Cantone, Dramatis Persona

Is the gay funnyman of screen and stage becoming serious?

Cantone has the good fortune of going back 21 years with Michael Patrick King, the bald honcho from “Sex” who surfaces every year around Emmy time.

“We did stand-up together in the mid-80s at the Improv,” Cantone recalled, “and he always loved what I did.  But even as a stand-up, he was always a director. He would throw me in situations in the back of a car on the way home from a Jersey gig and I would have to act them out. He was hilarious.” 

So no auditioning for “Sex,” let alone a casting couch?

“If I had to audition for it I probably wouldn’t have gotten it,” the Boston-born Cantone dead-panned. “I’m the worst auditioner in the world. So if you don’t write it for me, I’m done. Don’t put me in the room in front of the table because I’m bad.”

What about his scene-stealing role in last season’s “The Violet Hour” as fussy, pre-gay Gidger? Surely, with playwright Richard Greenberg coming off his Tony win for “Take Me Out,” Gidger required rigorous auditioning.

“That role was written for me too,” Cantone began, “I knew Richard from Yale. He saw me in ‘Love! Valor! Compassion!’ and stopped me on the street. He was very flattering so I said, ‘Write me a part.’ And then eight years later he did.” 

Cantone, suddenly getting a sense of where this was going, snapped to: “Oh, no, no, no! Parts are not being written for me left and right. There was this and there was ‘Sex and the City,’ but I’m waiting. I’m waiting for more.”

Waiting is something Cantone knows a thing or two about. Years of brutal (in Cantonese, both this word and “hilarious” are dragged out to about five syllables each) stand-up routines put Cantone on the map as a bracing comedian. 

But he’s also had his share of drama on the Great White Way, both on-stage and off. There’s his workshop role of Timon in Disney’s “Lion King.”

“I knew that show was going to be really successful,” Cantone said. “I just couldn’t strap a puppet on eight times a week. I didn’t want to do it. They asked me. They asked me like three times. I just said, ‘I can’t.’”

Still, the story became fodder for one of his funniest stand-up routines, the one that begins, “Did you see ‘The Lion King?’ It’s very good. For a puppet show!”

Even now, when asked about the adorable meerkat, Cantone responded, “You want me to tell you the workshop story where I bopped it up the ass in front of Michael Eisner? The fucked up thing is I love Disney. I have production cells on my walls from original movies. I’m a big fan.”

Indeed he is. In fact, his childhood reads like a treatment for one of those cornball, 70s Disney live action flicks.

“I was a pretty obnoxious kid,” Cantone recalled. “I was loud and always wanted to be the center of attention. I used to do theater productions in my backyard and made all the kids come. I filmed ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ on an 8-mm camera in my pool. I tipped the camera and made the kids fall over and jump off upside-down tables and hang from cables. It was so fucked up. But they did it. I must have been quite a pushy human being.” 

Surprisingly, Cantone is nothing like the Robin Williams-on-a-Haldol-flex-day one would expect. He’s polite, soft-spoken even. It’s as if the only thing about him that’s manic are his career choices. Even those evince a certain amount of integrity.

Cantone is more straightforward.

“That’s why I’m poor,” he laughed. “I don’t want to do what I don’t want to do.”

Case in point: a television production I jokingly refer to as his “Olsen Twins project” in which he would have played the role of twins. He recently walked away from the project when the production company wanted to bring in someone else to play his twin brother.

“You know, I could have just said, ‘Do what you want with it.’ But I said to them, ‘If I do it that way and it doesn’t work, I can never go back and do it again.’ So I said no. I lost a lot of money. But I don’t care about money.”

Some maintain that money only comes when you stop caring.

“I’ve always not cared and it hasn’t happened yet,” Cantone said ruefully, “so you’re wrong.”

So, all Mario cares about is love? Well, no, but he’s got––not to put too fine a point on it––a really hot boyfriend, fellow actor Jerry Dixon. They’ve been kicking it at least as long as Cantone’s been on television, going all the way back to his days as host of kids’ show “Steam Pipe Alley.”

Now they’re collaborating on Cantone’s long-delayed, one-man-show “Laugh Whore” that’s finally set to hit the boards this fall. But even that manages to rankle.

“I had boxing promoters as my last producers which is why it didn’t work out,” Cantone said about his show which eked out four performances last year at the American Airlines Theater. “Boxing promoters! And I love boxing, but I was like Jesus Christ!”

Those promoters might come in handy as Cantone stands poised on what he sees as the biggest gamble of his extremely varied career

“I’m going to be a disco diva,” he laughed.

On February 17th, Cantone will enter what he calls “theatrical prison” and emerge on the stage of Studio 54 on March 26 as Samuel Byck in the Joe Mantello’s Roundabout production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Assassins.”

A gamble? Mantello and Sondheim have enough Tonys between them to sink a mantle. So what’s the big deal? Well, Cantone plays a man who hijacks a plane and attempts to fly it into the White House to assassinate President Nixon. Hello?

“I think it’s going to be really loud,” Cantone allowed. “People are going to have different reactions to it, but it’s that kind of play anyway.”

Right now, Cantone is girding himself for what he calls “Ground Hog’s Day.”

“You’re doing the same fucking thing every night,” he explained. But he has no complaints.

“This is my second great theatrical piece this season,” Cantone said. “It’s a really gruff, butch role so I get to butch it up and be a fucking psycho and get all my anger out.” 

But is New York ready for it? Scuttled just after 9/11, this major revival is now back on and ready to make a splash, but who, one wonders, was more whiny after 9/11 than New York’s theater community?

“I can only speak for the people,” Cantone began, mock serious. “But we seem pretty back on track. I went back and forth on it, one day I was like, ‘Yeah they’re right’ and the next day I was like, ‘They should have just done it.’ In hindsight, I still think they should have done it, but I think now it’s going to resonate a little bit more.”

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