We have a new neighbor in Newberry. He is an actor; a well-known, quite talented and very entertaining actor. But don’t call him a celebrity. He insists he is not. His name is Peter Iacangelo, and in spite of his success as an actor, he is far cry from the Hollywood type.
I met Peter at his new home into which he moved from New York about four months ago. His wife had always dreamed of restoring an old Victorian house. After moving between New York and LA (and quite a few other places) the now-retired Iacangelos settled in Newberry because they found their dream home: an old, Victorian fixer-upper. After years of living where Peter’s acting career had deemed necessary, it was Melody’s turn to choose. Peter was happy to oblige.
Peter is best known for his roles on Cheers, The Jeffersons, The Rat Pack, and one of my all-time favorite movies, Fight Club. While he had many roles in TV and film, Peter honed his craft on stage in shows such as Moon Children, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Filumena and many more.
Born in Brooklyn and then raised on Long Island, Peter is a real Italian New Yorker. He grew up in East Patchogue Long Island, on the south shore, “on the wrong side of the tracks.” His father drank too much, and his mother was an enabler. So he didn’t get very much help from his parents as a child. With the best of intentions, his mother would dress him for school in a suit and a fedora with a feather. This attire was a big deal for her; they were poor. As a skinny, little, overdressed kid with a school bag, he would regularly get beaten up by bullies on his way to school in the morning. Upon returning home, it wasn’t unusual that he’d get another beating from his father for the stains and tears amassed on his clothes during the first beating.
Peter was tough enough to take the beatings, but he was smart enough to avoid what he could. One day, when he met up with the bullies, he said, “Okay, hold on…” and Peter took off his suit and laid it on the ground. In his underwear, he fought these kids “until they beat the crap out of” him. It might not sound like a regal victory, but for Peter, this was progress. At least he didn’t get another beating when he got home. Over time, he learned to fight six or seven guys at the same time, and sometimes, he’d actually win.
Peter and his wife Melody grew up four blocks away from each other in the same Italian neighborhood. They met in the sixth grade. She’s is an artist who does everything, including making jewelry, sculpting, painting and more. She doesn’t sell her artwork, but you can see it throughout their old house. There’s a beautifully painted hummingbird, a table with the base of a tree root, an elaborate wall sconce made out of a pipe… Though the renovation is not even close to being completed, her artwork is quite a lovely adornment. The house is Melody’s “new palette.” With such an eye for beauty, I imagined their wedding to be grand. They married at St Patrick’s Cathedral when they were 27 years old, although Peter sheepishly added; “I married her when I was 11.”
The couple moved to Newberry for Melody, who had always dreamed of restoring an old Victorian house to its original glory. They are not interested in gutting it and opening it up so that it looks like one of today’s modern houses on the inside. They want to keep it the way it is and make it beautiful again. So they are slowly buying “new, old stuff” to replace many of the fixtures that have been added over the years.
Melody and Peter looked at hundreds of Victorian houses online over the course of three years. They chose Newberry because the town fit all of their criteria: They wanted to move into a historic district, and be able to enjoy a walk-able, historic village. After years of feeling outnumbered in blue states, they wanted to be in a red state. And it had to be a friendly place. “The people of Newberry are even greater than we had even imagined,” said Melody. “The people who have come to help us with the house are just fantastic people.” She later added, “ We had three or four families come with baked goods to welcome us to the neighborhood.”
This couple is very different than the so-called average Hollywood actor and his wife. They are very down to earth and friendly. They look and act their age. There’s no plastic surgery or oversized sunglasses or entourage. What’s the secret to that? Peter claims it’s because he kept a close circle of friends from elementary and high school. He would return home after finishing a movie with a bunch of Hollywood stars, and spend time with his friends. This helped keep his feet on the ground. But he admits, this is unusual.
“Hollywood can be tough. If you’re not currently involved in a project, some people in the entertainment industry might snub you.” (Peter’s childhood friends never snubbed him.) “You know, there’s just so many freaking temptations in Hollywood. If you don’t have a real good moral foundation and a good sense of your parameters as a spiritual human being, as to what’s right and what’s wrong; if you’re easily tempted, Hollywood is not for you. There are a lot of temptations…”
It also helped that his family is not obsessed with money. While they had quite enough, it was not their focus. Their three children were taken care of and given good schooling, but like any non-celebrity parents, they took less and gave more to their kids. They never got involved in “The Scene” of Hollywood or the materialism that usually comes with it.
Peter is oldest of 2 sons—born 5 years before his little brother. He always wanted to be an actor, but he never really dreamed it would come to fruition. His father expected him take over his father’s auto wrecking and body shop, but this was a nightmare in Peter’s mind. Not only was he uninterested in the business itself, he didn’t want his father to be standing over his shoulder long after his so-called retirement telling Peter he was doing it wrong. (Whatever it was, was irrelevant.)
During Peter’s senior year at Bellport High School he took a drama appreciation class that was offered for the first time at the school. Peter was asked by his teacher to audition in The Reluctant Debutante. His teacher was to be the Director. The teacher asked permission from Peter’s father to audition, and his father miraculously agreed. Peter got great reviews for the Jimmy Broadbent role (performed complete with British accent.) It was a life-altering experience.
Peter decided he was going to college instead of taking over a family business he hated. He hedged his bets with a double major and a double minor. Majors: Marine Biology and Performing Arts. Minors: Psychology and English literature. He carried 23 credit hours and worked 3 jobs to complete the degree. There was very little sleep, but he was driven. As the first person in his family to go to college, Peter felt he needed to do everything. He has an innate enthusiasm, and it helped to propel him through the intense workload and to the degree.
Only the very biggest stars are offered a role without reading for it. Most actors audition, and Peter is no different. He does not qualify himself as a star, nor did he ever care about becoming a star. Stardom has more to do with recognizability than the work itself. Peter just wanted the work and respect for his work. And he got it. In 47 years as an actor, Peter has worked 15 years on and off Broadway, has been in 25 feature films, had 365 guest star TV appearances, performed more than 500 commercials and done 473 voice-overs. He’s also been nominated for 6 Emmy awards, and received several other awards including a Clio in 1973 and a Humanitarian Award from his high school. He even had an award created and named after him: The Peter Award, from The Actors Studio in 1986, for excellence in giving back to the community through lecture and seminars.
I had to ask, after all those performances and awards, why wouldn’t this man be hugely famous? Peter explained: to arrive at stardom, an actor has to be in two hit movies in the same year, in major roles. This is very difficult to achieve. Often, stardom comes with type casting. How else could someone get two hit movies in the same year without both films being the same role, in a sequel? But no one really knew Peter. He would “disappear” after a role as a guest star, and return to audition for another role with a different voice, different walk, different hairstyle; sometimes gaining or losing up to 30 pounds. He would often end up doing a few different roles on the same show because he would look so different, and sound so different in each, new audition. Throughout his parade of guest spots on The Jeffersons, the regular cast would often joke that Peter “snuck past the casting people again.” Hearing this made me understand: Sycophantic actors strive for fame. Real actors strive for transformability and work.
During auditions, his competitors did not intimidate Peter. Instead, he would often help them; telling them if they were mispronouncing a word, or offering suggestions on how to read a role. Peter wasn’t intimidated because Peter understood the work. He truly wanted the best person to get the part. Of course, he wanted to be the best person, but he wanted to get that part fairly. “Acting is about taking what’s on paper, and breathing life into it,” says Peter. “And to make it what the writer wants—to follow the intent of the writer, not the intent of the actor.”
During an audition for Cheers, which was a big hit at that time, all the other auditioning actors could be heard through the wall, yelling and pounding the table. Peter knew what was being read in the next room and thought, “No, no. They’re doing it wrong.” He explained, there is a “very complex dance” that happens when a person performs. “When you scream and yell, and bang on the table, you dissipate the anger. The audience doesn’t feel the anger. You’re doing all the work, and you’re leaving nothing for the audience to do with you. What you need to do is be angry, and then try to suppress it. Then maybe let a little out, and then pull it back. Then the audience is with you, on this ride.” Peter went into that room, got right up into the face of the other actor, and spoke quietly and intensely. He got that part that day.
Peter taught/coached a lot of actors who now have big careers. One of the things he always told them was “You cannot ever be too specific. Be specific as possible in your choices.” If you know where your character has come from (whether it’s written on the page or not) you can give more to the audience. And “know what you’re trying to communicate.”
Peter taught acting classes in NYC and LA. He loves helping aspiring actors and hopes to continue that here in SC at a local college or university. He has a lot to offer. In spite of his status as a retiree, he dreams that he will have the opportunity to help launch the careers of at least one or two young actors in the area. Peter says that even people who have no intention of being an actor can learn from acting lessons because it teaches how to read body language and how to be a better communicator.
Peter learned to act the old fashioned way—through doing in the theater, where there are no second takes; and of course, from Sir Lawrence Olivier. Peter and Sir Lawrence Olivier worked together in Filumena from 1979-1981 when they became very good friends. Sir Lawrence Olivier, who repeatedly told Peter to call him Larry (but really, could you call him Larry? Peter rarely did either.) told Peter then that Peter was a better actor than he was at Peter’s age. Hearing a compliment like that from Mr. Olivier meant a great deal. I later asked Peter with whom he would work, if he could choose anyone. Without missing a beat the answers were Sir Lawrence Olivier, Brad Pitt (who Peter says “is a very generous actor”) and Sidney Poitier (who Peter says was “a gentleman down to his toes.”)
Peter said, “Acting is about taking what’s on paper, and breathing life into it…” Peter’s life might not have had the perfect start, but he took what he was given and breathed one mighty life into it. And while he is the real deal as an actor, he certainly has not “gone Hollywood” with sunglasses, Ferraris and plastic surgery. He takes only the good from his career: He’s artistic, playful, grounded and, in spite of all the cigars, quite youthful. He has and it seems always will treasure his childhood friends and undoubtedly, his wife.
In spite of his humility, I doubt that Peter was able to hide his child-like enthusiasm for acting and for life from the many casting directors in front of whom he’s stood. He has much to teach, perhaps more than just how to be an actor. (And what young actor wouldn’t want to learn what it’s like to work with Sir Lawrence Olivier and Brad Pitt anyway?)
Our “chat” was supposed to wrap up in an hour or so. Peter, Melody and I said goodbye four different times during my three-hour visit. Each time, just as I was going to leave, we would start talking again. Peter and Melody would then show me more artwork, old photographs, movie paraphernalia… Heck, they even showed me a 1949 Chevy pickup (with a ‘68 corvette engine, an Edelbrock Exhaust System, new gauges and a Ferrari steering wheel). The Iacangelos might have been raised in the North and worked in Hollywood, but I’m sure happy they laid down their roots here in Newberry. With their sense of hospitality, they’ll fit right in.