Actor brings famed coach to stage
By RON LAJOIE
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) -- Dan Lauria bears a striking physical resemblance to Vince Lombardi.
Same granite jaw, same gap-toothed smile. When he puts on the signature Lombardi 1960s-style, tortoise-shell glasses, it becomes almost uncanny.
He also shares Lombardi’s Italian-American heritage, his birthplace, Brooklyn, and for extra measure, he has even played and coached some football himself.
But he admits that what he really shares with the legendary Green Bay Packers coach he portrays in the Broadway production “Lombardi,” set to open Oct. 21 at the Circle in the Square Theatre, is his attention to detail and his single-minded determination to excel. Produced by Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser, “Lombardi” is directed by Tony Award-winner Thomas Kail (“In the Heights”) and written by Oscar winner Eric Simonson. It is based on David Maraniss’ 1999 Lombardi biography, “When Pride Still Mattered.” The NFL is a producing partner.
“I’m a little obsessive about acting,” Lauria acknowledged during an interview with Catholic New York, the archdiocesan newspaper, at the play’s rehearsal space at City Center.
Lauria is best known for his role as the upright dad on TV’s “The Wonder Years.” In the play, Judith Light (from TV’s “Who’s The Boss?”) plays his wife, Marie.
Lauria’s attention to detail included reading and researching everything he could on Lombardi (whose five championships included two Super Bowl wins); talking to former players and people who knew the coach personally; and poring over reams of photos and video footage to pick up subtle Lombardi gestures.
He also has his own personal memory of Lombardi to draw on. He once met the legendary coach as a teenager growing up in Lindenhurst on Long Island. Lauria, a star linebacker on his high school team, was in a group of players who received a trophy from Lombardi in the early 1960s.
Vince Lombardi was a man of immense faith and that part of him is explored in the play. At 15, he entered Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception in Brooklyn to study for the priesthood.
Deciding on a different life path two years later, he transferred to St. Francis Preparatory where he starred as a fullback. Upon graduation he attended Fordham University where he was a member of Fordham’s famed “Seven Blocks of Granite” offensive line.
His Catholicism stayed with him throughout his lifetime. In Green Bay, he attended Mass virtually every morning at 7 a.m. before going to practice at Lambeau Field.
But Lauria said Lombardi didn’t wear his religion on his sleeve.
“He was a very devout Catholic, always carried a rosary in his pocket,” said Lauria, who is not Catholic. “But he never pulled it out during a game. That wasn’t part of his psyche. He wasn’t praying to win. That wouldn’t even enter his mind. He didn’t lead pep talks with prayers. He felt spiritual things were beyond that. He knew he had a very bad temper. He prayed for patience and understanding.
“He didn’t have much patience and, boy, could he fly off the handle,” the actor continued. “But he had this amazing ability, and I think it’s very Italian and very Catholic; he could rip into you one minute and 10 minutes later you would hug him. We try to re-create that in the play.”
Lombardi’s single-mindedness had an effect on his family life and that is also dealt with in the play. Would Lauria the football player like to have played for Lombardi?
“Sure,” he responded without hesitation. “Being an old football player and a Marine, I would have liked to have played for him.”