Cast as the rakish Rodolpho, Morgan Spector (center) charms a spellbound Catherine (Scarlett Johansson) while the volcanic Eddie (Liev Schreiber) seethes with rage.
Cast as the rakish Rodolpho, Morgan Spector (center) charms a spellbound Catherine (Scarlett Johansson) while the volcanic Eddie (Liev Schreiber) seethes with rage.

Star Struck

A random accident transported Morgan Spector ’02 from bartending obscurity to Broadway sensation.

By Adam L. Penenberg ’86 | September 1, 2011

Morgan Spector was just hours away from his Broadway debut in Arthur Miller’s gritty urban tragedy A View From the Bridge, when fellow actor Liev Schreiber pulled him aside. During rehearsal, Morgan had shown a tendency to rush, to skip over magical moments, and Schreiber had some advice. “What you’re doing is really beautiful,” he said. “Just sit back. Enjoy it.”

He told Morgan to look at his love interest in the play, to really look at her. “Take her in,” he said, peering over at his costar. “She’s so beautiful.”

It was a moment to relish. A couple of months earlier, Morgan had been working as a bartender, with what he calls an “embarrassingly minimal” stage résumé. Tired of playing the struggling actor, he thought about quitting every day—he even bought a study guide for the LSAT. Now, because of a freak accident, he was about to take to the Broadway stage and kiss . . . Scarlett Johansson.

That night, and for more than 100 performances, Morgan would play the dashing Rodolpho, an illegal immigrant from Italy whom the volcanic Eddie (Liev Schreiber) believes is a homosexual but who has been seducing his niece Catherine (Scarlett Johansson) with the aim of marrying her, thus gaining American citizenship. Along the way, Morgan racked up sterling reviews. Variety, noting that he stepped in at very short notice, detected “no trace of uncertainty in his performance, which is rich in humor and flirtatious warmth.” The New York Times labeled his character as “both as silly and serious as he needs to be, and becomes a credible catalyst to grim events” (although the reviewer found fault with his “unfortunate blond coif”). The Hollywood Reporter described him as “rakishly charming.” The New York Daily News simply called him “terrific.”

Six weeks after Bridge closed, Morgan and I are wandering around Red Hook, Brooklyn, taking in the neighborhood where the play was set. Morgan carries himself with a kind of hip gravitas tinged with Reedie subversion (his email address is “morgueinspector”). Clad in black—he had just come from rehearsal for another play—he has short-cropped hair and near perpetual five o’clock-shadow, with tattoos on his back, shoulders, and elsewhere, which he got when he was “stupid and wasn’t thinking,” since they’re “inconvenient for doing stage.”

In Miller’s play, the streets of Brooklyn are menacing, the shadows sharp, and longshoremen sweat out a meager and dangerous existence on the docks. Today, however, this chunk of Red Hook has been gentrified. When we arrive at one of the addresses in the play, we discover it’s now the Elite Fitness Club.

Morgan has traveled a long way to get here, often over pothole-riddled roads. Born in Guerneville, a small town in Sonoma County, California, he began acting in the local theatre when he was seven. In high school, he gravitated to baseball and wrestling until the drama instructor told him she needed someone to play the lead in Grease. At Reed he majored in theatre-literature, learned about the New York experimental tradition, and put on plays with classmates. One, penned by Robert Quillen Camp ’99, was titled The Pig’s Firebird, and was about corrupt police officers who stage Stravinsky’s Firebird with the hookers and drug addicts jailed at their precinct to parry an internal affairs investigation. “People loved it,” Morgan says. “It was funny and crazy and violent and it was fun.”

He wrote his senior thesis on the idea that “self” is a set of performances and analyzed the social gains that take place in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Shakespeare’s King Lear. Like many Reedies, he cringes when he thinks about it: “My introduction is actually not terrible,” he says, “but the thesis that follows doesn’t really support it and there’s a performance chapter that’s incredibly dull.” Nevertheless, “there was an interesting idea at the core of it that I think is valid, although maybe wasn’t defended or elucidated perfectly.”

After graduation he appeared in a low-budget movie filmed in Oregon and spent three years at the American Conservatory Theater of San Francisco. In 2006, he moved to New York, took a job as a waiter in the Meatpacking District, and set out to make it as an actor.

Over the next couple of years, he played the Marlon Brando character in David Mann’s Corleone: The Shakespearian Godfather, which retells the Godfather movie in iambic pentameter; performed as a 50-year-old Holocaust survivor in a Philadelphia production based on the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer (“I was horribly miscast.”); and spent a year on the road as a stand-in for Scar, the evil lion, and Pumba, the friendly warthog, in The Lion King. Back in New York, he threw on a doctor’s scrubs for an episode of As the World Turns.

After that Morgan didn’t work as an actor for almost a year. He wondered if he would end up like so many others who came to New York to hit the big time. “I was tired of being not quite what I want to be,” he says. Waiting tables and catering were co-workers “who wanted the same thing I did and they’ve never gotten it and they’ll never get it. It takes a certain amount of hubris to think you’re going to be different than them—because why would you be? They had talent, they had focus, they wanted it too, and they didn’t get it, and you start to see that and it’s terrifying.”

But Morgan stuck to his guns, and slowly his luck turned. He landed a bit role on an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and a small, nameless part as a soldier in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, following these with an appearance in a couple of episodes of HBO’s How to Make It in America. This led to a chance to audition for the role of understudy in A View from the Bridge.

To prepare, he locked himself in his room for a week and threw himself into the role. “Miller has done so much for the actor in this play because he’s written the language so specifically, it’s almost notated for you,” he says. “And with that notation comes the character’s world view and perspective. There’s so much material given to you in this play, it’s a tremendous gift for an actor.”

All right, he thought. If they don’t cast me, then they didn’t want me, but at least I didn’t fail myself. I didn’t fail my own vision of the character. A few days later his agent called with the news. Morgan was so excited he jumped up on a fire hydrant at 45th Street and 6th Avenue. He felt his whole life had been leading up to this moment. Then fate intervened again.

Morgan was backstage in Broadway’s Cort Theatre in early January when a carefully choreographed scene between Eddie (Schreiber) and Rodolpho (Santino Fontana) went terribly awry. The script called for Eddie to return home drunk, where he encounters Rodolpho. An argument escalates until a rageful Eddie pins Rodolpho to a table and forcibly kisses him—except Schreiber stumbled and Fontana’s head smashed into the table. Fontana managed to finish that show and two others, but was diagnosed with a serious concussion and couldn’t continue. Morgan would have to step in for a few days.

Johansson was nervous. Over the course of several weeks, she had forged a bond with Fontana, and Morgan knew that last-minute substitutions like this just don’t happen in Hollywood. After the initial shock, however, Johansson was very supportive, holding Morgan’s hands onstage, offering encouragement offstage, working with him to bring magic to their relationship. Meanwhile Schreiber liked Morgan’s energy and interpretation of the role, far different from Fontana’s.

“The first performance in a situation like that, if you don’t fall down and don’t stop the play, you’re a hero,” Morgan says. Then came the next show, and the next. When Fontana proved unable to return, Morgan expected to be replaced by a well-known actor. Instead he stayed on as Rodolpho for the entire run.

Back in Red Hook, rain clouds gather in charcoal skies. Morgan and I duck in for a drink. If the self is expressed through a series of performances, thus far Morgan has inhabited the roles of the dedicated student, the struggling actor, and the triumphant understudy, but his denouement is not yet actualized. Like an unfinished script, his character is left hanging with imponderable questions: Where will his story lead? What other roles will he inhabit?

At least one thing is clear. Finally, his career is on the upswing, with his agent sending him on more auditions, and more opportunities coming his way. More to the point, perhaps, he hasn’t had to tend bar since November. 

Adam L. Penenberg is a newly tenured associate professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University and author of three books.

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