By Ryan Songalia
George Loros is used to being recognized on the streets. For decades he had been a ubiquitous presence on television screens, doing guest appearances on shows like Charlie’s Angels, Baretta and Kojak, but he now spends his days teaching acting near Union Square rather than currently acting himself.
“I must have been on two nights a week for years because I was lucky enough to do a lot of the top shows,” said Loros, now 85, of his acting career as he settles into a Gramercy Park restaurant for dinner.
Loros orders broiled salmon and multigrain toast for dinner after teaching at the nearby Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute on East 15th Street, where he’s worked since 1989. He’s an ice cream fan: his favorites are coffee, chocolate chocolate chip, chocolate and vanilla, though he limits himself to a taste once a month. His only indulgence this evening is a dash of cinnamon, from a shaker he carries in his satchel, in his coffee.
Loros teaches at the institute in Gramercy twice a week, which he said is “almost as good as acting; nothing can compare to that, but it’s close.” He hasn’t acted since 2012, when he portrayed Detective Paul Garcia in the film Redemption, which was produced by Tim Martin Crouse, who also teaches at the Strasberg Institute.
“I’d love to act again. I’m not thinking about a specific role,” Loros said. He wouldn’t want to go on auditions (“I’m too old for that…I don’t have the energy”) but he’d be open to accepting the right part under the right circumstances. One thing he’s not interested in is directing, which he said is like “climbing the Swiss Alps.”
Since the late 90s, the show that Loros is best associated with is The Sopranos. Perhaps it’s because, two decades later, he still bears a strong resemblance to Raymond Curto, the mafia capo who served under Tony Soprano, regarded by many as one of television’s greatest characters on one of the medium’s greatest shows. It was a part he nearly didn’t get because of a scheduling conflict with a trip to Italy. He was set to fly out the day of the audition before his agent convinced him to squeeze in a cold reading that morning.
Unbeknownst to him, David Chase, a writer he’d worked with two decades prior on Rockford Files, was the producer and lead writer for this project, and the casting directors, Sheila Jaffe and Georgianne Walken, were friends of his. The familiarity put him at ease as he read for the lead role, performing the iconic “Ducks in the Pool” scene from the show’s pilot.
“I never felt better about an audition before in my life, I got this thing,” Loros, an Upper West Side resident, recalls thinking. Only he didn’t, and the part went to James Gandolfini instead. The casting choice didn’t bother him in the slightest, he insists.
“This is gonna sound crazy but I have no problem losing out to a part for a good actor. That’s just a matter of choice, he’s brilliant,” Loros said. That call from his agent had good news, too; he’d be cast beginning in the fourth episode, playing a role named after the rugged Italian-American middleweight boxer Vinnie Curto of the 70s and 80s. “That was it for six years,” said Loros.
Curto, an elder statesman in the Soprano family, didn’t have a major storyline until season three, when it’s revealed that his character was cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a cardinal sin in the mafia. Loros had no advanced knowledge of this development in his character’s arc until he sat down for the table read. It caused immediate consternation in him, to the point where he reached out to experts on the subject for suggestions on how to get around it.
“I know some guys that are mobbed up, I say, ‘Get me some good reasons for talking to the FBI that can save my life.’ One guy said, ‘You’re setting it up to get someone else, not Tony but an enemy of Tony,’” said Loros.
Chase assuaged his fears of his character being killed off in the manner that Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, the show’s most infamous informant, had been the previous season. Curto’s character died in season 6, of a stroke, while handing a voice recording of Tony discussing a murder over to the federal agents. Chase had kept his word, and no one in the “family” knew of his duplicity.
Fans who tuned in each week on HBO knew, however, and would heckle him on the streets – jokingly – as a “rat bastard” and saying he’d “never eat at an Italian restaurant in this town again.”
There was never an expectation from Loros that the show would be as big a hit as it was. The first premiere took place at a small theater in Midtown that sat about 500 people, and the cast and crew went out for pizza afterwards. The next day, reviews described the show as revolutionary, and all future premieres happened at Radio City Music Hall. Loros, never one for big crowds, felt uneasy with the fanfare. He exited the limousine and walked shoulder to shoulder with the co-stars on the red carpet for the season two premiere, and then escaped to the now-closed Post House restaurant.
“I never went to Radio City Music Hall again,” Loros said.
He’s an only child, born January 9, 1934 in the Bronx to a father from Athens, Greece and a mother from Palermo, Sicily. He’s married to his wife Patricia, and has no children. At age 5, he moved to Freeport, a small town on Long Island of a few thousand, where he hung out at a candy shop called Mom’s, and chuckles at memories of sleepy railroad passengers with notes in their fedoras which had messages like “Wake me up for Rockville Centre.”
He recalls his first acting gig, at age 16, in a high school presentation of the Mary Chase-written play “Harvey”, but he had no clue what he wanted to do with his life. He spent a little over a year in the Army, being stationed at Ansbach, Germany from 1956 until just before 1958, when a priest at Our Holy Redeemer Church in Freeport wrote the Army asking that he be granted a hardship discharge so he could help his parents make ends meet.
A friend suggested he try acting and put him in contact with Martin Bregman, who managed Barbra Streisand (“before she was ‘Barbra Streisand’”) and later managed Al Pacino as well.
After talking for an hour, Bregman told him to try out the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre and study under the legendary Sanford Meisner, who counted among his students notable actors like James Caan, Diane Keaton and Gregory Peck. He was accepted, and describes his first experience in class as a bolt of lightning.
“The minute he opens his mouth, the first class, I knew I was home,” said Loros.
Nine months into his two-year tenure at the Playhouse, he received his first movie offer. The shoot took place on the Spanish island of Mallorca; he portrayed a young photographer in his mid-20s, taking photos of tourists, before entering a summer romance with a 40-something woman. He doesn’t recall the name of the film, but he remembers being uncomfortable with the experience. His agent, Peter Witt, wanted him to jump back immediately into auditions. Instead he trusted his gut, a decision he said made all the difference.
“I wasn’t ready. I would have been one of these guys that acted instead of really living it out,” which he said he learned by returning to the Playhouse.
Midway through his second year at the Playhouse, he finally felt ready, and called up his manager to arrange auditions. He worked in theater for eight years, beginning in 1966 at the Pioneer Playhouse in Danville, Kentucky, and did the occasional soap opera whenever he was in New York. He was “rudderless” before acting, he said, and now wanted to work, even if it meant making losing money.
“I remember one time I got a job [playing Duke Mantee in “The Petrified Forest”] at the public theater. Unemployment was paying me $95 a week. I got the job, I was now gonna make $90 a week, so I lost $5 a week by working,” said Loros, who recalls working 48 weeks a year at his prime. It paid off as Milt Hamerman, who was the casting director for Kojak, noticed him and gave him an audition, and he got the part.
He first started teaching acting in 1977, after being given a start by The Godfather Part 2 actor Michael Gazzo, and counts among his protege’s Jamie Hector of The Wire fame. “You see results coming out of what you’re asking them to do and they get it. It’s like watching a garden grow,” said Loros. He said wanting to act isn’t enough; “You’ve gotta need to do it,” and said that going on two auditions a week and doing five things each day to help your career is the key to getting hired.
“If you are born to do this, rejection is no problem, that’s like water off a duck’s back,” Loros said.
One of his former students, Eric Rivas, credits Loros with helping him get comfortable on stage when he studied under him in his 20s.
“What George wants you to be is the essence of who you really are, except in the context of the play or the monologue,” said Rivas, 50, who recently directed the indy film Japanese Borscht. “I found myself acting in his class because he allows you to be comfortable being yourself in character.”
More than a decade after The Sopranos ended, it still maintains a cult following. A prequel film titled The Many Saints of Newark is set for release in September 2020, and, with the time period set for the 1960s and 1970s, it’s conceivable that the Raymond Curto character could be revived in its younger years.
As for the way the original show ended, with the screen going black as Tony looks up towards the diner’s entrance, Loros doesn’t read too much into it.
“Sometimes, like Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar. It ended, it’s over. In a kind of weird way, it slams the door on the audience’s face. I didn’t buy into he was getting set up to be whacked because that was a theory that was floating around,” said Loros. “Every time I got the question, which was fairly often, what does that mean? It ended, that’s what it meant.”
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at email@example.com.