When news broke over the weekend about the death of Czech-American filmmaker Milos Forman, movie lovers, actors and directors mourned the legacy of a man who celebrated rebels and outcasts in iconic, Oscar-winning works like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. Forman was fearless, taking on controversial projects – his satire The Fireman’s Ball was banned in his homeland of Czechoslovakia – and, in the case of Amadeus, arguing that the roles of the vain, mediocre composer Antonio Salieri and bratty young genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart must be played by unknowns rather than movie stars.
It was a risky decision when adapting a smash, Tony-winning play, but Forman stuck to his guns, casting Animal House costar Tom Hulce as Mozart and stage actor F. Murray Abraham as Salieri – a role that won the latter a Best Actor Oscar. Abraham spoke from his home in New York Sunday night about his unlikely path to Amadeus, what he so admired in Forman and why they were never close.
Before Amadeus, I was making a living and supporting my family [as an actor] – but I wasn’t prominent at all. At that time, British actors were being brought in to do plays and movies, and Americans were brought in to support them. I really objected to it because I thought we were as good as any British actors. They asked me, along with a whole bunch of other people, to do improvisational scenes around the [Peter Shaffer] play, which we all knew because it was famous. But I said, “I want to come in and read for [Salieri] or I don’t want to do it at all.”
When I insisted on auditioning only for that role, I didn’t think I had a chance in the world of getting it. I auditioned a few times, but I didn’t meet Milos until I had this little interview in his apartment. The only film of his I knew was Cuckoo’s Nest, but when he was interested in seeing me, I saw Fireman’s Ball, which is really terrific. [Laughs] I thought, “This is a guy I want to work with!” Basically, I’m a comedian, and I loved the [film’s] sense of humor. It wasn’t foreign to me, because I’m from the border of Mexico, and I’m familiar with certain classical Mexican movies. But that movie was unusual – it was a take on life that I just simply responded to.
“He was not sentimental at all. We tried to give him a surprise birthday party once [during shooting]. He came into the party and turned around and walked out.”
I still didn’t expect to get the part, though – I just wanted to have the audition material, and to meet Milos Forman. We did this audition, and when I was finished, he just disappeared. It was a very famous role and a very famous play, and actors from all over the world wanted to do it. Some very famous people came to audition for him – with their own makeup men, by the way. So it was ridiculous. It was a British writer, and they always used British actors. But then he called me and said he wanted me to do it.
He never told me [why he picked me]. He’s not a man who does that kind of thing. He’s very direct. It was always about getting it done. But what he saw in me, I think, was someone who understood the role. There was no discussion of the play or the direction or how it was going to be shot or anything like that. He was very businesslike – he just wanted to make sure there was a clarity in our exchanges and an understanding between us. It’s what any director does with actors: Can they speak his language? Can he speak theirs? He saw in me that thing that he was looking for in that character. And if a man like that, who’s gambling like that on you – well, you know he trusts you. That’s the greatest compliment.
While we were filming Amadeus, if I tried something – if I read a scene, and he didn’t think it was truthful or honest – his expression was [stern Czech accent] “That’s bullshit.” But that didn’t bother me. There is something that happens between an actor and a director – [as an actor] you know when a director knows what he’s doing. You know that very early in the relationship. Some directors talk a good game, but they don’t really know what the fuck they’re talking about. The best acting comes from when you trust your director to say, “That’s not right – try this.”
During the shoot in Czechoslovakia, we had nothing to do with each other, ever – it was always [only about] the film. But that’s what I chose to do, also. I didn’t have anything to do with anybody else on the film – I was separate from them all, because that’s what I thought Salieri would have been like. He was his own man: It was between him and God, and that was it. I lived in a separate hotel. Our communication was only on the set, ever. And he wasn’t a schmoozer.
We had to contend with several different personalities and several different approaches to discussing things with actors from different cultures and backgrounds. We had Brits, we had Czechs, we had Germans, we had Americans and all of them have to be spoken to in a different way – even though the lingua franca was English. But he was the boss. He and his old friend from school days, [Miroslav] Ondricek, the great cinematographer who should have won an Oscar for that picture, and they would have screaming fits – it was really funny. Ondricek walked with a short cane, and he would swing it and shout and scream at Milos. I don’t know what they were saying – it was all in Czech – but Forman didn’t scream at any of the actors.
He’d sometimes lose his temper, though. With Roy Dotrice [who played Mozart’s father], he’d sometimes say [stern Czech accent] “That looks too much like acting! I want it more natural!” And then Roy would do it again, and he’d say, “No! Now you are acting as though you are not acting!” That’s an interesting comment. He really wouldn’t settle.
The way we were shooting it – it was so elaborate, and the costumes and the sets were authentic. I’m not sure if I can explain the difference it makes to be working in a place that’s that many hundreds of years old and to shoot in the same theater where Mozart actually conducted Don Giovanni from the same platform. All of that affected us. I even wore one of the costumes from that period. The Czech people worshiped Milos – they adored him, and they gave him everything he wanted for that film.
He left Czechoslovakia to escape Communism to find artistic freedom. He went back once on the promise that the Communist regime would not keep him in Czechoslovakia. [They said] he could come back and visit – he had family there – and then he could go back to America. But he found out while he was there that they were going to put him in jail, and some friends smuggled him out. They put him under some blankets in the backseat of a car – which is very dangerous, needless to say. That’s how he got out.
So before he went back to shoot Amadeus in Prague, they made ironclad deals between governments that he would be safe. So he became someone who had returned to Czechoslovakia as a conquering hero who had overcome the regime. And on those terms, he was functioning on a different plane as a director, I believe. He was functioning as a hero, but not with the laurel on his forehead. He was not redeeming himself – he was coming home, and doing this not only for himself and his family but for the Czech people. Like, “This is what we can accomplish. This has nothing to do with Communism – it has to do with us and our art and what we can do.” I think it fed the work.
The only time he ever gave me a compliment [laughs] – he’s not very easy with compliments, rest his soul – was about halfway through. He said [stern Czech accent] “You know, the guy who’s running the editing of the film, he said [pause, reluctant] you are a good actor.” [laughs] And then when I won the Academy Award, I said some very nice things about him [in my acceptance speech], but the only thing he ever said to me afterward was [stern Czech accent] “That was a very good speech.” [laughs] It’s not a question of saying, “Thank you.” That was the man he was. And it’s okay with me – I owe him.
We didn’t stay in touch – he’s not sentimental at all that way. We tried to give him a surprise birthday party once [during shooting]. He came into the party and turned around and walked out. [Laughs] He didn’t want anything to do with it. That should give you a sense of his sentimentality. We had nothing to do with each other after the film was over. When I separated myself from the company originally, that separateness hung over.
But we would communicate. He would ask me to show up at events for fundraising that had to do with Amadeus, and he would be there and we would say hello. It wasn’t until some anniversary of the film … I published a full-page ad in Variety thanking the producer and Milos for giving me the break of a lifetime. And when that happened, I began to hear a hello from them every once in a while. When he won an award from the Directors Guild, he asked me to present it. That, to me, was the farthest he’d ever gone in a gesture to our friendship, which was fine with me. But he’s dear to me.
His death was expected – he’d been suffering for a while, so I thought the end was near, but I didn’t know it was this near. And I’m saddened by it. I would have liked to have let him know how much he means to me. I did that long-distance, through publications, and I think that’s as much as he ever wanted or would allow. He wouldn’t allow any fawning, I think.
It’s interesting … I wanted more, because I owe him so much. I wanted to show him how much I appreciated what he did. He had some balls, you know: Casting me and Tom [Hulce]? He could have had anyone he wanted, and it would have been guaranteed box office. But he was right, because you would have never connected [to] a prominent star in the role – you would have only thought about the actor. The lesson the business should have learned from Milos Forman’s courageous casting of two unknowns in these plum roles has not been learned.
I’ll always remember how his total command of all the elements of the film sucked you into his concentration. He’d intensely argue with his cinematographer, intensely talk with his camera operator, look intensely through the lens for a while, shout for some changes. But then, when he was ready to shoot, he’d perch on an apple box and become very still, elbows on knees, chin on hands, with his face as close to the lens as possible, like he was trying to see exactly what the camera was seeing. But it never distracted me – his childlike pose seemed to encourage me with its innocence and its trust.
Milos Forman was as tough as nails, but he had a nose for the truth. It’s what separates a really great director from just a mediocre director – it’s someone who is really trying to find in you the best thing that you have to offer. And there aren’t many like that.