fill in the blanks. But it’s, like, “Hey, I did that episode 15 years ago. I have no idea what that is!” [Laughs.] But it’s still fun.

BE: Lastly, do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

JM: Wow. Boy, that’d be a long list. [Laughs.] Because, y’know, I’ve done a lot of things. But one that comes to mind is a film I did called “Elvis and Annabelle,” with Blake Lively and Mary Steenburgen and Max Minghella. It was a small film that got some play, but it just never got theatrical release. But it’s a beautiful little movie, and I just loved it, so that’s one that I wish would’ve gotten more love.

Another one’s a film I did with Sam Rockwell called “Jerry and Tom.” It’s another film that I just thought…well, I’m very proud of the film, but I also co-produced it. It’s one of those projects where I really thought the script was just really wonderful, wonderfully done. You know, the business of Hollywood sometimes makes it difficult for a lot of these little gems to kind of see the light of day in a proper way. But that’s the business. I’ve been around long enough to know that that’s just the sort of thing that sometimes happens without a lot of money or studio power behind it. You’ve just got to take your chances sometimes. But it’s okay. You know, I’ve had my share of the big blockbuster stuff and the intimate little things. But what you tend to find is that, if stuff has quality, people will discover it eventually. Nowadays, thank God, we have the advent of Netflix and DVDs and streaming and all that. You know the terminology better than I. You know what I’m saying. [Laughs.] Anyway, I’m just glad the stuff gets made, and hopefully the stuff that I think should be seen actually gets seen.

BE: Well, actually, “Jerry and Tom” is on Netflix, so I’m going to put a link in the piece, just for anyone who’s curious about it.

JM: Oh, good! I think you’ll find…well, there are some wonderful actors in it. You know, we have Ted Danson, William H. Macy…there’s a lot of cameos in that movie. And then the script was written by…well, it was, like, the first thing done by a writer named Rick Cleveland. It started as a play. Y’see, I helped get it produced, and originally when they came to me, the script was a play, and they wanted to turn it into a movie. So I helped Saul Rubinek, the original director, turn it into a movie, and helped cast it and all that. We got Sam involved. He was just a nobody then. And Rick Cleveland was a nobody! Rick has since gone on to write for “Six Feet Under” and “The Sopranos” and many other things. He’s become one of the hottest writers in Hollywood! So a lot of good came out of that particular movie, and I think when people see the movie they’ll understand why.

  

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