You’ve been an entertainer your whole life. How did that happen?
I was born after the Second World War at the same time as the birth of television in New York City. My mother was smitten by the entertainment industry. She came to America as an adult, as my father did, from Europe, and from the time we were kids, we were in show business. There were 90 live shows every week. Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, and The Colgate Comedy Hour were very much a spinoff of vaudeville. You had jugglers, dog acts, and acrobats and comedians. So I grew up with musical people and comics, which is a pretty unusual education.
Did people ever tell you to get a real job and quit acting?
When I left high school, people talked about, you know, “What are you going to do?” I thought, well, I’m not really equipped to do anything except what I’m doing. At that time, I was in musical comedy, and I worked in a chorus for many years. I always figured that I would stay there. Sometime in my mid-twenties, I got an acting job. And then, after a while, I got a job in a movie. And, for me, the progression to being an actor was very much a happy accident. I’ve always looked for that in my life, that kind of serendipity that you can repeat. Something good happens by accident and you find out what that is and see if you can replicate it in some way.
Where did you get your work ethic from?
That came from my father. He had a bakery and was the hardest-working man I’ve ever met — seven days a week, 16 hours a day. He did it because he loved it. He was passionate about it. My father set an example that I admired and I’ve stuck with.
Do you think people change as they grow up?
It was very interesting to me, how little I’ve changed. I don’t have the sense of getting old, although I know I am. But a lot of the people that I know, the guys I went to grade school with . . . when we’re together, there’s very much the feeling of laughing at the same jokes and horsing around. It’s not really that different from when I was 12. I have a friend who I’ve known for 60 years, and he’s exactly like he was when he was 12. Maybe not as much changes as we’d like to think.
What have you learned about women?
Women are, of course, mysterious. But one thing I’m sure of is that women like me, and they like me because they know I like them. Women can always sense that.
You’re often cast as the villain. Why are you so good at intimidating people?
Oh, it’s just movies. I play a lot of people who are up to no good and twisted. It’s probably physical as much as anything. I’m very pale, I have an odd way of speaking — it’s the fear of “the other.” But in the movies, if they want you for any reason, it’s a fortunate thing. I’m not complaining. I’m grateful for work.
So many people do impressions of you. Do you find them flattering?
Of course. I don’t always immediately know what they’re doing. If somebody starts doing that, I think, why are they speaking that way? But certain people are really good at it. I have a friend who does me on his answering machine. So that when I call him, I’m basically speaking to myself. Where I come from in Queens, the kids were all born in America, but their parents — almost everybody — were from somewhere in Europe. The guys who worked in the back of my father’s bakery, they spoke German all day long. Maybe I speak English almost as a second language, with those kinds of rhythms, because of where I grew up.
How should a man handle getting old?
I worked with a great actress 30 years ago. She would have been about my age now. We were in rehearsal, and she got a letter. She opened it, she read it, and she closed it, and I said, “You OK?” and she said, “Well, there’ll come a time in your life when you keep hearing that people you know have died.” And it was not a concept that I could grasp. But she was absolutely right. You know Hamlet said that “readiness is all.” I recognize this more as I get older. You try to take care of yourself and stay ready for that opportunity.
You’ve been acting for six decades. How do you stay motivated?
I really love doing it. I’ve been married for a long time, nearly 50 years. But we never had children. And I’d never had hobbies. I don’t play tennis. I can’t swim. I don’t leave the house much. I like to go to work.