GQ - Gentlemen's Quarterly, July 1992 v62 n7 p104(4)
Peter Gallagher, one leg at a time. (his little-known acting career)
By: Lucy Kaylin
Flushed and sweaty from a preview performance of Broadway's triumphant Guys and Dolls, Peter Gallagher relaxes in his dressing room amid scattered remnants of his character, Sky Masterson, two pin-striped gangster suits, two white neckties, two fedoras, a Salvation Army cap, a pair of dice on the dressing table. Gallagher scoops them up. "The real trick to this role is figuring out how to shake the dice without looking like I'm whacking my dummy," he explains. "Should I do it like this," he says, pulling his elbow in tight, "or like this?," juggling his hand up high behind his head -- anything to avoid that familiar crap-shooting pose, the vigorous pump of a loose fist at just about groin level. "You don't want the audience to be saying, 'Wait a minute, what's Sky Masterson doing up there?'"
He needn't worry. Dice decorum, notwithstanding, when Peter Gallagher's working the stage at the Martin Beck Theatre, he's definitely not wanking off. Which is to say his forays onto Broadway aren't (as they are with so many actors) about racking up theater credits in an effort to legitimize his bloated movie-star status and salary. Quite the opposite. At 36, Gallagher, the Laurence Olivier of teensy, unprofitable movies and classy TV dramas (The Murder of Mary Phagan, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial) made his bones on Broadway in (among others) Hair, Grease, The Real Thing and 1986's Long Day's Journey Into Night, for which he won a Tony nomination in his role as the wounded Edmund. In fact, Broadway was just the right proving ground for him -- lively and immediate as Gallagher himself, the perfect arena for his exaggerated good looks (to say nothing of his lissome singing voice); thick, flexible eyebrows that arch and swoop with malice and surprise; glittering blue eyes, the sort of lustrous black coif that Hair Club clients would kill for; a wide mouth and full architectural lips that curl at the corners when a smile is in progress. As Sky Masterson, with his square jaw just visible beneath the shadow of his fedora's brim, Gallagher looks a little like Dick Tracy.
A romantic, fast-talking smoothy, Sky is but the latest in along line of slick operators Gallagher has played, mostly in the movies -- from John Millaney, the philandering lawyer in Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape, to studio exec Larry Levy in Robert Altman's biting show biz send-up The Player. A Hollywood shark who attends A.A. meetings not because he has a drinking problem but because "that's where all the deals are being made these days." Levy is like the Ghost of Hollywood Future, to whom creativity is but a niggling impediment in the filmmaking process.
"It was liberating to play that character," Gallagher says, fetching a whistling teakettle that's perched near a hissing radiator in a dressing room that's as plush as nun's quarters. In a worn, green T-shirt, wide-wale cords, and wire rim glasses, he looks like the earnest Tufts University student he was some eighteen years ago -- the the virtual antithesis of the reptilian Larry Levy. "Now I take the painful parts of the business a lot less seriously. You're just a chip on the table and how the last thing you did is doing at the box office, or which way the wind is blowing, determines your value. It has nothing to do with you. On some movie sets you see producers standing there with their arms folded going [he squints, rocks back on his heel, strokes his jaw] And as an actor, you're thinking, "Ooh, I'm gonna to be fired, ooh, he hates me, ooh, he wishes we were all more famous. But what they're really saying is 'Y'know, I brought my car in today and the fucker knocks! I don't know how many times I've had that fucker repaired
Gallagher is philosophical about the crassness and caprice that rule his profession. He's had to be. He's been in a string of box-office stiffs, starting with his 1980 film debut as a Fabianesque rocker in Tyler Hackford's The Idolmaker (mishandled by United Artists, which was punch drunk at the time from the Heaven's Gate fiasco) Blockbusters have eluded Gallagher partly because he tends to choose roles on the completely wacky basis of the material --- say how interesting it is and who's directing --- versus the project's commercial viability, which has meant clever turns in little known projects (as a hungry reporter in the chimerical Dreamchild, as a man in love with his sister in Tune in Tomorrow
) Ironically, yet another of this type, 1989's sexy, cerebral sex, lies and videotape, with it's miniscule $1.8 Million budget, was the first picture that he was in that made money. "Even back when we didn't have a distributor, yet, Peter was very high about it," says Soderbergh, "because he'd had a good experience. That was what was important to him. That was enough." Though this hasn't made Gallagher a hero to the bean counters, he's a real favorite among heady, adventurous directors like Altman and Soderbergh.
Gallagher's sane approach to the lunacy of Hollywood may owe in part to the tight-knit normalcy of his middle-class upbringing, in Armonk, NY, and to his solid, happy marriage. He met his wife, Paula --- who owns a film-production company--during his first week at college, pursued her for seven years and made points only "when I stopped behaving like a nervous goofball around her." He calls her "a great companion in this life" and figures "there's very little that this world could offer that could be more valuable to me than what I have with her and my [2 year old] son. You might say this is the big difference between him and Sky Masterson. For Gallagher, life is anything but a crapshoot. Grace, greatness is achieved not by chance or dumb luck but methodically, through meaningful pursuit.
Nevertheless, with The Player and Guys and Dolls, Peter Gallagher may well have rolled boxcars. Both performances have won raves--maybe he'll end up a megastar in spite of himself. Then again, maybe he won't. Consider this eminently Gallagherian move: This fall, he stars in a silent movie. Called The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez, it's the surreal tale of a fallen yuppie, directed by aging wunderkind Peter Sellars, who refers to Gallagher as "an actor of incredible probity and total seriousness who can convey a real struggle of the soul." "I'm really excited about it," Gallagher says, "I feel lucky to be in it. And I think it will be like a lot of Sellar's work--laughed at the first time around, and then two years later hailed as great."Gallagher doesn't mind. He's used to being the sort of actor that you suddenly discover on your VCR, one day, who makes you sit up and say, "Where have you been all my life?"