Mike Starr is quick to tell you that he isn’t the story. He says it sincerely and without hesitation. He says the real story is his wife. “She’s my idol and the one who keeps me rooted. She’s a Pediatric Cardiothoracic surgeon – a career she took on when she went to medical school at 32 years old.” Despite his best attempts, however, the humble and welcoming Starr is the story, a tale that began in Flushing, New York.
Growing up in the projects of Queens, Mike Starr never envisioned that his life would go down the path it has – especially after his earliest experiences in show business. “I auditioned a few times in grammar school and they made me the curtain puller,” he joked. “So early on, it didn’t look good.”
All kidding aside, Starr enjoyed his early introductions to theatre when the legendary Joe Papp brought the Shakespearean Festival to New York City’s parks. “I got to see James Earl Jones and Roscoe Lee Browne perform – and they were just phenomenal,” he recalled. “I was sitting up front watching this and saying, ‘Whoa. That’s really something I want to do!’” Another famous actor that Starr encountered early on was the late, great Cleavon Little. “Cleavon did a rock-style ‘Hamlet’, and after the performance I walked down to the Good Humor ice cream truck and he and I talked and he gave me advice about acting.”
That advice would be echoed by Starr’s longtime “stage mother” – his brother Beau. “My brother was with the (New York) Jets at the time and I was working with kids in the neighborhood thinking I would be a councilman or counselor and major in Political Science,” Starr explained. “I went with my dad to Jets camp at Hofstra University – where I ended up going to school – and Beau was talking about this drama program at Hofstra and I’m thinking, ‘That’s the last thing I’m going to do, I’m going to be a senator.’ But, my brother told me, ‘Jocks are out, musicians and actors meet women.’ He told me, ‘If you’re any good you get a scholarship after the first year’ – and I did. It was tremendous; I got to do classical theatre, musicals – all sorts of things.”
In 1981, Starr landed a role in “The Bushido Blade”, working alongside James Earl Jones and screen legend Richard Boone. “Richard Boone and I sat and talked a lot,” Starr said. “He influenced me because he was so talented and had worked with Marlon Brando and John Wayne. My son’s middle name and grandson’s middle name both are Boone and my character in ‘The Natural’ is named Boone – and that’s all in his honor.”
While “The Bushido Blade” wasn’t a great success, Starr’s next project was on stage courtesy of his friend, Dan Lauria – and Starr’s performance caught the eye of Lou DiGiaimo, who cast Starr in the controversial, “Cruising”. “I was ready to act,” Starr exclaimed. “And before I had even said a word on camera, William Friedkin said, ‘just do that right there, like Spencer Tracy – it’s all in the eyes.’ It was one of the biggest acting lessons I ever had. It’s one of those mantras that stick with you. If I feel I am doing way too much acting, it just brings me back.”
Starr’s “Cruising” co-star, Joe Spinnell, also taught him a valuable lesson. “God rest his soul, he had a sense about getting work,” Starr said. “He really knew how to get more time in a film without ruining the story. We did this important shot and I wanted to talk about it and Joe said, ‘Mike, it’s all bullshit, we’re unemployed go get a job!’”
Not one to turn away good career advice, Starr went out and did that – landing the role of Boone in Barry Levinson’s “The Natural”. “It was paradise,” he described. “I got to see and listen to Robert Duvall and Robert Redford – and that was a great influence. Redford is one of the best people I had ever worked with. He really knows what works in a movie. Wilford Brimley was also a great time on that movie. He took care of us and made us a team. Richard Farnsworth had great stories about he became an actor and stories about Jason Robards and others’ early careers. I got to do a lot of cool stuff in that movie – I learned so much.”