Jan van Raay


Monks, Presence, and the Rose

F. Murray Abraham on the set of The Name of the Rose


It's cold. The air is damp. Stones hewn centuries past breathe chill deep into your bones. People move and walk, when permitted, to excite their circulation. We are on the movie set of The Name of the Rose, and conditions during filming are not much different from those suffered by the monks and peasants of the fourteenth century, the time of the novel and film. It's not Northern Italy, where Umberto Eco set his tale of death and intrigue, in an abbey protected by a fortress of mountains. The abbey of the film is Kloster Ebberbach, a few kilometers from the Rhine, near Wiesbaden, West Germany. The mountains are hills of vineyards shrouded in mist (no one will know the difference).

Directed by Jean-Jacques Annoud (Quest for Fire), the novel's adaptation stars Sean Connery as Brother William and F. Murray Abraham, Oscar winner as Best Actor in 1985 for his role as Salieri in Milos Foreman's Amadeus. Abraham portrays the evil Bernardo Gui. It will be released in the United States on September 24.

The Name of the Rose is one of the most costly films ever to be made in Europe. With a starting budget of $15.5 million and an international cast of English, American, Scottish, German, Italian, Russian, French, and South American, it was directed by Annoud simultaneously in three languages. The work schedule was arduous and the cold affected everyone. Rehearsals and shooting were on a Monday through Saturday schedule, Sunday being the one free day per week. Up at 6 or 7 A.M., a quick breakfast and a twenty-minute ride to the set from the hotel; makeup and costume and on the set by 9:30 A.M. Rehearsals and shooting never wrapped up until 6 or 7 P.M. My conversations with F. Murray Abraham took place over several days, both on and off the set and squeezed into his very tight schedule that even included flying back to New York to do a play and preparations for his role as Lincoln in a TV mini-series based on the Gore Vidal novel. F. Murray Abraham is a very hard-working actor. He's also a full professor at Brooklyn College. When Murray was about to read The Name of the Rose for the first time, he said to a colleague of his at the college, who speaks all of the languages brought up in the book, "Oh my God, I have to have a reference book." His colleague replied, "Wait, we'll read it together."

"So, he invited me to his place," Murray continued, "and I spent the whole afternoon getting through the first fifty or sixty pages, which was heavy. His [the colleague's] first discipline was as a priest, a Dominican monk. He was bringing such richness to all this that so many people had said was difficult to get through. I found it absolutely exhilarating. It was a treat. It was like having your own private, classical tutor. It was a good time."

Abraham has expressed a curiosity about the huge success of the book. It was an international best seller three years ago. "What is its appeal? It's partly the great argument that goes on. It's the 'who-dunnit', you can't dismiss that. It's almost as though literature is returning to story telling, which is, I hope, where the theater is returning."

He views this book as having a moral message which is current and tied to a good story. The period of the film is not only dealing with past events, "It's now, and if you don't see that you're a fool." He wonders, "How does this film we're making tie in with what's happening in the world, and are the ideas in the book being examined in the film?" He thinks the ideas are coming through. "I'm hoping that, [I can do that] at least through my work. I'm trying to represent EVIL, and it's very difficult not to be charming, especially for an actor. That charm indicates being liked by people and I want this man, Bernardo Gui, to be absolutely charmless. It's a wonderful thing...to create an image that 'quakens' something in you that is only your own. To touch someone there. I'm hoping I can achieve that, But he [Gui] is posing as a man of God. He really believes he is. I think if I can project the danger of that kind of didactic nature in the hands of someone with power, of which he has considerable--it's something I've never done before. If it works, you will see EVIL. It's a triumph of good over evil. That's okay with me."

There is nothing but praise for director Jean-Jacques Annoud. According to Abraham, he is "an extraordinary force of energy. I've never seen anything like it. Making a film is difficult. For one thing, it's time consuming. Keeping you energy level between shots is very hard. It's a special technique. As a director you must think and be disciplined and take care of so many things at the same time, and they amount to everything! There's something that every director must have, every good one, and that's the way to deal with each person in the best possible means of communication on the individual level." Abraham considers all the people working on the film to be the "creme de la creme." There is a communication -- almost spiritual -- which takes place between the cast and director. "You run up against someone like that and you can't allow yourself to flag. He won't allow it, simply his attitude. It insists."

In the year since winning the Oscar, Abraham has turned down offers totaling over $1.75 million. "I don't want to do crap...I'll do it in my own way. When I physically received the award from Shirley MacLaine, she said to me in my ear, 'Don't take the first thing that comes along.' Milos [Forman] said the same thing -- 'Wait! The good stuff won't come for at least a year.' What am I going to do for a year? The statue [Oscar] doesn't come with money wrapped around it. I did things. A lot of plays, little things, readings, to keep myself busy. I wasn't making any money. And this came, The Name of the Rose, and I like this. I think it's a class operation."

Abraham originally had his eye on the part of Brother William, the sleuth of The Name of the Rose. He only agreed to the smaller role when he learned that Sean Connery had been signed to play William. "He's got a classical training," Murray explained, "a classical background. He's done some remarkable films, not just 007. He's a highly respectable actor in the trade. And I want to do Macbeth, and I thought 'Here's a great chance to get some notes from him.' But also, I like him. I think he's a man of integrity. I like him doing plays continuously, and doing some good movies. But also there's something you can learn from someone of that ilk, that experience that you can't learn unless you're there. It's like working with a master. It really is. He's a master of that medium. Mr. Connery is magic. No one is any better than I, on stage. No one in the world. There is no one with whom I will not step on stage and do justice. I am absolutely at home. This medium [film] is a little touchier. I can't quite free myself of the technical problems, which people say is not true. They say 'Look at Amadeus.' The fact is it's not as easy [for me] but for him [Connery] it is. For him. There are actors you can name -- Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, and no one is better at film, I think than Brando. No one. He's completely at ease. The camera doesn't exist. But, of course it does. You have to be seeing this [camera] taking pictures. And I would like to accomplish that. There's only one way to do it and that's to do a lot of tilm."

Since winnning the Oscar, the money offers have poured in. Abraham feels "It's the magic of the Oscar, partly, but also that performance [Salieri in Amadeus], you know. I'm hoping this is the last heavy I do for a while." The scripts that are being offered are not what he wants to do even though money is a great temptation. Once in a while he might consider a script for the money, but "once you do that, you're lost. You're finished. It gets awfully hard after a while. I'm forty-six. The good ones will come. You've got to hang in there!"

And the good ones are coming for Abraham. Regarding the TV mini-series based on Gore Vidal's Lincoln, he says, "Yes, one of my favorite men in the whole world. And now I get to say some of his words. It's a TV special and no more than two of three days work, but it's him, so that makes it alive. It's just before he's elected during the Civil War. I like him. He and Thomas Jefferson are a couple of my favorite Americans. What a great, great man he was. He had a Renaissance brain."

The box office is the final judge of what a producer will offer. "I wonder what my name is worth at the box office," he muses. That's how you calculate stardom, by the way. Is Al Pacino worth $5 million for a motion picture? The answer is -- absolutely! If you can get him, give him the five, because you'll get it back in the sales of cassettes alone. What happens after this? What happens to your life? I think if I keep choosing I will probably remain a working class actor in Brooklyn, New York, which I think is the kind of reputation I would really like to have."

Murray got the bite for acting when he was a junior in high school in El Paso, Texas. "I was a screwed up kid like everybody else. I had no direction at all. Very messed up. A hoodlum. A pimple-faced kid." One of his teachers suggested he try acting. "It was the first thing that was ever my own, ever. It was a revelation because of this teacher. It was great luck! Then I won a scholarship to Texas University. It was my whole life all of a sudden. You know, when you discover something you know you were right for? It was because this woman had an eye for something. Really lucky for me. But that's how life is -- a series of fortunes and misfortunes."

Then Murray went out to California where he met his wife Kate, and when he was twenty-five he said to himself, "either you do something or you shut up!" He went out and auditioned for a play and he got it. As soon as he got his Equity card from that play in Los Angeles he and Kate packed up and went to New York. "In L.A., when people intoduce actors who have come from New York they're always introduced as 'This is the New York actor.' I kept hearing people introduced that way with a tone of reverence and I said 'I'm not going to stay around here and bust my hump to be second-rate to anyone. I went to New York and found a teacher, Uta Hagen. I waited tables for two years. I'd parked cars in L.A. for a long time too. The same things that all actors do, I did. So I went to New York and I studied and we've been there for exactly twenty years."

Abraham still lives in the same Brooklyn apartment with his wife and two children that has been their home these last thirteen years. When I asked if he planned to stay there now that Oscar had entered his life, of if, perhaps, he might like to live abroad, he said, "I hate to sound this way, but I feel like my country needs me. As though I can do something. I feel like it needs people who care." Of course, winning the Oscar has changed things. "You can imagine. I still do [ride the subways]. My face seems to disappear. I'm not stopped or besieged. You know New Yorkers. You'll ride the subway with someone for thiry-five minutes and when they leave they'll lightly touch your arm and say 'Congratulations!' Very cool. It's changed our lives in a good way, I think. We've lost some friends, who turned out, I guess, weren't our real friends. You really do find out in tradgedies as well as in great successes who your friends are. Some people can't take your successes, but it's great that you find out."

In the early 1970s F. Murray Abraham was a very successful actor in TV commercials, doing off-Broadway and film at the same time and he decided to stop. "I decided that that was the thing that was standing between me and the great work. I was getting older. I was too old to do Hamlet. I was a serious actor and nobody believed it because I was always on television. I was a very successful commercial actor and 'Fruit of the Loom' was the last one I did. I decided to quit." And does he consider himself a success now? "You bet! I don't know how people twenty years old take it. For me, I really was ready for it. To win it or loose it. I've been through it before. I've had some successes. Tremendous artistic successes and I thought 'This is it!' I was making plans for buying castles. I really was! In Ireland. I was looking at brochures for castles. This was about six, seven years ago. I did a show on Broadway-- I thought I was fabulous! I got great reviews. The show closed in three weeks. I didn't work for six months! I've never been so depressed! I had counted my chickens, isn't that crazy? And then I said 'What are you in this for, man? Don't kid yourself.' I had been lying to myself. The work really was secondary. As good as I was and as good as the reviews were, I was lying, and I didn't know it. I can't tell you how good I was! I'm a romantic actor. It's why I'm in the theater. I love it! I do it easily! I have the equipment for it. I can't wait to do it again! I was questioning, you know, those times when you say 'What am I doing here? I'm lying to myself. I'm in the wrong time-frame period.' Serious business, you know. That's the last time I'm going through that. I'm never going to count of those awards. I'm not going to count on anything except the work. You do the work, baby, and when it's finished you go on to the next work work. It's the craft, and no one can tell you otherwise. You know when you do it right, and that's all that matters. It's nice to hear the praise, you know. Of course it is. But it doesn't mean a thing, because if you believe the good stiff you're going to have to believe the bad stuff, and they don't know! You know! For me the work is a search for God. It is nothing less. The God in here," he said, pointing to his heart.

Jan van Raay is a free-lance writer and photographer now living in Amsterdam

Article published in "Het Parool," Amsterdam (in Dutch) and "The World & I."

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