Burt Young

Burt Young is sitting in his Port Washington apartment and art studio, surrounded by his paintings and his pals. Large color-drenched canvases depicting a Manhattan sidewalk scene, a nude woman drafted in broad outlines, a whimsical storyboard for a film, two boxers sparring in the ring and other assorted subjects cover the walls and lean on easels or furniture, mixed in with family snapshots and children’s drawings. His longtime friends Bobby Sasso and Vinnie Barone, who grew up together in Queens, are hanging out. Now they’re just chatting, but often they help him rehearse a new play he’s written and is preparing to star in across Long Island and, if all goes well, across the nation. They’re easy together—listening to each other’s stories and laughing at jokes they’ve probably heard a thousand times before.

Perched on a chair in his living room, Young is talking about the pivotal moment that brought him, at age 29, from a meandering life as a laborer (“jobs that required sweat”) and boxer (17 professional bouts) to a distinguished career as an actor, in which his best-known role is his Oscar-nominated turn as Paulie, brother-in-law of the central character played by Sylvester Stallone in the six Rocky films. He’s also written and directed plays and films, and appeared on stage and TV—from Baretta in the 1970s to a memorable 2001 episode of The Sopranos in which he played Bobby Baccalieri, Sr., a retired mobster with lung cancer who comes back for one more hit. This year, he appeared in the movie Win Win with Paul Giamatti and is shooting a new film in New York that stars Amanda Plummer.

As Young tells it, it all started because he wanted to impress a pretty young woman.

“I was pretty lonely at this time of my life and I met this beautiful girl. She worked in a bar, but she would have nothing to do with me,” he says in his quiet raspy voice. “I tried every trick I knew, to no avail. One day, I said, ‘You’re so beautiful, you should be an actress.’ She lit up and said she wanted to study with Lee Strasberg but couldn’t get in. I thought that was a girl; I didn’t know Lee Strasberg. But I can get in anywhere. I found out who he was and I wrote him a letter.”

Strasberg was then director of the famed Actors Studio, a revered teacher whose students ranged from Marlon Brando to Marilyn Monroe. Despite finding himself “in awe,” Young still fired off a letter.
“He called me over to his house on Central Park West. In those days, I didn’t talk to you if I didn’t know you,” he says, recalling his tough-guy days as he adds a little more juice to his New York accent. “This guru was asking me questions, and I was giving him one-syllable answers. Finally, he said, ‘I don’t think you could be an actor.’ I got up to leave. And he slammed the tabletop and said, ‘Sit down.’ He said, ‘I’ve never seen such tension in a man’s face. Ever. I feel you’re an emotional library. Would you work with me?’”

imageAnd he did. Unfortunately, when he arranged an audition for his female friend—in front of a group that included Paul Newman, Shelley Winters and other major stars—she froze up, couldn’t say a word and was never invited back.

What could have been in that letter that persuaded Strasberg to invite a fellow with no experience to his home?

“I have a very sharp memory. I can remember it,” says Young. And he recites:

“Dear Lee, If an acting background is a prerequisite, read no further. If you’re still with me, I have life credits aplenty: A. first assault conviction B. first baby born C…. Seriously, Lee, I don’t know if acting has anything for me or vice versa, but I’m treading water. See me.

“And that was the letter,” he adds.

So he had an assault conviction?

“What is that? It was part of the letter. I was a choir boy,” Young says, returning to joking mode in the same deadpan tone he’d used earlier when asked about his age, which is 71 according to every reputable source. “No, I’m younger. I’m 51,” he says with mock seriousness.

Talking about his youth, however, he hints at being less than a choir boy. Born in Corona, he attended high school in Astoria. “But that didn’t last too long,” he says with a bit of a wink. “When I was about 15 and a half, I joined the Marines.” He became a corporal and was sent to Okinawa, between the Korean and Vietnam wars.

So he lied about his age?

“My father helped me. He wanted me out of town. I was getting into trouble—mischief.” He never returned to high school. “My brother took my equivalency diploma test,” he says, apparently not joking. His brother Bob is two years older and lives “down the block. He’s a pain in the ass.” That comment is meant as a joke, but just in case that’s not clear, Young adds, “I love him.” They see each other often, and some of the children’s drawings in his home are addressed “To Burt and Bob.”

Those crayon pictures featuring flowers, faces or bands of color were made by the children, a girl of 12 and a boy of 7, of Young’s girlfriend, Lisa Scuteri, who is the reason he moved to Port Washington about six years ago. Scuteri, a manager at the Garden City Hotel, made all the arrangements when he had a get-together for friends and family there after his mother died in 1998. “She’s beautiful, I love her.” He encourages the children (about whom he speaks with adoration) to paint, he says.

The front door to his apartment, in a handsomely renovated 150-year-old Main Street building, is covered with more of the youngsters’ artwork. Young has an adult daughter, Anne, with the wife, now deceased, whom he married when he was 19. Anne lives in California, where Young maintains a residence, though he primarily stays in Port Washington. They visit each other often, and pictures of her are scattered around his apartment, too.

Young paints by laying his canvases flat on two sawhorses in his kitchen, with plastic underneath. Despite the high ceilings, there’s no space for a large enough easel.

His mother is memorialized in a large painting on his bedroom wall (which is also part of his studio). It doesn’t show her, though. It’s a lovely picture of birch trees with bright yellow leaves reaching up to a vivid blue sky. Like most of his paintings, this one is as much about color, line and mood as it is about its literal subject matter. “I painted it when she died. Her eyes were blue.

“My mother supported everything I ever did, from larceny to the good stuff. If I was doing something on the stage and the language was bad, I would change it when she came so she wouldn’t hear me cursing.” His mother was a dressmaker and his father a sheet metal mechanic who went to college at night and was in his 40s when he got a teaching degree. He later became a high school administrator. Young says, “He was wonderful.”

Another large painting in the bedroom is by Sylvester Stallone. “He did this painting in 1976. It’s his portrayal of Paulie. He signed it with his name [Sly] and the time, 8:30pm. Paulie is looking at greener pastures and hopefully some money. He’s looking at the goal, money.” But where’s the money? Take a closer look at those orbs at the far right end of the painting, Young advises. “He glued coins on. He’s a funny guy.” Young is still great friends with Stallone and would appear in anything Stallone asks him to, he says, even the musical version of Rocky that news reports say he’s contemplating. “It would be a great musical. Of course, I would play Burgess Meredith now.” Meredith, who died in 1997 at age 89, portrayed Rocky Balboa’s trainer, Mickey Goldmill.

Even though his paintings are striking—a portrait of a dog and another nude are also on the walls—the most noticeable feature in Young’s bedroom is a large black punching bag hanging from the ceiling. He uses the heavy bag, along with shadowboxing, to keep in shape. Gloves are optional, “My hands are so tough, I don’t need them.” In one of his proudest moments in the ring, he fought Muhammad Ali in an exhibition bout for charity.

Ali becomes the subject of another story, which Young tells later, when he’s sitting at a bar in a French bistro across the street: Around 1976, he got a call to fight with Ali, which he considered a dream come true. “I went with my brother and daughter. It turns out they were raising money for the Black Muslims. We were the only white people in the arena.” In the ring, just before they were to fight, he whispered to Ali that he was in shape and “could move pretty quick,” so he didn’t need to be too careful. “He took the microphone and said, ‘Baldy Paulie will go in two.’” The fight was very good-natured, he says. “We became great friends.” He saw Ali, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, just a few months ago. “He looks at me and he says, ‘Never be sorry for me. It’s all part of the journey. The fighting. The religion. Now. It’s all part of the journey.’ It was an invitation into his soul.” Young is near tears as he recalls the meeting.

Is he religious himself? “I wish, I hope. But that’s all I can say.”

And how does he see himself primarily—as actor, painter, father or fighter? He thinks silently and answers, “A fighter, I guess…It’s a different art form.”

Indeed, the gloves he wore back at his home while demonstrating his boxing prowess display an apt brand name: Invincible.

But he didn’t choose them, he says. “Tom Gulotta [former Nassau County Executive] gave me these. He’s a dear friend. We both enjoy each other.”

It seems he gets to know everybody in the world. “No,” he says, “I get to know people of consequence.”

He’s been a lot friendlier since he started acting, he says. When Lee Strasberg gave him the opportunity, he knew it would transform him: “I thought that I could talk to people, even strangers, and I could have feelings that I’d never given myself license to have. And it didn’t stop.”

Nowadays, he’s nice to strangers. “I’m a quiet fellow, but I do happen to like people. That’s one of the pleasures I get from my job. People say hello.” So he knows his Port Washington neighbors?

He gives a little nod and then adds, “But not like I know my old guys.” That would be Sasso and Barone, who have stayed around, politely out of earshot most of the time, waiting to move on with Young to an appointment he has with a potential investor in his play along with his business partner in the traveling theatrical project, Carmine L. Calabro, Jr. Sasso is a retired union boss—he was president of Teamsters Local 282, which represents construction and other workers in New York City and Long Island. Barone says he is also retired but declines to pinpoint from what: “I just survived, that’s all.” Young steps in: “He’s the philosopher. We’ve all been friends a long, long time.” One of the things they often do is eat in local restaurants and back in the old neighborhoods.

imageAnd—sometimes in a local restaurant, sometimes at the apartment—they rehearse Young’s new play, Artist Found in Port Washington Flat. He is scheduled to perform it at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on May 18, but there might be other performances before that.

“It’s a one-man play, starring me,” Young explains. Is it about him? “Everything’s about me.”

Young is well along on the touring theater-art project. Though he’s the only actor, the play has two characters, and one of them doesn’t need to rehearse anymore. “I filmed a full-size hologram of me [during a recent visit to California]. I call him The Conscience. So it’s me and he on the stage.”

An exhibition of some of his artworks will accompany the tour. They sell quite well, he says.

Painting is something he’s always done. He’s produced at least 800 works, many now stored in California. When he was about 11, he won an easel and paints in a New York City Parks Department contest. But he only went public about this passion around 15 years ago, when a man in California offered him $60,000 for nine paintings.

“In those days, that was big money. I thought, what better way to maybe support yourself, without directing, acting or writing. There’s no censorship. With so many movies, my work ends up on the cutting room floor—every actor has that. With my paintings, what are they going to do?” He’s had shows in several galleries around the country. The top price he ever got was $66,000, in Hawaii, for a 6’x4’ painting of “a blonde woman, a gorgeous woman, and everything was blonde around her.”

As he envisions it, he’d visit college campuses as part of the tour. “I hope to teach, too. Maybe after a performance, I’d field a few questions and invite two or three students on the stage to do a few simple exercises. That’s what I’m hoping. I change my itinerary second by second. I hope to benefit them and me.” Part of the net profits from ticket and art sales is earmarked for student scholarships and other charities.

A publicity blurb says his play is about an artist who wrestles “with his conscience as he tries to make sense of his life, his passions, his dreams, his desires, his successes, his failures, his trials and his tribulations.” This doesn’t sound like Young’s words. He says the play is based on a solo cross-country motorcycle trip he attempted about 20 years ago.

Artist Found, he says, is about “trying to forget today and get strong for tomorrow.”

aileen jacobson

Aileen Jacobson writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications. A former arts and media writer for Newsday, she is also the author of two books.