After winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Salieri, Mozart’s rival in Amadeus, F. Murray Abraham was stymied about what to do next. Before Oscar the 46-year-old Brooklynite was supporting a distinguished but low-paying stage career with small parts in big pictures, such as Scarface and Serpico. Probably his most attention-getting role was that of a fig leaf in a Fruit of the Loom TV commercial. With Amadeus came fame and big money offers (Poltergeist II, Clue) that were mostly bald attempts to cash in on his Oscar. Abraham, who still rides the subway, wasn’t about to go Hollywood. “I’m not leaving the neighborhood,” he said, referring to the modest Brooklyn co-op he shares with his wife, Kate, and their teenage son and daughter. More important, given his success as the malevolent Salieri, he didn’t want to risk typecasting by playing another villain. So when director Jean-Jacques Annaud pressed him to play the role of the evil inquisitor in the $16.5 million film version of Umberto Eco’s 1980 best-seller, The Name of the Rose, Abraham flatly refused. “I’m tired of heavies. I want to do a comedy,” he said, hoping producers would recall his manic antics in The Ritz, which he did onstage and onscreen in the mid-’70s.
Then came the second thoughts. Eco’s book, about the murder of seven monks in a 14th-century Benedictine monastery, intrigued him with its mix of mystery and intellectualism. The money ($750,000) was tempting, and so was the assurance that his family could visit on the three-month location filming in West Germany and Italy. The clincher was the casting of Sean Connery, an actor he respects, as the detective-friar with whom the inquisitor would lock horns.
Except for the bleak winter setting, shooting went smoothly. But for Abraham’s family, it nearly ended in tragedy. In December he took a few days off from Rose to play Abe Lincoln in the Dream West miniseries, shooting in Virginia. Kate and the two kids remained vacationing in Rome. On Friday, Dec. 27, the day they were to return home, terrorists opened fire on passengers at the Rome airport. At the last minute Kate and the children had decided to extend their holiday over the weekend. “They would have been standing in the line that was shot up,” says Abraham. “Their change of plans was my Christmas present from God.”
The Dream West assignment gave Murray a chance to visit his parents in El Paso, where his Oscar was on prominent display in the family room. “My mother has turned the room into a shrine,” Murray says. “While I was there she had the local priest drop by to bless it.”
To lighten up his image, Abraham spent part of his summer in Central Park playing the prissy Malvolio in Twelfth Night. But the role he cherishes most is now in its second year. With the Oscar came the offer to be a professor in the theater department of Brooklyn College. For six hours a week, Abraham leads an intensive acting class for 18 students. “It’s inordinately satisfying,” he says. “The ultimate reward will be to see my students do something beyond the school. Then I’ll know I’ve achieved something. This really is the best thing that came out of the Oscar.” That, and the chance to put away his fig leaf forever.