If you've seen a familiar-looking man with dark, curly hair strolling around Hell's Kitchen and blabbing into his cell phone headset, you could have witnessed some free street theatre: It just might have been Eddie Mekka running his lines for My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish and I'm in Therapy
, Steve Solomon's hit solo show, which Mekka recently stepped into.
"I had to wear the Bluetooth so people didn't think I was crazy," Mekka says. "They were probably thinking, 'How long is he going to be on that phone?' "
Mekka, speaking during early previews, was still getting on top of the lines. "I wake up at night and I'm saying the lines. There are so many places I want to go and see while I'm here in New York, bada-bing, bada-boom—but I've gotta learn these lines."
There's little danger that this conscientious pro won't nail his part, of course. He appeared in the New York premiere of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers
and was nominated for a Tony in 1975 for his part in The Lieutenant
, and not long after that entered TV history as Carmine "The Big Ragoo" Ragusa on Laverne & Shirley
. Since then he's worked constantly in film, TV, regional theatre and nightclubs as an all-around song-and-dance triple threat.
Just don't suggest to him that acting is a form of therapy.
"If this is therapy, I'm taking the short way outa here. I still get nervous as hell! I was thinking before the first preview, 'Why am I in this business?' You take your curtain call, and you feel great, but before that…"
The show's title, Mekka explains, is pretty much truth in advertising. In it, the show's original author and star, Steve Solomon, tells the story of his parents' inter-faith, intercultural marriage, and his own subsequent hyphenated existence.
"He says his mother's family is miserable, and his father's family is miserable—and this gives them something to live for," Mekka recounts. So is there a difference between Catholic guilt and Jewish guilt? Mekka demurs: "It doesn't get too much into the religion; you don't wanna preach. It does address certain intensities of kosherness."
Truth be told, the Jewish half is where Mekka's acting comes in, as he's actually half-Italian and half-Armenian. He has a good line to sum up his own ethnic mix: "I'll make you a rug you can't refuse." Mekka may have earned honorable Gentile status, though; he's frequently played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof
, and he notes that Italians, Armenians and Jews alike "animated, passionate, proud people."
When he debuted on Laverne & Shirley
in the late 1970s, Jewish and Italian actors were newly ascendant, from Al Pacino to Woody Allen, John Travolta to Gene Wilder. It was a different time, Mekka says.
"It's because we're politically correct now, and we can't tell any jokes about that," Mekka laments. "Archie Bunker would not last today; people would be too afraid you're gonna offend somebody. We can't laugh at ourselves anymore."
Mekka is no stranger to being alone onstage: He does an occasional cabaret act in which he sings a few songs made popular by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett and tells showbiz stories. And he thinks he'd be perfect for a solo show about Bennett's life, if someone would only write it.
Mekka has had the honor of getting to know those two Italian-American icons: Bennett in a benefit to save San Francisco cable cars, and Sinatra on the Jerry Lewis Telethon.
"Sinatra turned to me with an empty glass in his hand and said, 'Get me a Jack Daniels,' so I came back with it and he gave me a $100 bill," Mekka says. "After that we were on a first-name basis: I called him 'Sir' and he called me 'schmuck.' "
It sure seems that if you were looking for someone to step into Steve Solomon's shoes and do full justice to the Italian/Jewish crossover, you could do worse than hire Eddie Mekka.
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