The Gutenberg Bible went down in history as the first book of note to be printed on a press — a bit of modern magic in 1455, turning spoken stories into something tangible and permanent.
It’s a play on words, sure, but actor Steve Guttenberg’s new play, Tales from the Guttenberg Bible, opening tonight at the Bay Street Theater, is in a way his own method of turning his remarkable career’s story into something preserved — and, in this instance, performed.
With nothing but hope and chutzpah, Guttenberg left his childhood home of North Massapequa, Long Island, in 1976 at the tender age of 17 and showed up in Hollywood, gunning to make it as an actor. Make it, he did, carving out an indelible mark in a multitude of movies like The Boys from Brazil, Diner and movie series like Police Academy and Three Men and a Baby.
The play began performances at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center via the George Street Playhouse in May, and now he brings the show to Sag Harbor through the end of August. While gearing up for this next spate of performances, Guttenberg was nice enough (really, that mensch he often plays on screen isn’t far removed from the real deal) to jump on the phone with us and talk about his new role, working through grief, Kentucky Fried Chicken, clamming in the Great South Bay and why you should say hi to your neighbors — because he’s still a Long Island guy at heart.
Southforker: When did you start writing this?
Steve Guttenberg: I started writing the play about 8 years ago, and my dad took ill 5 years ago. I finished it by his bedside. I had about 300 pages, and then I gave it to [film, TV and theater peroducer] Julian Schlossberg. He read it and said it could be a play! We got David Saint, the artistic director of the George Street Playhouse to look it over. They edited it down from 300 to 68 pages.
SF: It’s not a one-man show – there are 3 other actors who perform: Carine Montbertrand, Arnie Burton and Dan Domingues. Is this a straight-up proper play, or do you break the fourth wall?
SG: Even in proper plays, you break the fourth wall. Think of Our Town and how the narrator speaks directly to the audience. For instance, we go back in time to when I was 17 years old and coming to Hollywood. I turn to the audience and tell them what I was thinking of during that moment.
SF: Making is in Hollywood was a pretty heady dream for a kid from Long Island. How did you get your foot in the door?
SG: I actually went out to Hollywood three days after graduating high school to become an actor. My first job was a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial with the original colonel, Harland [Sanders, founder of KFC]. It was my first commercial and I landed it two weeks after being in Hollywood. From there, I stayed for year and did 10 more commercials and a couple of movies. But got disenchanted, went back to the East Coast and went to Albany State University, studying liberal arts and biology, looking to either become a dentist or a CPA. While I was there, I got call from an agent to audition for a[n acting] job, and I was off and running.
SF: From an outsider’s view, your career seems like it’s been very charmed, but how difficult was it? What were some of the bigger challenges – like, were you ever typecast?
SG: Being typecast is actually good – it’s good to be known for one thing, to be know as a western actor or a dramatic actor, then you get your parts and it’s like being a known grocery store on the street. And then you can start selling different things. For me, when I started, obviously I have a round face and round eyes, so I look good natured and was cast in those roles. I really wanted to play a villain, and I finally played a villainous kid on a TV show called Family. [Years] later, I played a villain on Veronica Mars. And I also did thrillers, even though I had a lot of successes in comedies. Being an actor is not easy life. I feel very fortunate, and as good friend of mine once said, it beats working for a living.
SF: Are you from a big family? Were your parents in the biz?
SG: I have two sisters; my parents were not in the business at all. I was the first and the only to make the foray.
SF: Tales from the Guttenberg Bible is kind of like your live memoir. Is it hard to write a retrospective of your life? Did you feel self-conscious doing it?
SG: It’s quite emotional to go back in time and relive the moments. It’s actually like being there for me — I see those real people sitting there and talking. The actors in the play are brilliant – Arnie Burton, Carine Montbertrand, Dan Domingues and Steven DeRosa – it’s fun and heart wrenching to go back into time. It’s hardest maybe because I lost my dad last year, but this helps me with my grief.
SF: Who have been some of your favorite people to work with?
SG: Laurence Olivier, Peter O’Toole, Sam Watermaker, the directors Frank Shaffner, Ron Howard, Jim Cronin. Oh, and Rodney Dangerfield!
SF: You’re from North Massapequa, but have you spent much time out on the East End?
SG: When I was a kid, we used to go clamming in the North Fork and crabbing in the South Bay. I haven’t spent much time as an adult but I’ve visited a lot to Quogue and East Hampton. This is my first foray into Sag Harbor.
SF: You recently did a reel on social media talking about how people don’t greet each other. Why are you so bent on bringing back the art of communal kindness?
SG: So often because of how our society is evolving, saying hello and goodbye are forgotten and sort of meaningless. But I like to say good morning and start my day the right way — and everyone else’s the right way, too.
Tales from the Guttenberg Bible will be performed at Bay Street Theater from August 1 to August 27. Tickets can be purchased here.