While best known as an actor – particularly for his television role as Jack Arnold in the Emmy Award-winning show “The Wonder Years” – Dan Lauria ’91 M.F.A. has dedicated a considerable amount of his career to advocating for new American playwrights.
So the opportunity to make his Broadway debut this fall in a new play is particularly appealing to Lauria, who has the title role of the legendary NFL football coach Vince Lombardi in “Lombardi” at the Circle in the Square Theatre. Performances began on Sept. 23 in New York City, with opening night set for Oct. 21.
The play, written by Academy Award winner and Steppenwolf Theatre Company member Eric Simonson, is based on the book “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss. It is directed by Tony Award nominee Thomas Kail, and one of the play’s producers is the National Football League.
“If the play is successful here it will help regional theater,” says Lauria, who served for 10 years as the artistic director of the Playwright’s Kitchen Ensemble of Los Angeles, which produced more than 450 public readings of new plays. “There are a lot of people who have never seen a play who will go see it [because of the subject]. It’s an important play. Critics haven’t accepted a sports story since ‘The Great White Hope.’ This is a theme that a lot of writers would like to explore. It’s a good story.”
Lauria played football during his undergraduate years at Southern Connecticut State University, when the acting bug bit. After serving in the Marine Corps, he enrolled at UConn, where he came under the mentorship of Cecil Hinkel, head of the theatre department.
“I can’t tell you how much I learned from Dr. Hinkel. He put on a show every class,” Lauria says. “It was like W.C. Fields teaching the history of play writing. His lectures on criticism were funny.”
Lauria says his television work has allowed him to champion American writing for the stage, and allowed him to perform around the nation and off-Broadway for years.
“TV is bread and butter. I’m very proud of ‘The Wonder Years,’” he says. “It’s considered a classic. We did our job and did it well. It allowed me to do theater.”
Lauria’s preparation for the role of Lombardi took him to Green Bay, Wisc., where the legend of the man whose name is on the Super Bowl trophy began to form after he spent many years as a high school coach and an NFL assistant coach. The actor spoke to Lombardi’s former players on the Green Bay Packers, to friends of the coach’s family, and to former players of the Washington Redskins, Lombardi’s last team.
“I played Jimmy Hoffa [an American labor union leader who was convicted of jury tampering, attempted bribery, and fraud] last year, but there weren’t too many people who wanted to talk about it,” he says. “With Lombardi it was easier, because so many of the players were willing to talk. I talked with Bart Starr, Sam Huff, and others. It was fun.”
Lauria says there are many small details that he uses in the performance with Judith Light, the Emmy-Award winning actress who plays Lombardi’s wife Marie, that help bring authenticity to the characters.
“It’s the personal stories that are not in the book that help you the most,” he says. “There are things we do in the play that are not explained. Vince and Marie used to lock pinkies [as a sign of affection]. Judith and I do that in the play.”
Lauria says Lombardi’s drive for perfection took a toll on his family, and that comes through in the performance.
“He went to mass every day and he prayed for patience. The toll of his quest for perfection affected his family,” he says. “Judith is so good as Marie, and she brings that part of the play home. You could write a 90-minute play on the toll it took on his family. ”