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Talking with Joe Mantegna

Mark Keefe interviews actor and shooter Joe Mantegna about guns, television and freedom.

8/19/2011

When I told my teenage son that I was going to interview Emmy-nominated and Tony-award-winning actor, producer and writer Joe Mantegna, the first words out of his mouth were, “Hey, isn’t he Fat Tony on ‘The Simpsons’?”

Yes, indeed he is, but Joe Mantegna is also one of Hollywood’s hardest working actors with stage work, film credits and television roles stretching back to the 1960s—including “The Godfather Part III”—and he has a voiceover role in the just-released “Cars 2.” Mantegna is also a gun guy, a shooter who enjoys sporting clays and used to actively compete in IPSC, and a reloader. He was a friend of past NRA President Charlton Heston and even chaired the celebrity shoot named in Heston’s honor.

Mantegna recently visited the National Firearms Museum while filming a new show for the Outdoor Channel he is hosting in the fall—“Gun Stories.” Between takes, I was fortunate enough to interview the actor, who plays David Rossi on CBS’s “Criminal Minds,” and it turns out that Mantegna is extremely personable, genteel and has a genuine passion for shooting, firearms, history and freedom.

Keefe: Thanks for being with us, Joe. Please start off by telling us how you got interested in shooting.

Mantegna: Well, it’s funny. I grew up in a really urban kind of existence. In other words, I grew up in the city of Chicago and always lived in apartments, so it probably was not the most conducive place to be exposed to firearms. But my dad grew up on a farm, and he used to tell me stories about how you had to learn to shoot at a very young age and how firearms were a big part of daily life. This was interesting and intriguing to me, yet somewhat foreign.

I really had no kind of outlet until I was in my late teens. There was a terrific gun club located right on Lake Michigan in the city of Chicago that had been established sometime in the ’30s. Actually, I think it might have even been a WPA project before the war. There was a bike path that used to go right by it, and I used to ride that path a lot when I was 18 or 19. I’d stop and I would just put my arms up on the fence and watch these guys shoot skeet and trap right over the lake. It was the most beautiful thing in the world to me because the place was built of old logs. There was the Chicago skyline in the background and the lake, and you’re seeing these clay birds flying and being blown up. I just thought, “This is spectacular.”

One day, one of the guys happened to walk by the fence, saw me, and said: “Hey, so you just gonna watch or you gonna shoot?” I said, “Look, I don’t shoot, I’m just watching you guys shoot.” He said, “Well, come on, I think you should learn about this.” Turned out he was the president of the gun club and asked me to come in. The next thing I know, he’s got a shotgun in my hands and gives me a big bag of shells, and then he says, “OK, here’s how you shoot skeet.” And, of course, after one round of skeet —I maybe busted six or seven—I was hooked.

That was it. I couldn’t wait to get my own shotgun. So it was the best possible way of being introduced to the shooting sports—by somebody who really understood it, somebody who was a real advocate and somebody who really did it the right way.

I got into pistol shooting basically due to acting. I was cast into a play where I had to do a fairly extensive scene where there was some gunplay. I felt I needed to know what I was doing, so I went out with some real professionals, got instruction and really learned the right way to handle handguns. So between learning handguns for the play and picking up shotgun shooting from those guys at the gun club in Chicago, that did it for me. That put me on the path I’ve been following for over 40 years now.

Keefe: Of all the shooting sports you have tried, what do you enjoy shooting most now?

Mantegna: I probably enjoy shotgun shooting the most right now. I’ve really gotten into sporting clays. Once I discovered skeet, it was what I primarily did. And I did some trap shooting. But most of the shotguns I acquired were designed for skeet. But then I was introduced to sporting clays, and I thought: “Wow, here’s the best of all worlds.” You know, here was golfing with a shotgun. So sporting clays to me is just the premier kind of shotgun shooting. You’re out, usually, in some interesting locale, and each station has got its own kind of variety. You can be shooting out of a rocking rowboat or shooting “rabbits,” so I really enjoy that. I did a lot of pistol shooting back in the ‘70s, including some competitive shooting and practical pistol shooting.

Keefe: That leads me into my next question. I noticed your gun handling on screen. Unlike that of many other actors, it’s always safe and proficient. Do you work at that?

Mantegna: I work at it to the extent that it should be second-nature. My feeling is if I’m going to play a character who is a professional, he would be proficient, and he would know what he’s doing. Gun safety, first of all, is so important. It’s paramount to everything we do in the shooting sports, and it’s always the first thing you have to learn and always be aware of. I always enjoy working with people who make that the prime consideration.

I remember an episode of the old “Miami Vice” series, in which one character winds up in a shootout. I know producer Mike Mann has a real interest in the shooting sports, and Mike hired a dear friend of mine named Jim Zubienna, who’s an actor. This guy had won many, many practical pistol shooting awards over the years. He’s the guy that actually got me into pistol shooting. The only reason Mann hired Zubienna was because he was such a fast draw. That sequence of “Miami Vice” was like watching Tiger Woods golf, or Joe DiMaggio play baseball, he drew and fired so quickly. If you’re going to see somebody compete in a certain arena, it’s always nice to see the people who do it best, to learn from them, be able to witness them.

When I do use a firearm on some theatrical or movie piece, I certainly try to make it as realistic as possible, showing the proper ways of doing it so people don’t say, “Wow that’s weird, you wouldn’t think a guy would walk around like that with a gun.” It always drives me crazy when I see that.

Keefe: I’ve seen that you try to build shooting as a sport into the story line on your shows. I think it was in your opening scene of “Criminal Minds” that you made your debut with a shotgun in your hands. Also, you worked the Second Amendment into “First Monday.”

Mantegna: I’ve incorporated it into a few shows. On “Criminal Minds” in my very first episode, they actually introduced my character by having a duck fly across the sky, and all of a sudden, “Boom!” You see the duck fall, and then the camera cuts to me in a blind with my dogs. My cell phone rings, I pick it up, and it’s my superior at the FBI. I tell her, “Yes, that’s right, I’m coming back.” That’s how my character was introduced, and I thought that was a great way to set the tone.

“First Monday,” in which I played a Supreme Court justice, due to—partly—my input, we actually did an episode that dealt with the Second Amendment and the issues surrounding it. I remember thinking at the time, “Wow, this is pretty good,” because it was one of the few times when on network television they actually handled the issue fairly intelligently. It had my judge character coming out on the side of the Second Amendment, and it gave me a chance to explain why I felt that way.

As we all know, sometimes Hollywood gets that reputation of being slanted only in the anti-gun direction. This was a case in which I think the producer of the show felt as I did. He was a former Marine, and we both thought to give it a shot—we’re not trying to sell anybody one thing versus another, but let’s at least be fair about it and show that there can be a divergence of opinion. Some on the Supreme Court would feel one way about it, I wanted my character to feel the other way, and I thought it was really well done in that it showed both sides of the issue.

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2 Responses to Talking with Joe Mantegna

Ron Warner wrote:
November 14, 2011

Enjoyed the conversation, but I hope there's an error in it. The article say "But to overcome the inerrant fear of the word [gun]..." I sincerely hope that Joe actually said "But to overcome the inherent fear of the word..." If you ask me, to fear a word is always wrong.

Bob Gough wrote:
August 20, 2011

Big fan of Joe's work. Love CM, but loved him as Dean Martin and Spenser, the detective.