Fil Formicola Steps Out
Multifaceted actor takes comic turn in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple
photo credit to Lou Barranti
By Fredric Dannen
When the veteran stage and screen actor Fil Formicola was five years old, he had a dream that set the course for the rest of his life. “I was looking out a bay window at an enormous back yard,” he recalls. “All I could see for miles were snow-covered woods. There was no one else around. That’s when I realized I was alone, and had to think for myself.”
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, to an Italian father and Jewish mother who divorced when he was two, Formicola found himself bounced around between Rhode Island and Florida. Fil’s father was a sergeant major in the army who raised his son Catholic. The church beckoned Fil before the stage did. He was enrolled at Rhode Island Junior College, and president of his class, when it suddenly occurred to him that “I might have a calling.” He was accepted to a Franciscan monastery in Pennsylvania, and wore a black Benedictine robe. The arrangement did not last. “I had to leave because I could not turn myself off sexually,” he says. But he made a fateful discovery: “I liked the costume.”
After a two-year volunteer stint in the U.S. Navy, Fil found himself back in Florida, this time enrolled at Broward College in Ft. Lauderdale, which is noted for its theater department. A saloon-style crooner with an appealing singing voice, and a natural actor, Formicola was immediately offered leads in musicals and plays, including Sky Masterson in Guys & Dolls, and the dissenting juror in Twelve Angry Men. In Ft. Lauderdale community theater, he also appeared in two Neil Simon vehicles: Plaza Suite and the musical Sweet Charity. “I always loved Neil Simon,” Formicola says.
Before long, Hollywood beckoned. Fil’s veteran benefits paid for his first film acting course in Los Angeles. He became a regular on the TV show Police Story, and joined the Screen Actors Guild, while still in his mid-twenties. Another big break came in 1979, when Universal Studios called with a small emergency: an episode of the long-running TV show Quincy M.E. was about to shoot, and an actor was missing for an important scene. The episode concerned a U.S. Marine who drowns mysteriously during a training exercise, and medical examiner Quincy, played by Jack Klugman, acquires a key piece of information from a marine staff sergeant. Fil learned the role of the staff sergeant in about an hour, while sitting in a studio barber chair for a military haircut. (A video clip from the episode can be seen here.)
In the 1980s, Fil was cast in a supporting role in Splash, opposite a young Tom Hanks, and played the gangster Rudy “Disco” Gambola in Billy Wilder’s last movie, Buddy Buddy, which starred Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. Formicola was impressed by Matthau’s comedic skills. “I’m watching him walk step by step, and every step he made was hilarious,” Fil recalls.
Playing a gangster became a subspecialty for Fil, and in a 1995 episode of Law & Order called “House Counsel,” he portrayed Vincent Dosso, a mob boss more than a little redolent of John Gotti. And here is where Fil and I, who met in San Miguel as co-performers in a radio podcast production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, found ourselves linked by the sort of cosmic coincidence for which San Miguel is known. Dick Wolf, the creator of Law & Order, had tried to purchase the rights to my 1994 New Yorker article “Defending the Mafia”; and when I declined his offer, he simply ripped off the article and turned it into the “House Counsel” episode. Fil appeared two more times on Law & Order, but lost interest in the series because on the third occasion “I felt disrespected.” I can relate.
Fil, we have noted, acted with both Walter Matthau and Jack Klugman, and both of those men portrayed Oscar Madison, the slovenly sportswriter in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, in the original Broadway production. Matthau went on to enact Madison in the movie version of Simon’s hit comedy, and Klugman was Madison in the long-running TV series based on the stage play.
And now, Filip Harry Formicola is finally getting the opportunity for which he seemed destined, to play Oscar Madison in a new production of The Odd Couple at the San Miguel Playhouse, Avenida Independencia 82. The production runs from February 22 through March 4, Thursday through Saturday at 7pm, Sunday at 3pm. (Advance tickets for all sections are 300 pesos – 350 at the theater door – on sale at 57a Mesones, corner of Relox, every day but Sunday between 2:30 and 5:30pm; or online at sanmiguelplayhouse.com.) His costar, Don Krim, the New York actor and countertenor, portrays Felix Ungar, the inveterate neat freak who shares Oscar’s apartment and drives him to the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Fredric Dannen is a journalist and author with a specialty in criminal justice. He has been a staff writer for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.
In 1990, Hit Men, his book about the American music industry and the influence of organized crime, spent a month on the New York Times bestseller list. The book is #2 on Billboard's list of 100 Greatest Music Books of All Time. One of his Vanity Fair articles prompted the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to rebuke the U.S. Justice Dept. for fraudulently withholding exculpatory evidence in the case of Cleveland auto worker John Demjanjuk, who was extradited, wrongly convicted, and sentenced to hang in Israel as the Nazi war-criminal “Ivan the Terrible.” He secured the only interview given by Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates on the heels of the infamous Rodney King beating, and the only interview ever given by crime boss Lorenzo Nichols, the crack kingpin of New York City.
While conducting research for a forthcoming book, Dannen uncovered lost evidence in the case of Calvin Washington, a Texan wrongly convicted of homicide. As the direct result of Dannen’s efforts, Calvin Washington won a full pardon for innocence, the first ever granted by Texas governor Rick Perry under the state’s DNA statute.
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