Years ago, I got it into my head that I ought to go bar-hopping across Manhattan with Burt Young. There wasn’t a precedent for it, but I thought Young, best known for his roles in Rocky, Chinatown, and Back To School, might be just playful enough to go for it.
I was wrong. He informed me he lived in Port Washington now, on Long Island, and he wasn’t willing to come into the city. Fair enough.
Well, a couple of years ago, I moved to Port Washington. I figured he had no excuse but to meet up. And he didn’t; he invited me over to his sunny apartment, which is just above a bookstore.
On the twenty-year anniversary of Young’s appearance on Law & Order (Season 7, Episode 18), I thought it was a good time to dust off this interview. We talked for a while about his paintings, movie directors, and making Sylvester Stallone beg.
The Rumpus: When did you start painting?
Burt Young: Always. I won a contest when I was eleven years old in New York City. Long time ago. Different spurts of enthusiasm.
I’m motivated by color. Or sometimes injustice or justice, you know? See that? [Gestures to a painting.] The sergeant’s bent over an associate of mine in New York City. I went down on 9/11 when that terrible thing happened, with my gun in my pocket. I thought we were at war. I ran 110 blocks down. I had a house on 85th.
Rumpus: You’re still close to NYPD and NYFD?
Young: The firemen are great citizens. The cops, I’m very close to. I used to be a very tough guy, in life. Not lightly, in a business way. And I never had a run-in with a cop.
Rumpus: How long have you lived in Port Washington?
Young: About eleven years. I’d bought a boat in Florida. Guy LaMotta has a marina over here. I tried to live on the boat, did it for about a year and a half. It’s a sixty-three-foot yacht, you know? I brought it in from Florida. It was always a beautiful boat, built for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Everything’s built smaller, narrower, you know, and cold. Then I fell for a girl. She used to run the Garden City Hotel; now she’s in Long Beach. A magnificent girl with two children. And we married. So I came here. I have a studio and I live here. My lady is a little further out on Long Island.
Rumpus: How many bedrooms are on a sixty-three-foot boat?
Young: Five, I think. And in those days it wasn’t like a big boat, like today’s modern boats. It was narrow. It was a beautiful boat. I used to take my friends, we’d go around Manhattan. It was so great.
Rumpus: Did you sail all your life?
Young: Sail? This was a motorboat. No, I don’t know how to sail. It had two engines.
Rumpus: So, are these oil paintings?
Young: Mostly acrylic. Sometimes I put oil on top of it if I want more enhancement with the color. Because oil never dries, you know? And I don’t varnish the work. I try not to frame the work, either. I had a critic in Montreal say she’s so pleased I don’t encumber the paintings with a frame. You see, because I feel there’s a story before, during and after. And it was well said to me. I liked it.
Rumpus: It allows you just to concentrate on the painting because a frame would be distracting.
Young: Well, a frame is very special. It’s another art form, you know? It’s not my art form. Like, I just want to paint and say what I’m going to say.
Rumpus: Have you taken painting classes?
Young: No, I didn’t want to take classes. I studied with [Lee] Strasberg at the Actors Studio. That’s the only class I ever took.
Rumpus: How long did you study with Strasberg?
Young: I didn’t study. I was a member. Do you know about the studio? You have to audition to get in. I was one in four out of 20,000 that got in that year. It’s a hard thing, and they don’t don’t pay us.
Rumpus: You learned a lot from Sam Peckinpah, too.
Young: He’s a friend of mine and I did four or five movies with him. He’s a complete crazy genius.
Rumpus: [Gestures] Is that a storyboard?
Young: That was a movie I did, directing and producing. That’s the first day and a half of shooting.
I taught Stallone to storyboard. I just showed him.
Rumpus: Are there any directors you’d like to work with that you haven’t?
Young: Not that I’ve given it much thought. Some movies, the finished product I’m sad I wasn’t involved. I hardly go to the theater. I did a lot of theater, beside movies. Looking at the Tony Awards, to me, most of those people aren’t good actors. I looked at the fucking bullshit going to an end result. I understand that the spotlight is on them, but you’ve got to learn to handle that shit, you know? The actor is the one who does the least and feels the most, to me.
Rumpus: Is there any painting that means more to you than the others?
Young: My father, he’s still haunting me, you know? I wrote a new play that I’m gonna be doing called, Goodbyes Are Hard to Do. This is what I did: Before all this happened, about two or three years ago, I made a hologram of me. I had it filmed in California. I come in through the audience, I fool around with them. I have a gun. Be careful you don’t get into a New York moment. Take it from me. But you don’t look that unscrupulous. I goof around. I says, I usually don’t come out of my studio because there’s too many paparazzi around, you know? Which is a joke now. But I come down to get my daughter lunch. She’s light sensitive, so she never comes down. But you’ll be comfortable, but don’t make any ruckus out here. I’m going to start a new painting, okay? I’d invite you up, but there’s too many of you. But if anybody needs the bathroom, 3A. If you need a drink of water, 3A. Okay. Nice to meet you. I go backstage, so you don’t see me. The hologram comes dressed like me. He comes sitting at the table and he’s talking. The kid died long ago. He can’t let her go, this and that. And he’s talking. So I walk on the stage and I say, Hey, you see all the people out there? I say, People, this is my conscience. Don’t believe a word he says. I don’t. And it’s just me and him interacting for an hour and a half.
Rumpus: Who’s that?
Young: That’s a painting of the authoress Joan Didion. I gave her youth in that painting.
Rumpus: What was it about Joan Didion that made you want to paint her?
Young: Her work and the spirit of her.
Rumpus: Is there one particular essay of hers that really resonates?
Rumpus: Do you use the heavy bag?
Young: I used to fight. I put a heavy bag in; I work out. I don’t sleep much. But I’m still very good. 17-0, I’ve never lost a pro fight. I had forty-one amateur; I lost the first one and the last one.
Rumpus: Did you keep fighting after you started acting?
Young: No. Well, I had an exhibition fight with Mohammed Ali, three rounds we did. It was quite exciting for me. He’s a friend. We became very friendly.
Rumpus: Did Stallone cast you because he knew you’d fought?
Young: No. I was a butcher in the movie. It was the producers. I was the only actor that didn’t audition in the first Rocky. And I got the most money for it. I had already worked for [Robert] Chartoff for several movies already. My agent was trying to get a couple of dollars from them. And [Stallone] comes up to me at MGM. I’m having a meeting with somebody. He kneels down next to me. He says, “Mr. Young, I’m Sylvester Stallone. I wrote Rocky.” I said, Fucking congratulations. You did a great job. “But you’ve got to do it, please. You gotta.” I’m going to do it. He’s trying to twist my arm.
Rumpus: The painting of the man a horse? Is that inspired by Peckinpah?
Young: No, that was a movie called Ride the High Country. Turner Classic bought that. They hired me and ten other artists to do paintings.
I think Peckinpah was great. Funny, I learned so much. You know what? Everybody was scared of him. The studios were scared of him. The other actors. And so they would go through to me, because I had no fear of nobody. And so I learned so many things early. I did like four or five movies with him.
Rumpus: Was he your favorite director to work with?
Young: He was one of the favorite humans. I had another guy that was a swell guy, Robert Aldrich. A wonderful friend. He called me up: I’m doing this movie in Bavaria, Burt. And he says, The movie’s not going help you, but it’s not going to hurt you. But I need ya. He would say things like that to me.
Years later, he was dying, and he only told maybe two or three of his friends, besides his kids. So they asked me if I’d go to the hospital room. And his one daughter became a landscaper. I was living in Beverly Hills, I had a big house there, and she did my grass, my landscapes. So I walked in and the kids are all teary and I said, Look, I know this is serious stuff, Robert. But your kid just did my land. With the rain, all the sod went down the street. Who’s going to be responsible for that? He started laughing. I climbed on the bed with him and I kissed him and that was it.
Rumpus: When you hit the heavy bag, do you usually wear gloves?
Young: It depends, I used to hit bare to make my fists tired, but I’ll put these on. I worked out this morning at three o’clock. I was running outside. Yeah, I don’t sleep. I told you that. I shadow box outside.
I always did that. But this doesn’t have the full brick of the old days. [Hits the heavy bag vigorously]
Rumpus: You still got it.
Young: I do.