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MOVIES : More Than Just an Ethnic Face : John Turturro wants to broaden his career but stick with people he can trust; a Cannes award for the Coens' 'Barton Fink' may help.

August 11, 1991|HILARY DE VRIES | Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Sunday Calendar.

As he has in previous roles, Turturro played Paulie by bringing to the surface those emotional aspects of his own personality that matched those of the character. "Obviously there are certain elements I could draw from myself," says Turturro, who describes his acting methods as "an amalgamation of a lot of different approaches."

He says Paulie and Pino, from "Do the Right Thing," are "different but parallel characters; both of them are really powerless. I would not disassociate myself from Pino--that would be a lie--but I would say there are things in Paulie that are closer to me. He's a character full of possibilities who hasn't articulated them yet. I know what it's like to be a minority in your own community, the only white person among a lot of black people, and I know what it's like to feel a lot of anger."

That anger has its roots in the turbulent childhood Turturro experienced growing up in the Rosedale section of Queens. The second of three sons born to Nicholas and Katherine Turturro, a builder and an amateur jazz singer, Turturro was the proverbial quiet child, a meticulous keeper of scrapbooks--his heroes ranged from Frankenstein to Elvis Presley to Marlon Brando--and a closet mimic in a family headed by a man given to frequent, volatile outbursts. "John's father was extremely difficult," Shanley says. "John's position in the family was one of responsibility. That's where he gets his understanding and feeling for other people."

As in the polarized social landscapes portrayed in Lee's films, Turturro early on experienced racial prejudice when he and his brothers, Ralph and Nicholas, were among the few Italian-Americans to attend a mostly black junior high school. By the time he was in high school, Turturro was channeling much of his energies into performing in school musicals and doing impressions at small neighborhood clubs. "I used to do Burt, Burt Lancaster," he says, lapsing into an imitation of the actor, "and other guys, guys that I liked. I used to do them seriously (not for laughs) with my cousin. The impressions were good, but the material wasn't always successful."

He attended the State University of New York's College at New Paltz--he says he couldn't afford to go to New York University, a private institution--with the intention of becoming an actor. After graduating in 1978, Turturro returned to New York, where he began working in Off Off Broadway productions--often mounting plays with his friends in rented halls--while teaching history at a Harlem high school and tending bar to make ends meet. He applied to Yale University's prestigious School of Drama "because I was a little shy about all the hustle of (Off Broadway)," he says, recalling: "One time I was supposed to go up to a producer's office and drop off my resume, and I couldn't do it."

Although Turturro says he eventually became disillusioned by "the level to which everyone at Yale was thinking about their careers" and not their craft, it was Lloyd Richards, then dean of the drama school and head of the Yale Repertory Theater, who invited the young actor to the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in 1983. There, he was cast in the first workshop production of "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea." That production moved to the Actor's Theater of Louisville and then Off Broadway, where it led to roles in "The Sicilian," "To Live and Die in L.A.," "Gung Ho" and "Off Beat," among others. By 1987 he was working on "Five Corners," and by 1988 Lee had cast him in "Do the Right Thing."

Now, Turturro seems content to wait for the public response to "Barton Fink" while working on small projects amid a company of family and friends. He and Borowitz, who met as students at Yale, live in a comfortable but unostentatious apartment in a period brownstone in Brooklyn's Park Slope district, where they are the parents of a 1-year-old son, Amadeo, born during the shooting of "Barton Fink."

The two actors still find time to play opposite each other, most recently in that production of "Arturo Ui" and the film "Men of Respect." "That's when you can take risks together," says Turturro, who has also acted with his younger brother, Nicholas; they played brothers in "Mo' Better Blues."

As for "Mac," which Turturro says will contain parts for both his wife and his brother, the actor describes it, not surprisingly, in familial terms. "It is based on my dad's experiences as a builder. It's really about the worker, an independent guy who cares about what he does," he says, speaking as much for his own life as his father's. "It's really about being the last craftsman."

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