Although he is most famous for his comedic role as Carmine “The Big Ragu” Ragusa on the sitcom Laverne & Shirley, the engaging and very funny Eddie Mekka has a deep catalog of stage and screen achievements, plus a rich stash of memories with entertainment industry royalty. The Tony Award-nominated singer-dancer-actor, who appeared as Pseudolus in TheatreZone’s fall production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, returns March 24 for the professional company’s first-ever gala fundraiser (theatrezone-florida.com). He’s bringing his band from Las Vegas and, in addition to covering Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole, he plans to regale guests with fascinating insider stories.
Had you been to Naples before Forum?
I’ve done a couple of national tours and I’m sure Naples was one of our spots. I did Grease, The Good-Bye Girl, and I am sure we played there. I loved Naples. I got to go out and do some things because we had a couple of days off. I stayed over at a condo a friend of mine has, and the condo association had their own island. You took a little pontoon out to the island. It was really, really nice. I got a chance to relax; it’s not Vegas, thank God. I loved the Community School and the theater itself and all the kids. So I had a great time. It wasn’t long enough!
Do you prefer film or stage?
I prefer working on stage for the artistic satisfaction. You get paid 10 times less but work 10 times harder. Film is easy far as I’m concerned. It makes you lazy; you get 18,000 chances to get one thing right. You don’t do it in chronological order, you take time off. Stage, you do a piece from the beginning to the end, you stay in character. If you drop a line, you better come up with something because it’s live theater. I you think you did a great job and the people stand up, you gotta do the same thing again tomorrow. And it’s going be a different audience, who’s not going to laugh at certain things, so you’ve got to be aware. You’ve got four nuns sitting in the front seats so you’d better reshape your attitude.
Have you ever said no to a project and regretted it later?
No; but I should have turned a project down while I was doing it. I was on Broadway doing a show called The Magic Show with Doug Henning. David Osgood Stiers was in it, and Anita Morris. They said to me, they’re doing a showcase downtown—a showcase, that’s where people present things and where actors don’t get paid, unless it goes somewhere, then you get paid. And it was called A Chorus Line, you know? It was the Zach role, but I said, I’m doing a Broadway show, come on. At the time it was practical because I was starving. Who knew Chorus Line was going to be what it was?
Any actor you’d really like to work with?
Yeah! Joe Pesci. I say that because every time I go for a role, I’m either Danny DeVito or Joe Pesci. I would like to do something with Pacino … and a lot of people say with my hair back I look like DeNiro. I do Raging Bull, DeNiro and Pesci talking together. I can’t do it on the phone, but when I see you and I have a few drinks, I’ll do it for you.
What’s your dream role?
I’ve been doing Fiddler on the Roof for 20 years or so off and on. I would like to do it on Broadway, because nobody sees me as Tevye, unless they come and see me and they say, “Oh, where is Eddie Mekka?” That’s him right there, doing the bad Jackie Mason but a good Jew. It’s good acting. Not everybody has to look like Zero Mostel to play Tevye.
I had just done Groucho, with Arthur Marx, the son of Groucho. I didn’t think I could play Groucho either, until he convinced me I could. Like a fighter, I would train. He would show me films of Groucho and home movies. I wasn’t Rich Little doing Groucho, I was Richard Burton doing Groucho. As an actor I was convincing.
Please share a favorite story about your experiences with show-biz royalty you have worked with.
I was in New York doing Damn Yankees with Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston. I had this dance number, “Two Lost Souls,” with Gwen Verdon. We’re dancing, and from dance class—I was poor—and I had tape around the toes of my jazz shoes. I’m doing the number and she said, “What’s with your shoes? Why don’t you get some new shoes?” I said, “I can’t afford them.” She said, “What size shoe you got?” I said, “eight and a half.” So the next day she came and she had a bag of shoes for me. They were all eight and a halfs, all kinds of shoes. On the bottom it said, “Property of Bob Fosse.”
So now I get an audition for Pippin. I had this pair of shoes, blue suede boots, with nails in the toes and the heels that Bob Fosse used in Pal Joey; he did a flamenco dance.
He says, “You’re going to do the monologue, and I’m going to correct you and give you notes while you’re doing it, and under no circumstances do I want you to stop.” I’m on stage, bada-boom bada-bing, and I’m walking and singing and talking, and I’m making noise with my shoes. And he says, “Stop!” I don’t stop. I keep going, and he says, “Stop!” I don’t stop. He finally comes on stage and puts his hands on my shoulders, and says, “I said stop!” I said, “You told me not to stop no matter what you said.” He says, “Don’t be a wise-guy. What’s with all the noise?” I said, “Oh it’s the nails on the bottom of these boots.” He says, “You know, I used to have a pair of boots just like that.” I said, “These ARE your boots.” He asks me where I got them; I said Gwen gave them to me. He says, “You’re not sleeping with Gwen are you?”
How old were you then?
I think I was 21, maybe 22. And here I was working with My Favorite Martian, Ray Walston. We became really good friends.
When I was doing the Jamie Foxx Show in L.A., I almost got killed. I was playing Donnie Brasco, a character from the movie, but my character was Danny Brasco; he was a Mafia guy. And he comes into Jamie Foxx’s hotel, that’s where he worked in the series. I come in as a don with a scarf on, acting a big shot, and I go to the elevator and drop my key. My scarf gets caught in the elevator and brings me up and almost chokes me. He cuts me down, saves my life, so the whole show I’m trying to get him broads, and Armani suits and Rolexes. The day of the show, I say to the guys in the elevator, “You gotta pull harder because it doesn’t look like I’m struggling.” When we filmed the show, they pulled me so hard, I was actually up in the air, holding myself with the scarf so I wouldn’t fall. I was banging on the door, and Jamie saw, which is what you call art imitating life or life imitating art. He ran over, cut me down—he saved my life. I passed out, and when I woke up there were paramedics there and everything.
Who had the greatest impact on your career and why?
Actually there are two people and they probably go hand in hand. Phil Black, who was a dance teacher in New York City, he was like the Vince Lombardi of dance teachers. Sort of took me under his wing. No matter how well I did, I wasn’t good enough; if I was good, I was great. He would make you aware of every little thing. When you go to auditions, you can do the triple turns and the leaps, those are tricks. If you are auditioning for Fosse, you look at the smaller things, what he does with his fingers—that makes his style, what he does with his hands, his rib cage, how he contracts and isolates. That’s what they are looking for—anybody can turn. That’s how I got a lot of jobs. This guy, Phil Black, could sing like Dean Martin; he was great. His lines were like, “You’re as fluid as mud,” or he’d call me a gorilla, because I was big-chested, and he made me aware of every little thing.
Years later, after I did Laverne & Shirley, I wrote a musical called The Right Step about this guy. The plot was about a young kid and his mother, who owned a dance studio. The father left the mother to raise the boy. It was on the corner of 50th and Broadway, and they were going to tear the studio down. We needed to save it and all the stars that studied there come together, put on a show and save the dance studio. It was a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland-Hallmark musical. When my character’s father left, all I had was a picture of Gene Kelly that I would talk to in the dance studio, after my father had passed away. I could sense that my father was there, and that was Phil Black. He played my father. I wrote it for him. I would dance in the studio and I could sense that he was right off my shoulder. So I would do a step, Phil would do a step. … We looked like a shadow. That was a good teacher because unconsciously I did everything he told me to do, but he didn’t have to tell me.
The second person was Gene Kelly. When I had seen him in films, I said, “I could do that,” because he was, like, a guy. I saw Fred Astaire. I said, “I can’t do that.” A lot of people try to compare the two, but Fred Astaire is perfection, Gene Kelly is striving for perfection; that’s the difference between them.
I even presented this show to Gene Kelly… One of my best friends worked for Rogers & Collins, a big PR firm that handled Gene Kelly. One day my buddy said, “Hey Eddie, get a tuxedo and get to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. That’s Entertainment 2 is having its premiere and I want you to sit at a table with Gene Kelly.” I told Gene Kelly about it, and he was so thrilled I knew all of the movies he did, including the non-musicals. He read it and even called me, but he said he was doing a similar project and it was a conflict of interest. It was really nice of him.
Besides acting and singing, what are some other talents you’d like to tell us about?
I am a cook. The only one without a cooking show and a reality show.
What’s your signature dish?
I just had Danny and the Juniors over at my house. They’re all Italian and I made them what they call a macaroni pie. You start with a spring pan, and on the bottom you put prosciutto, and over that you put ground beef, turkey and pork. And you put some breadcrumbs and some eggs, make a little piecrust. You make elbow macaroni, cook it al dente, and on top of the meat crust you put three kinds of cheese with ragu sauce, and mix it all together. When the macaroni’s finished, you put that in and mix it all together with a little tomato sauce. On the top you put the rest of the meat. You cook it like that, and when it’s done, you tip it upside down and you take the spring pan off, and you’ve got the prosciutto on top now. When you cut it you might as well just go to the hospital. Cut it like a piece of pie and then put a little of the sauce on top.
I also make killer stuffed grape leaves. My father was Armenian, my mother’s Italian. She’d always Italianize the Armenian dishes. With the stuffed grape leaves, she’d put some sauce and garlic in it.
Early on, you taught at the Light Opera in Worcester. Would you like to teach again some day?
I would say yes, if I didn’t leave New York. Having been in L.A. and stuff, the only thing I’ve really kept up is my tap dancing and I do that in my garage. It’s funny, my daughter Mia used to go to dance class, but she wouldn’t listen to me. Even now she goes to school and she won’t listen to me try to help her. And this is what I do. Her teachers come to me. They’re my fans, and they’re looking up to me. They have degrees, and I don’t. All I have is experience. I have to pay them to teach my daughter stuff that I know for free. Go figure that one out.
What current projects are you working on?
Right now I’m trying to get back in the loop now because I’ve been on the road doing this show and that show. I was up in Canada for 12 weeks with Cindy Williams doing a play called Sylvia. It’s been a while since I’ve done television, but six months ago I did a show called Children’s Hospital with Henry Winkler. I’m going to start getting back into television.
Anything else you would like our readers to know about you?
That I’m alive and well, and I hope to do Fiddler on the Roof down there somewhere!