I find Burt Young the living embodiment of the Renaissance man—a bottomless whirlpool of vivid emotions.” It takes one to know one and, yep, that’s Sylvester Stallone waxing hyperbolic about his Rocky colleague. Yet for all his thuggish typecasting as an actor, beneath Burt’s disintegrating Brillo pad passing for hair there’s the bristling sensitivity of a street author. This week CBS airs Young’s first produced screenplay, Daddy, I Don’t Like It Like This, a quasi-autobiographical piece about growing up tough (as he did) in New York’s Queens.
Thus continues the saga of Young, who, at 38, is really more Rockyesque than Stallone. Following his Oscar nomination for that picture, Burt was tapped for the role of the rebel trucker Pig Pen in the just now released Convoy. His 18-wheeler was dubbed “The Love Machine”—and appropriately enough. On New Mexico location Burt’s mobile dressing room was more mobbed by groupies than that of hunky co-star Kris Kristofferson. “The crew is watching this trailer with a spyglass,” Young boasted at the height of the action. Burt was doing some more writing on the side too, and he is now starring as a trumpeter in his first big-screen script, Uncle Joe Shannon. “I don’t sleep much,” he says of his new double-billing. “Acting makes me high. Writing makes me feel bright, but it don’t make for a calm day.”
The steadiness in Young’s turbulent life is provided by his daughter, Anne, 9. “She’s the best thing, the basis of me,” says Young. Anne enrolled herself without his knowledge in a school program for gifted children, and her artwork, framed by her proud pop, lines the walls of their duplex apartment in Beverly Hills. A live-in housekeeper shoulders parental tasks when Burt’s on location. His wife, Gloria, “a kid from the neighborhood,” died “four to six years ago,” he says.
Young refuses to elaborate on his eerie imprecision about his late wife, and that evasiveness extends to lurid rumors about his past. He admits to being born to an Italian iceman turned high school shop teacher but won’t even reveal his last name. “It’s a derivative, but it’s Young now.” His most dedicated teacher, a priest, “threw in the sponge” by the time he was 16. “I started out bright as hell, but then I just didn’t think that’s where it was at.” So Burt entered the Marines. “I was going with this married girl who had two kids and I was getting into trouble with her husband,” he explains. “A legendary troublemaker” as a private in Japan and the Philippines, Young ended his hitch in 1959, short of his full two years, “for the convenience of the government.” By then he also had his first rejection slip as a writer: Playboy sent back his short story Sicilian Love Potion.
Back in Queens, he says he joined “the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang,” which he describes as “some guys who were making big money and some who weren’t—but all sharpies” who hung out in an Italian bakery. “I was everything from a truck driver to a carpet cleaner to doing stuff under the table—a piece of a bar, a piece of a used car lot, chasing a buck, never thinking I had a choice.” Always a heavy hitter, he had several pro fights under assumed names (and recently went two rounds with Muhammad Ali for charity). Finally he settled into a precarious carpet-laying business with his brother.
In 1969 Burt’s life changed when he became enamored of a barmaid who wanted to become an actress but couldn’t get into Lee Strasberg’s classes. “I thought it was a girl she was talking about,” Young says of the renowned creator of Actors Studio, “but I knew I could get in any place I wanted to.” To impress her, he wrote a letter about himself (“I said, ‘I’m treading water, see me’ “). It scored with Strasberg, who became his mentor, says Burt, “for a devout two years.”
Young rehearsed in the cellar of the bakery unperturbed by the gang. After 40 rejections he was cast in an Urban Coalition TV commercial. “Some guy caused a disturbance on the set,” Burt recounts. “My brother said, ‘Do you want me to take care of him?’ I said, ‘No, please, this is a different business I’m in now.’ ” For a couple of years he did off-off-Broadway shows and TV bit parts until another Queens tough-made-good helped him with his big movie shot in 1975.
“Jimmy Caan twisted the producer’s arm on The Killer Elite and got me a good paycheck,” says Young gratefully, and by the time it was finished, he claims, “I rewrote half the script. It was that faulty that they would take a baloney like me and listen to him.” His other credits now include Chinatown, Twilight’s Last Gleaming and The Choirboys, and he’s looking forward to Rocky II, Redemption. (Burt reveals that “Rocky hits the pits and it’s about the problems he has to face to stand up again. Stallone wrote well again, the son of a gun.”)
With an income now “in the healthy six figures,” the anxiety of Young’s hard-knuckle years seems far away. Unlike a mere 15 months ago when he lost his tickets and arrived two hours late for the Oscars. “Just as we sat down they called Jason Robards as best supporting actor. My daughter looked at me and said, ‘What do we do now? Have you got to give the tuxedo back?’ And I said, ‘It’s okay, honey. I swear to God it’ll be okay.’ ” Young adds, half smiling: “I still got my tool case downstairs. I got my carpet tools. I got everything.”