‘As an actor,’ says a friend, ‘Michael is on a direct line to truth’
Some 120 million Americans watched at least part of NBC’s four-night production of Holocaust, but Michael Moriarty remembers especially the ones who cornered him in a coffee shop in Miami. “There was this woman going home, and she said to her husband, ‘George! George! I just saw the Nazi! The blond Nazi! He was sitting right there!’ Then the manager looked up at me and she said, ‘Oh, you’re the one—I hate you, I hate you! God, do I hate you!’ ”
That’s the way it has been for Moriarty since he etched Holocaust’s chilling portrayal of the lawyer-turned-SS major, Erik Dorf. Days later, back in New York from his Florida getaway, he still steps onto an elevator to gasps, and people stare on subways. Others stop him, compelled to tell their aching personal Holocaust stories. More than any performer in the docudrama, Moriarty brought to harrowing life Hannah Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil.” “The point,” says the shy, intense Moriarty, himself so deeply shaken by the part that he found it difficult to go before the cameras, “is that anyone could become Erik Dorf. There, but for the grace of God, go I. That role helped make me a Catholic. The only way I could sustain the rage within Dorf, without guilt, was the image of Christ, all-forgiving and all-loving.”
By now, Moriarty, 37, is used to receiving strong responses to his work. His searing evocation of a homosexual prostitute in John Hopkins’ Find Your Way Home won a Broadway Tony in 1974. That same year he earned a TV Emmy as the Gentleman Caller opposite Katharine Hepburn, no less, in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. “Michael Moriarty is one of the great actors of the Western world,” says drama coach Stella Adler, in a rare encomium. “His work is significant, it is meaningful, and it has size.”
He grew up of Scandinavian-Irish stock (“definitely melancholy”) in Detroit, where his paternal granddad George Moriarty played third base for the Tigers in the Ty Cobb era and later managed the team. Michael’s father, a police department surgeon, sent him to private schools (one run by Jesuits) and to Dartmouth College, where he majored in drama. “When I saw Paul Scofield do Love’s Labor’s Lost at Stratford,” he recalls, “that’s when I saw the potential of the level of truth that could go on up there on a stage. I said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ” After graduating, he won a Fulbright scholarship to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
Back in Detroit, he briefly surrendered his ambition and sold tires. Moriarty then began a decade of regional and off-Broadway theater, including four seasons with the Tyrone Guthrie troupe in Minneapolis. In New York he made the casting-call rounds while waiting on tables at O’Neals Baloon, a theatrical pub. “Those directors who didn’t hire me would have been amazed to know what I was doing to them in my imagination as they gobbled down their hamburgers,” says the actor. Finally, after several smaller movie parts, Moriarty drew on his heritage as the sympathetic pitcher who befriends the dying Robert DeNiro in 1973’s Bang the Drum Slowly. Next came the disappointing Report to the Commissioner, but just before Holocaust he wrapped a more promising property: the movie version of Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers with Nick Nolte and Tuesday Weld.
Separated from his French wife, Françoise Martinet, a former principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, Moriarty lives in Manhattan and regularly visits his 5-year-old son, Matthew. His other family is the 60 or so actors of Potter’s Field, a nonprofit Shakespeare workshop he founded last September. Michael sees himself in the ancient function of actor-manager filled by the Bard himself, Stanislavski and Olivier over the centuries. “That is my dream,” says Moriarty, “and over a 20-year period, it will afford me the chance to see other actors grow and mature and ripen.”
Michael isn’t soaring without a net. Ever since college, he’s written and performed his own songs on jazz piano as a sort of “performing therapy. My musical influences are from the ’50s, Bill Evans, Miles Davis and Ahmad Jamal.” Indeed, last week Moriarty opened his latest gig at the Greenwich Village boîte Reno Sweeney. “It gives me a performing experience I don’t have as an actor,” he explains. “It opens me up and makes me less and less afraid of just being who I am.” It brings to mind another post-Holocaust encounter with a woman down in Miami. “She said, ‘I want to thank you for having taken the risk,’ ” Michael recounts. “But her eyes were like bullets…”