Paul Ben-Victor should have no trouble making it to the screening of the ABC-TV biopic “The Three Stooges” at the Shelter Island Library’s June 10 edition of its Tuesday Movies at the Library series at 7 p.m., as promised.
As the actor who played the lead role of Moe Howard, he agreed to be there with another Shelter Islander, Janet Roach, who wrote the screenplay, to discuss the film with the audience right after the screening.
But his new boss, director Martin Scorsese, recently scheduled a read-through of the script for “Rock ‘n Roll,” the pilot of a proposed HBO series, in New York that morning. Paul will fly in from his home in the Topanga Canyon area of Los Angeles for the reading and, if there are no complications, should be able to grab the Jitney and make it to the Island in plenty of time.
“The Three Stooges” is almost ancient history for an actor as busy as he’s been since he graduated in the mid-1980s from Carnegie Mellon’s theatre program. He started out focusing on set design but switched to acting after a friend told him he needed someone to “play a Juan. He needed a Puerto Rican guy and I was the closest thing.”
After some time in New York with the Actors Studio, he moved to L.A., where he was hired for the first commercial he tried out for. “This is going to be okay,” he remembers thinking. Over the following decade, he had about 80 to 90 commercial gigs, from Pepsi to Nike, with a rising number of parts in TV shows along the way, including “LAPD Blue” and “Tombstone.”
“I just started working and never stopped. I made a living from the beginning,” he said matter-of-factly.
Paul’s long list of TV series, feature film and TV commercial credits include “The Wire,” on which he played Spiros “Vondas” Vondopoulos for 17 episodes; “Entourage,” on which he played studio head Alan Gray; and “True Detective,” the new 2014 hit with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, on which he played Major Leroy Halter. The full list of credits is in the hundreds and dates back to 1987, when he landed parts in “Cagney and Lacy” and “Blood Vows: The Story of a Mafia Wife.”
But the role of Moe was the lead. Some big names vied for the part and he lit up recalling the experience last weekend during an interview at his parents’ place on Shelter Island, where he grew up in summers.
“As a bald guy, I have wigs, and I grabbed this wig I’d never really worn — it must have cost $3,000 — and I put it on and I said, ‘I’m going to cut this wig.’ I took a scissors and cut it straight across my forehead.” He looked in the mirror, snarled, “Whatsa mattah wit you” in a mean, nasal Brooklyn-ese — just the way Moe would have snarled it at Curly or Larry — and realized in a flash, “I could get this part. I just felt it.”
He remains good friends with his co-stars today and describes the real life story of Bensonhurst-born Horwitz brothers, Moe, Shemp and Curly “Howard,” with passion — especially when it comes to the ups and downs of their careers.
As for Paul, he grew up in Flatbush, where his friends loved coming over because his parents were cool and “different. They were the only ones who didn’t put plastic on the couch,” Paul said. His mother and father are Leah and Victor Friedman of Strawberry Lane. She’s a playwright and painter and did some acting, too; she was carrying Paul during one role. “That was my debut,” she likes to say, Paul said.
His father is a retired hairdresser who is well known for his photography. Among his three siblings is Susan Schrott, the fabric artist and psychologist who was profiled here a few weeks ago.
For Paul, born in 1965, Shelter Island summers were all about Jack Wroble’s group swimming lessons on Crescent Beach in the morning, playing some pretty rough matches of “King of the Raft” with his pals, and baseball games at 4 p.m. every afternoon at Mimi and Guy Ross’s compound. He usually played shortstop. “They called me ‘The Arm,’” he said, because he overthrew his relays to first base.
With a father who built his Shelter Island home’s interior himself, and parents who regularly took the kids to Manhattan to see Broadway musicals, Paul developed a fascination for set construction and design. He was the go-to guy for his high school’s productions and — despite a dismal academic record because he declined to go to classes — he got in at Carnegie Mellon by bringing working scale-model sets he’d designed and built to his interview.
Today he’s still making a kind of impressionistic three-dimensional artwork he calls wood sculpture, some examples of which are currently on exhibit at the Jeanie Madsen Gallery in Santa Monica. They decorate some of the sophisticated, complex, loft-like interiors he’s designed and built at L.A.-area homes he has bought, remodeled and sold over the past 25 years, something he calls a hobby and eagerly shows in pictures on his Macbook.
Paul was married in 2009 to a woman he met on the set of “Entourage” and was divorced three years later. They had no children. He gets to New York about four times a year and to his parents’ place, which bustles with family and friends, at least twice a summer. He hopes he’ll be making more New York trips if Martin Scorsese’s pilot lands a series deal, something he expects will be decided within the next year.
How did “The Three Stooges” find its way to the library’s schedule?
“I think it was my mom and Janet Roach talking one day and saying, ‘Hey, what is Paul doing?’” he explained, “and I think together they said why don’t we suggest it to the library” that a film with two key Shelter Island connections be included in its Tuesday night series.
When he played Moe, Paul did not know its screenwriter was someone with an Island connection and an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of “Prizzi’s Honor.”
“I think I’ll let Janet do most of the talking,” he said of the June 10 program.