In addition to being an accomplished actor, Peter Scolari is also a pretty amazing juggler. However as the play “Magic/Bird” opens at Broadway’s Longacre Theater this week, the former star of “Bosom Buddies” and “Newhart” will take on some additional serious juggling, as he plays the roles of three sports legends…Pat Riley, Red Auerbach, and Dr. Jerry Buss in the 90 minute drama.
The original six person play written by Eric Simonson, directed by Thomas Kail and created by producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, tells the story of basketball legends Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and how their friendship and rivalry helped re-define sport, and social relationships in the United States.
In addition to be accomplished on stage and screen, the Scarsdale, NY native is also a huge sports fan, so taking on the roles of such big names in basketball is either a joy or added pressure. We spent some time talking to Scolari about the play, the business and his sports interests.
How difficult is it to play such diverse figures in Riley, Auerbach and Buss?
“Well they are all very distinct personalities, so you have to constantly be flowing from one character to the next. Along with making the necessary costume changes. Of course the biggest challenge is that Coach Riley is about a half foot or more taller than the other two, as well as being that much taller than me, but I think the audience understands that. This is both the most fun and one of the biggest challenges that I have ever had.”
Do you have a favorite role?
“I think the person who comes across the most is Coach Riley. Most people still don’t understand that along with being this very dashing figure that he had a great humanity to him, and when the chips were down he really went to bat for Earvin. I hope that comes across in the play, what a genuine person he is and was. I really enjoyed talking to him about the role as well.”
You have quite a sports background as well?
“I don’t think that’s exactly right. I loved playing all sports when I was young and had an elbow injury that ended those dreams in high school. However I have always had a passion for sports, first with the Yankees when I was young, then the Red Sox in the late 1960’s and then when I came back to New York in the 1970’s with the Yanks again. The NBA and the Giants have also been important to me, and that holds true, especially with the current gig.”
Your dad was quite an athlete?
“He played baseball at Drew University and even held some kind of horseshoes record at one point and was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. My dad was also an attorney and did some work with Elston Howard early on, so that was also another tie we had to the Yankees of that time, it was great to be able to be around such iconic figures in New York during that heyday. I also had a cousin who was a quarterback at Navy, but that all ended when some guy named Staubach came along.”
Any athletes on the top of your list growing up?
Yaz. The be all and end all. My mother’s side of the family was from Massachusetts, so it wasn’t that much of s stretch, and those late 1960’s Red Sox…Yaz, Conigliaro, Lonborg…were it for me at that time. Of course earlier there was Mickey, and in the early 1970’s when I came back to New York Thurman Munson, a man we lost too soon, was such a strong figure who commanded respect. He was amazing to watch. Living in LA as the Showtime Lakers came along was pretty special too, but nothing beats Yaz’s triple crown season.
Can this play bring a new audience to Broadway?
Yes I think it can, and it is a continuation of what the producers, Fran and Tony, started last year with Lombardi. This story may even appeal to a wider audience because it is a little more of a contemporary story, and we have seen many young people coming already. There is a marketplace for these stories, especially as original American works, and we think it will help re-energize theater not just here but everywhere.
Why does this story work?
It is much more than just a basketball story. It deals with racial issues, about competition and acceptance, about life issues, about sacrifice and success at the highest levels, as well as adversity at the toughest times. All of that is real and is what we deal with every day.
You get to smoke a little victory cigar, ala Red, in the play, correct?
We have a few cigars, but I think the most important thing is that you learn so much about the relationship between Red Auerbach and Larry Bird and Boston that you may not have known. He was nearing the end of such an illustrious career when he took the chance on Larry, and they really had a mutual admiration for each other. His personality comes through in the play for sure.
The theater also has a little bit of a sports tie as well we heard?
The Longacre is one of the greatest houses on Broadway and it does have a star crossed story with regard to sports. It was originally owned by Harry Frazee, who as you may know was also the owner of the Red Sox who sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees, so may be by bringing a little Boston mojo to the building we can help exorcise a ghost or two.
And what about the basketball? Is it true that the cast has to make layups or incur the wrath of Coaches Riley and Auerbach?
We are blessed to have some guys with a good amount of basketball skills so I honestly don’t think the basketball scenes are forced. No balls flying into the crowd though, and if they needed inspiration from a coach it certainly wouldn’t be from me. I’m a student, not a teacher, at least in sports.