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Dealer's Choice

When David Mamet goes looking for supporting players for his films, he often turns to his old poker buddies from Vermont.

March 02, 1997|Jordan Levin | Jordan Levin is an occasional contributor to Calendar

ISLAMORADA, Fla. — Throughout my childhood and adolescence and my 20s, my father, G. Roy Levin, played poker with the same small group every Thursday night in Plainfield, Vt. I remember coming downstairs and seeing them sitting at his kitchen table, intense and jovial under a haze of smoke.

There was Andy Potok, the stepfather of my sister Bryna's best friend, Maya; Anita Landa, who had been one of my teachers in seventh grade; and Allen Soule, who ran a teenage group home down the road from my mother's house. And sometimes there was this guy David Mamet, whom I remember mostly because he smoked a cigar, which seemed bizarre to me at the time, and because he hadn't been an intimate part of my growing up in the way everyone else had. I dimly connected his name to a poster I had seen at Goddard College, where my father taught and which Mamet attended, for two plays, "Duck Variations" and "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," mostly because I liked the titles.

I looked forward to the day after poker nights; if my father won, we got an extra $5 for our allowance, and the fridge would be full of good stuff. My father and his friends played poker together for about 25 years, and Mamet played the whole time, starting in the late '60s as a student and continuing whenever he was in Vermont for as long as the game lasted.

I don't remember at what point I realized he had won a Pulitzer or that the playwright whom my actor-friends in college talked about so reverently was the same guy who played poker in my father's kitchen. I knew he was famous. But there was always a disjunction between the man who was our sometime neighbor and my father's friend, and the man whose last name had become an adjective--"Mamet-like"--for theater critics. An adjective is an abstract quality. Mamet is a man who sometimes comes to parties in Plainfield, who grins a lot and smokes those funky cigars.

The first time they connected was when Mamet made his first movie, "House of Games," about gambling and con artists. He called up his poker buddies and said, "Hey, you're all going to be in the movie."

So there are my father, and Andy, and Allen in a central scene where Joe Mantegna ventures into a back-room game. (My father is the one with the longest, wildest white hair.) They played poker on the set too, with Mamet joining between takes. When I saw the movie, at a mall in Miami, that scene evoked an odd sort of deja vu, like a real memory blown up into something strange, familiar but removed.

Mamet kept putting my father and other people from Plainfield in his movies after that, in "Things Change" and "Homicide." Late last year my father got his biggest part yet, with eight whole lines, in Mamet's latest film. It's called "The Spanish Prisoner," and tells the story of a businessman, played by Campbell Scott, who invents something called the Process and is caught in confusing layers of maybe-or-maybe-not-scams that may be perpetrated by Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin).

The shoot was at the Cheeca Lodge, a rambling hotel-resort with candy-colored bungalows and palms on a perfect white beach in the Florida Keys. My father and I went to lunch in the catering tent. There were a few people on the crew whom I knew from Miami, and there was this blondish, gangly guy who looked kind of familiar--and then I realized he was Steve Martin.

"The Spanish Prisoner" had the greatest number yet of what Jerry Graff, a gentle man who is Mamet's accountant (and Mamet's father's before that), calls "FODs" (Friends of David). Besides Graff and my father, there was Chris Caldor, who is the town clerk and runs the hardware store in Cabot, Vt., where Mamet has a house. Caldor, who plays Martin's bodyguard, seemed a little nervous, but he was enjoying himself.

"How'd you get into this?" I asked him. "Talent," he said.

Everyone else from home was shooting in New York; Andy, Charlotte and Allen. My father seemed to miss them. "It was more fun the first couple of times, when we could all hang out together," he said, looking around the tent.

For all the years that the poker game lasted, I think the relationships around it were more familiar than intimate, a function of years spent watching one another's faces.

"We all spent more time with each other than we spent with anyone else," Mamet says. "If you talked, people would say, 'Shut up and deal,' " my father says. They know each other's playing very well. My father says Mamet bluffs perfectly: "He did not have any tells" (which I think is rather like his plays). Mamet says admiringly that when my father is winning, "it's almost impossible to catch him."

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