It was the late 1970s when Mario Cantone took a good, honest look at himself. He was short. He was Italian. And he was gay.
The 5-foot-6-inch-tall actor needed a way to get noticed, he said last week during a telephone interview from his bed in Chelsea, comparing himself to the Old Lady Snow character in “Pollyanna.” So he took a stab a stand-up comedy.
“It was a tall order and a tough sell,” he laughed. “And it still is.”
His first gig was in Provincetown, Massachusetts, circa 1979, three years before graduating from Boston’s Emerson College. He was nervous, his stomach twisting and turning. At the time, his act was comprised solely of celebrity impressions and pop culture humor. He hadn’t opened up yet—working personal stand-up into his performance like he will on Sunday, May 26, at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.
“Try being gay in the ’80s in a mainstream club. I wasn’t doing cabarets. I was doing mainstream clubs with Ray Romano and Rosie O’Donnell, and it was a different time,” he said. “I didn’t talk about being gay on stage, but I didn’t lie, either. I didn’t talk about relationships with women. I was doing impressions of women. If you didn’t know, you were an idiot. So really, ever since I’ve been in the public eye, I’ve been out.”
Mr. Cantone’s first impression came at age 12—the same year he came out to himself, a few close friends and family. It was celebrity chef Julia Child and it was effortless for the natural-born actor, he said, who doubled as a “tyrannical young director,” ordering his friends around his garage as he pleased.
“I don’t remember because it was so long ago, but I definitely think I was an obnoxious kid,” the now 53-year-old said, “not to say that I’m not an obnoxious adult.”
Best known for his breakout role as Charlotte York’s incredibly bossy wedding planner, Anthony Marentino, in the HBO television series, “Sex and the City,” Mr. Cantone first met one of the show’s writers, Michael Patrick King, on the stand-up scene in Manhattan. Impressed by the actor, Mr. King created the part specifically for him.
Even though he starred in just 17 episodes over the series’s last four seasons—plus the two feature “SATC” films—Anthony Marentino became a staple character in the eyes of the fans, much to Mr. Cantone’s surprise. His character was one of two recurring gay male roles on the show; the other was Stanford Blatch, Carrie Bradshaw’s friend and “gay husband,” played by Willie Garson.
“It made me an international person. That’s what’s bizarre. You go to Europe and they know you,” he said. “I had a great time with those girls. But if you weren’t f——g one of them in the scenario of the show, you usually didn’t get much time. I was lucky that a second gay guy came along and I got as much play as I did.”
After the show wrapped, Mr. Cantone hit Broadway with his second one-man show “Laugh Whore.” It garnered him a Tony nomination and legions of fans filling the seats to watch his celebrity impressions and musical impersonations of, to name a few, Bruce Springsteen, Judy Garland and her daughter, Liza Minnelli—who has seen his take on her.
At first, she thought it was funny and cute, Mr. Cantone said. Until she didn’t, he added.
“I don’t do her or her mother like they’re drunk or high. I don’t deal with their past problems. I do them in their prime,” he said. “I think I show her mother a lot of respect. I guess I’m a little more cutting with Liza. But you know what? You can’t do an impression if you don’t have a point of view with it. It’s like drawing a charicature. You have to highlight certain things to make them funny. Otherwise, you’re just doing a really accurate drawing. It can be amazing, but it’s not as funny.”
Mr. Cantone has never seen an impression of himself, he said, though actor Shia Labeouf was slotted for one while hosting Saturday Night Live. It was cut at dress rehearsal, Mr. Cantone said the actor reported.
Undoubtedly, the skit would have played up Mr. Cantone’s stereotypes, he said.
“It’s worked for me and it’s worked against me as an actor,” he said. “They pigeonhole you into that one thing. It’s been a great thing and a burden, also. I wouldn’t give it up for anything, though. I love it.”
Mario Cantone will perform stand-up on Sunday, May 26, at 8 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. The comedy show will contain adult content and is for mature audiences only. Tickets start at $65. For more information, call the box office at 288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.