Massachusetts born Eddie Mekka didn’t follow a dream to show business. He followed his heart. Smitten with a young lady in high school he followed her to Boston. Within five years he had appeared on Broadway, scored a Tony Award nomination and headed to Hollywood.
Best known as Carmine Ragusa (The Big Ragu) on television’s “Laverne and Shirley,” Mekka continues to sing and dance. He just completed a production of “The Rocky Horror Show,” where he played both the narrator and Eddie and will next be seen as Pseudolus in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” This Friday, November 2, he will be appearing with his “Laverne and Shirley” co-star Cindy Williams at a special screening of “American Graffiti” in Omaha, Nebraska. The screening, the 31st Omaha Film Event produced by Bruce Crawford, will benefit the Nebraska Kidney Association. For more information, click here http://www.omahafilmevent.com/upcoming.htm
While enjoying a rare travel break at his Las Vegas home Mr. Mekka took the time to talk with Media Mikes about his career.
Mike Smith: What inspired you to pursue musical theater?
Eddie Mekka: When I was a senior in high school I kind of fell in love with a girl. She went on to study at the Boston Conservatory of Music so I followed her there and got a scholarship. I was taking voice at the Conservatory. Dinner theatres were big in Massachusetts and I attended a performance of “Hello, Dolly.” Afterwards I asked around as to how you got into something like this. The theaters were Equity houses and they told me you had to be a member of Actor’s Equity. I asked how you got into Equity and they said I had to be in a show. How does anybody get in? (laughs) They told me I could work as an apprentice and earn points. Or if someone just decided they wanted to hire you then you join the union and pay your money (dues). So I went back to the theater a few days later and gave them my photo and resume’. One of the other dinner theaters was doing the show “Promises Promises” and somebody got sick. Rather than go all the way back to New York City to audition a new actor they auditioned me there and I got the job. I quit school and that night I went into the show. I did the show for eight months. Most of the actors in the show were from New York City and when the show ended they told me to go to New York. And that’s what I did. I drove a cab and studied hard and started getting into Broadway shows. I got a Tony nomination as Best Actor, headed to Hollywood and in three days I got “Laverne and Shirley!” That’s the long and the short of it!
MS: Wow! That’s the story you never hear. It’s always “I washed dishes for 10 years.”
EM: Well in New York I did drive a cab as well as help clean up at a dance studio. After two years I started teaching dancing. In fact, there were people who had graduated with degrees in Dance from the Boston Conservatory who became my students.
MS: Since you highlighted you dancing, I’ve noticed that in a lot of your on screen appearances….be it “Laverne and Shirley” or “A League of Their Own”…you always manage to work a few dance steps in. Of all of your talents is that your favorite?
EM: I’ve always been a song and dance man…Gene Kelly…Tony Bennett…I’m from the old fashioned school where you had to learn how to sing and dance and act and be funny. You couldn’t just walk onto a television program overnight and then learn how to act. I’m from the old school where you had to learn it all first. Then you go out into the world and pay your dues. You did it the right way…that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Because once they find out you can do something special…that you can sing and dance…they try to incorporate that into your role. Besides, I love dancing. As long as I can walk I can dance and as long as I can talk I can sing.
MS: You earned a Tony Award nomination as Best Actor in a Musical for your performance in “The Lieutenant.” You’ve also appeared in shows like “Grease” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Do you prefer musical theater to film or television?
EM: I prefer the theater artistically. I prefer the others as far as it being a business, making money and getting recognition. There’s no fooling people in the theater. You get on stage and you’ve gotta be good. There’s no faking it. People don’t care how cute you are – they want to be entertained. You don’t get two chances to get it right. You learn the whole script from beginning to end and that’s how you do it. There’s no “CUT.” There’s no switching with a double to make you look good. The theater is honest and there’s no fooling it. And when you take your curtain call at the end you feel absorbed. You’ve done something. And you have to do it again the next day. But not the same way because each audience is different. You actually have to be on your toes. You have to listen and see what they’re laughing at from the very beginning…what the audience is responding to. A lot of the fun of live theater is judging the audience. You just don’t go up there, say your lines then go home and take the money. It’s an art. It’s an art of communication. And in that respect I like it. In television and film you get paid ten times more and do ten times less work. Go figure.
MS: You mentioned that when casting people find out an actor’s talents they try to work them into the character. Was Carmine’s singing and dancing an original part of the character or something you developed with the directors?
EM: It came about through Garry Marshall, who created “Laverne and Shirley” as well as “Happy Days,” which is where Garry first introduced “Laverne and Shirley.” When he cast the show he was looking for a wise-guy Italian. I had just come out from Broadway and an agent I met with was looking at me through her hand. I asked her what she was doing and she said she was trying to see what I looked like on television. I said why not just give me a screen test. She said “it doesn’t work that way, Sonny.” Actors are products. If we don’t know our products we can’t sell them. I told her that someone had told me she was a ballsy lady…that I thought we could have done business together. I shook her hand and left. She was having dinner with a friend of hers from Paramount that night and the friend told her she was helping cast a new show called “Laverne and Shirley” and they were looking for a third character named Carmine…sort of a wise guy Italian. She told her about this guy who had just left her office and her friend said, “bring him in!” I went in the next day and auditioned. That night I did a screen test along with a lot of other “Carmines.” They were also looking at a lot of other “Shirleys.” At first Cindy didn’t want to do it…she had just finished “American Graffiti.” Anyway, during a taping of “Happy Days” Garry Marshall addressed the audience and informed them they were going to see a scene with some new characters. We came on, did the scene and the audience loved it. Garry Marshall told us, “we’ve got a show!” As the show progressed Garry sat down with me and asked me “what else can you do?” I told him I could sing and dance. “Yeah…let’s see.” The following week in the show Laverne tells Carmine that she’s trying to get Shirley to jump out a bachelor cake for the Fonz. I tell her that I can’t get Shirley to do anything but “she’s a sucker for my Tony Bennett (in a perfect Bennett impersonation) YOU KNOW I GO FROM RAGS TO RICHES!” The audience applauded and that was it.
MS: Besides “Laverne and Shirley” you’ve worked several times on stage with Cindy Williams (“Grease,” “It Had to Be You”). Is it easier working with someone you’re so familiar with?
EM: Oh yes. When we did “Grease” we shared the same bus. She had the suite in the front and I had the one in the back. We really go to know each other. On “Laverne and Shirley” we really didn’t talk much, except on set. We didn’t really socialize. It wasn’t until we did “Grease” that we became great friends. We just spent 10 weeks in Canada doing a play called “Sylvia.” And we did a show for 6 weeks the previous year. Our timing now is perfect…it gels. We work really good together.