TV audiences know Dan Lauria as Jack Arnold, the moody but loving father to The Wonder Years’ young narrator Kevin. Lauria is now making his Broadway debut as legendary Green Bay Packers coach/Super Bowl trophy namesake Vince Lombardi in Lombardi at Circle in the Square Theatre. This may be Lauria’s first time on the Great White Way, but he’s appeared in 53 plays in other venues and is the former artistic director of the Playwrights Kitchen Ensemble, an initiative the helps foster new works. “I don’t do plays by old dead white man,” the actor jokes. Lauria is also no stranger to football, having played college ball at Southern Connecticut State University. Before joining his onstage wife Judith Light for an autograph signing session at this year's Broadway Flea Market, Lauria talked to Broadway.com about tackling the icon, playing opposite Light and all those wondrous years.
Lombardi is performed in the round at Circle in the Square. It must really feel like you’re in a football arena.
Tommy Kail did such a great job directing this. He was excited about doing [the play] in the round the second it was mentioned, and everybody else was a little frightened. I’m the only one who had worked in the round and even that was 18 years ago, but now we love it. We feel like we’re in a fishbowl and everybody’s watching and dissecting this family.
Throughout the show the characters talk about Lombardi’s signature voice. How did you go about capturing that?
I’d love to do ‘the actor thing’ and say how hard the research was, but truthfully the NFL has been so great to me. Anything I wanted, any piece of footage, they provided. I didn’t even know Mr. Lombardi had a TV show where he taught the fundamentals of football! Plus, we were both born in Brooklyn so the voice wasn’t that much of a stretch. I’ve had a lot of help from talking to old ball players, like Sonny Jurgensen and Sam Huff, who were my idols growing up. They all start off with a story about Lombardi that has us rolling on the floor, some of them so politically incorrect I shouldn't repeat them, but then after five minutes every one of them would be in tears. They just loved this guy.
Were you nervous to take on such a beloved sports icon? Packer fans must be hard to please!
At first I was, and then something clicked and I just said, “I need to do this.” I needed to be truthful to this guy and let the chips fall as they may. The NFL flew us out to Green Bay and everybody asked if I’m a Packers fan now, but when I told them I’m still a Giants fan they almost killed me! I had to say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute…We had him first!” because Lombardi coached the Giants for five years before Green Bay.
What do you admire most about Lombardi?
His ability to make you the best you can be. If we succeed in this play, the audience should leave wanting to be better at whatever their endeavor in life is. One story that’s not in the play that I love: A young reporter went up to Lombardi and called him a fanatic. He turned around and said, “Kid if I get a heart attack right now, call a fanatical doctor.” A lot of people aren’t going to understand why you would want to play with somebody who could yell at you like that, but you pay a price to be a winner. Actors, dancers and singers come to this play and really get that. They understand the sacrifice. Lombardi always used theater people [as motivation]. He even had Frank Sinatra come talk to the team about the dedication required to sing the way he did.
With all that drive in mind, what’s the most challenging part of the role?
Everybody’s worried about my voice. My voice is fine…it’s my legs that are killing me! I have to crouch to make it look like I’m staring into the other actors’ eyes, so I’m in a linebacker stance a lot. I’m too old for this! [Laughs.]
Do you feel your role as coach has extended with the cast offstage as well?
The guys call me Coach, but I think more so just because I’m old. Judith’s role is the one that’s really extended. We all call her Mom. I hate rehearsals. I could do the show 10 times a day and love it, but in rehearsal I’ll complain, “Oh, we have to do this again?” and Judith will stare me down. So the guys bought me a shirt that says “Yes, dear” because I’ll do whatever Judith tells me.
Your characters yell at each other through much of the show, but they really did love each other.
I put a list of five actresses I wanted to work with on this show and at the top of the list was Judith. She’s phenomenal. We go back 30 years, when I was her pimp. [He pauses.] It was on One Life to Live [in which Light won two Daytime Emmys as Karen Wolek]. She always screams at me, “Make sure you finish that sentence!” Now I get to kiss her eight times a week and get paid to do it!
Broadway and football don’t always go hand in hand. Are you noticing a different audience than you’re used to?
The average guy out there would rather go to a ball game than the theater, but we knew this was a good way to get them in. I think they’re surprised that they enjoy it so much. I know the women are! It's real story and not a whitewash of the man.
Lombardi takes place in the '60s, as did The Wonder Years. Are you still close with the cast?
I was always wearing my Southern Connecticut football shirt on the show! Danica McKellar, who played little Winnie Cooper, is like my daughter; she just had a baby. Josh Saviano, who played Paul, Olivia d’Abo...the cast is all coming to see the play. I loved working on that show. We worked hard and had great writers.
People have such fond memories of that show.
People ask me all the time why it's not on DVD, and it's because the company screwed up the rights to the music. Ted Turner owns the residual rights, but he can only show it every so often because he actually loses money when it airs!
See Dan Lauria in Lombardi at Circle in the Square Theatre.