Cardiologist/Actor Rico Simonini: An Interview Pulsating with Twists, Turns, Legendary Lore, and Doggedly Dramatic Beats

Photo Courtesy of Courtney Michael Oblowitz

It has been said, health and creativity go hand in hand — in this case, by way of drama and doctoring! Throw in a Triple Threat, and you’ve got a career — nay set of careers and stories to accompany your life’s work — to beat all professions and parlance. In this case, said series of threats encompass: Acting, writing, and … cardiology…?

Sure, a lot of people THINK it’s tap dancing; but like the down beat of a most luscious soul/R & B song, when push comes to shuffle, either literally or metaphorically, the threat aspect in entertainment chiefly revolves around the central part of the chest that bestows one with not only the drive, but the  desire to do the tap dancing, acting and writing in the first place!

As quoted by actor/doctor Rico Simonini at the July 2017 intro to the unveiling of his primarily penned screenplay adaptation of Frank and Ava (turned celluloid sensation), “Did you know that your odds of becoming a working actor are .01%?  Moreover, your chances of attaining and retaining a practice as a working cardiologist are roughly .007%! How ‘bout them prospects?!?” (And God knows what the probability is of retaining a position at Cedars Sinai—Prestigious a place as it is.)

While caring for patients in his medical practice, Simonini has had leading roles in numerous plays in Los Angeles, New York and other locations across the country including Glengarry Glenn Ross, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Few Good Men and Heaven Can Wait. His film credits include Dear Eleanor, Die Hard 5, Max Payne and Bruce Almighty. In addition to producing, starring in and writing the screenplay adaptation for Frank and Ava. Simonini’s television credits include Days of Our Lives, Judging Amy and Supergirl among others.

His life story is as fascinating and varied as the theater, film and television roles he has played. I caught up with Rico on an industrious sunny Sunday in Los Angeles.

“I grew up in Brooklyn. My dad hung around with guys who wore pinky rings, drove Cadillacs and every now and then were written up in the New York Daily News.  A lot of films and TV shows portrayed these guys like characters in The Sopranos. That felt unrealistic to me. Scorsese came close to portraying them accurately.”

Photo Courtesy of Sheri Giblin Photography

“When Hollywood writers tried to tell my story, they portrayed me going to medical school by day and pulling bullets out of wise guys at night. It was absurd how they embellished my story to make it sellable. The truth is far more interesting.”

LA Beat – Formulaic…

My dad knew a lot of these guys. He was in the restaurant business. He was known as Mike the Waiter. Wise guys and entertainers all over New York City would come to eat at his tables for the best Italian food. Everyone loved Mike the Waiter. He passed away over eight years ago.


Your dad sounds like he was a colorful character, someone right out of the movies.

Yes, he was. A lot of my life has been like that, scenes taken from a movie woven together with characters I hung out with. When I wrote the screenplay for Frank and Ava a lot of scenes were based on real people I met, situations I had seen, just the way guys hang out with each other – especially Italians.

How long did it take you to write the Frank and Ava script and shoot the film?

Willard Manus, a playwright I met at The Actors Studio wrote the stage play. When I saw the audience’s response, I thought it would make a great movie. The catalyst was the passing of my dad after a long illness in 2014. By that time, I had already done the play onstage. I sent my sister a DVD of the play and said show it to dad. He will get a kick out of it.

My sister always had an excuse for not showing it to my dad. I would ask her if she showed the DVD to him yet. She said he doesn’t have a DVD player. So I sent him a DVD player. Then she said his TV doesn’t work very well. So I sent him a TV set. Then she said he doesn’t know how to hook it up.

Despite buying and sending all these electronics, my dad never saw the play. He took sick, ended up in the hospital and four months later he passed away. In the last hours of his life, I played Sinatra music while I held his hand. At his wake, we played Sinatra  music while we told stories about him. I thought I have to make this movie. It took me about a year and a half to get it done. We shot on weekends. We would raise money, shoot a weekend, raise money, shoot a weekend. But there was nothing crazier than that first weekend.

I live in Laurel Canyon. Up the street from me is Wonderland Air Force Base, a little-known location and a piece of military history. During the Cold War in the 50s, it was used as a bomb shelter. If the President of the United States was in Los Angeles when Russia launched a missile, he would be brought to Wonderland Air Force Base for safety. Today if you drive up Wonderland Avenue you will see the structure with a fallout shelter sign. The base also had a production studio where they developed and screened surveillance films from spy planes and where atomic bomb testing films were processed.

When the base was decommissioned, Balthazar Getty purchased the property and built a mansion with a beautiful swimming pool. When I was looking to shoot Frank and Ava it had been turned into an addiction recovery home for those who worked in film, mostly below the line. I thought I hit the jackpot when the director of the facility offered the location and his patients to work on the film, as occupational therapy for them. The offer fell apart a week before we were supposed to shoot, when the “therapist” got kicked out of the facility. People found out he didn’t have a license to practice psychiatry or recovery. Suddenly we were a film without a location.

I had my line producer search for another location. I asked her to find a house with a pool that looks like Sinatra’s house. She asked what about Sinatra’s house in Palm Springs?

I knew you were going to say that.

Having high hopes, I called the broker who told me Sinatra’s house was a destination rental, that people rent it for the weekend and for holidays. It’s decorated just as Frank had it in the 1950s and it has a piano-shaped swimming pool. I asked how much it was to rent. She said $25,000 for the weekend.

Undaunted, I asked her if it was available the following weekend. She said it wasn’t. It is the weekend for landscaping, sculpting the hedges, pulling the weeds and doing maintenance work on the property.

Trying to negotiate a good deal, I proposed we come that weekend anyway. She said we wouldn’t have any privacy. There will be people walking around all weekend. I said we can work around them. She said workers will be mowing lawns, blowing leaves and trimming hedges.

I asked since we won’t have privacy and all these landscapers will be running around, why don’t I give you five grand and call it a day? And that’s what happened. I paid  $5,000 to rent Sinatra’s house fully dressed like it was in the 50s.

We had it from 6 am until 6 am the following day, and here’s the kicker. There was a heavy downpour the night before the shoot so the landscapers cancelled. We had Sinatra’s house all to ourselves. We shot five locations and five setups. We went from getting kicked out of Wonderland to shooting the first scenes of my film at Sinatra’s house.

It was kind of like Kismet.

It was Kismet. We were meant to shoot in Frank’s house. Years later when the movie came out, I ran into Nancy Sinatra at Joe Bologna’s funeral. I told her I’m the guy that…

She said ‘I know who you are. You’re the guy that made the movie about my father without asking me.’ I said, ‘I asked your brother. He was on board, but then he passed away.’ She said, she just wanted to know one thing, how I got the house. So, I told her the story. She shook her head and said her father would have loved that story.

Photo Courtesy of Courtney Michael Oblowitz

You mentioned your father knew Frank Sinatra. Can you talk about that?

My dad Mike the Waiter worked in swanky Italian restaurants in New York City. These restaurants were frequented by celebrities, entertainers and elected officials. Everyone loved Mike the Waiter, including Sinatra’s entourage. They asked for him to take care of them when they came into the restaurant. Frank used to perform at the Westchester Premier Theatre in Tarrytown, NY. When I was about six years old, my dad and I went there to see Sinatra. After the show we went backstage and my dad introduced me to Frank. He said “Hey Frank, this is my son Rico. Tell Frank what you want to be when you grow up.”

When I was a kid, I always knew I wanted to be a doctor, so I proudly said, “I want to be a doctor.” Those blue eyes twinkled at me, and he said “That’s good, kid. Whatever you do, don’t turn out like your old man.” And he put a C-note ($100) in my pocket. When we walked out of the theater, my father turned to me and said, “Where’s the $100 Frank gave you? That’s too much for a kid your age to have. I’ll hold on to it for you.”  I never saw the money again.

When did you get the idea that you didn’t just want to be a doctor, that you also wanted to be an actor?

That’s a good question. My father had this crazy lifestyle, where he was out all night gambling and hanging out with the guys. He wouldn’t come home until 5 am or 6 am the next morning. There were times when I’d wake up and hear the television. I would come out of my bedroom and see my mom watching an old movie. Then I would watch the movie with her. She would tell me all the gossip about the stars. The movies were an escape for my mom and me. We were broke all the time because my father gambled. The movies gave us a sense of hope. I said wouldn’t it be great if I could make others feel like I felt when I was watching movies. That is where the idea of me being an actor germinated.

I was a heavy-set kid and a book nerd. I always volunteered to be in school plays. When I attended a Jesuit high school you had to learn Shakespeare and do soliloquys. I was a closet performer and never thought anybody would be interested in seeing me.

When I was in San Francisco doing medical research at the University of California San Francisco I started taking acting classes at the American Conservatory Theater. I moved up to the interim acting class, then to the second level and then the next level. Then I took an improv class. Suddenly I felt comfortable being onstage.

When I left San Francisco to go to Michigan to do my cardiology fellowship, my first weekend in Michigan, I found the hippest coffee shop in town. There were guys onstage doing improv from The Second City. I told them I wanted to work with them. So, I became part of this improv troupe that performed every Friday night at a coffee shop. After the coffee shop, we moved to the biggest comedy club in Ann Arbor. Then we started going on road trips. We went to Toronto and all these different places doing improv. I was a cardiology fellow by day and an improv performer on weekends.

Then I came to Los Angeles. I’m here a month, and a patient cast me in a stage play. Suddenly I started getting jobs from my patients. Someone put me in their play, someone else put me in their movie.

That’s how I started acting in Los Angeles. I was doing theater, some of the plays were original. Actors like Martin Landau and directors like Mark Rydell would come to the show. Eventually I became a member of The Actors Studio. So theater kind of came to me.

I thought I heard you say that Marty Ingels was one of your patients.

Yes, Marty was great. When I was doing the play Frank and Ava he would bring people to the show. One time he said he was going to bring 65 people to the show. He said he had one request. He wanted 5-10 minutes to warm up the audience. I said OK. He’s up there doing his schtick and 5 minutes becomes 10 minutes and 10 minutes becomes 20 minutes. So I wrote on a napkin to get off the stage or I’m going to shoot. I gave the note to the busboy to give to Marty. Marty said to the audience “Wait, a note… ‘Get off the stage or I’ll shoot.’ I guess they want to start the show.”

It’s been an interesting journey and I’ve met so many actors along the way. I met guys who knew Sinatra and they all had stories to tell about him being in show business. I met Shelley Winters. I met Quentin Tarantino at a diner in West Hollywood called the Silver Spoon. I met Steven Spielberg. I used to do table readings with Al Pacino. It’s been a charmed life out here in Hollywood.

I used to go to Ago on Melrose, which was Robert De Niro’s restaurant. Paulie Herman  the actor was his partner, and the host of the restaurant. Paulie knew everyone. He passed away last year. Paulie introduced me to Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, David O. Russell and Mark Wahlberg. I even got a part in the movie Max Payne with Mark Wahlberg. These guys would come to my plays.

Photo Courtesy of Courtney Michael Oblowitz

I did One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest in a theater on Sunset Boulevard and Harry Dean Stanton, who was in Frank and Ava and who was a friend, brought Jack Nicholson to the play. Warren Beatty came to see me do Heaven Can Wait in the theater.

Did you play the role on stage that Warren Beatty played in the film?

Yes, I played Joe Pendleton in the original play. Joe Pendleton was a boxer from New Jersey. Warren was in the audience. I meet a lot of people who come to see my work and who are supportive. People ask me if I have an agent. I say, not really. I just get work through friends or people I know who are working on projects. I’ve done small parts in a lot of movies and big parts in smaller movies.

I’m curious to know how you hooked up with Eric Roberts. You and Eric had great chemistry in Frank and Ava.

Eric is a good friend. His wife is Eliza Roberts and his mother-in-law was Lila Garrett. She passed away a couple years ago at 94 years old.  Lila was a two-time Emmy Award-winning writer. She produced TV for CBS in the 50s and 60s. She was trailblazer for women’s rights and part of the Hollywood left wing. She was a screenwriter, producer, director and radio host.

Did she have a show on KPFK?

Yes, she was the host of Connect the Dots. Through Lila I met her daughter Eliza an actress and casting director. Through Eliza I met her husband, Eric.

Eric became my lifelong friend. Every time Eric was doing a movie, Eliza would suggest I go with him. She would say, “Eric is doing a movie in Bulgaria. Do you want to go to Bulgaria with him?” So, I would take a few days off and travel with him…and we bonded. I’ve known Eric for years now.

Lila was a great person to talk to. She would come to every play I was in. She was very supportive and would give me notes. At one point, I remember she said, “Okay, I know you’re doing other people’s original plays, but now you have to start saying ‘no’ because you can’t be the best thing in the show. The writing has to be as good as your performance.”

Photo Courtesy of Courtney Michael Oblowitz

What is your favorite role you ever played?

The role I had the most fun with on stage was Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glenn Ross. Ricky has no morals. He is a ruthless salesman. He does everything he has to do

to win.

In the play Frank and Ava people asked me how hard it was to play Frank Sinatra. I said I am playing a blue-eyed Italian guy who is madly in love with someone he can’t have. I know about blue-eyed Italian guys. My father was one of those guys, and he could sing. He had those tough-guy principles of being there for friends and being ruthless to enemies. That was Sinatra.

I really enjoyed playing Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee in A Few Good Men. At the time I was taking acting lessons and wanted to take on a challenging role. The second act was the trial scene where Lieutenant Kaffee finally corners Colonel Nathan Jessup into getting him to admit to calling code red. That was just so satisfying and an unforgettable scene. It was probably one of my favorite roles and I got to wear a Navy uniform.

Photo Courtesy of Courtney Michael Oblowitz

What role would you like to play that you haven’t, particularly another historical figure?

Besides watching all the superhero roles go by as I grow older, maybe Batman or James Bond. If they ever remade Casablanca I would like to play Rick Blaine or if they brought back the television series Colombo, I would like to play Lieutenant Columbo. At the top of my bucket list is to work with Steven Spielberg or Marty Scorcese in a film.

They say theaters are some of the most haunted places in the world. When playing a historical figure have you ever felt their presence in the theater?

You mean with ghosts?

Yes, ghosts.

Ghosts in the theater, that’s interesting. When I did the play Joe and Marilyn the actor that played Marilyn Monroe would study her lines at Marilyn’s grave so she could channel Marilyn.

When I did the gangster play, Brooklyn USA, I traveled to the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. I went to the graveyard where the gangsters in the play were buried. All these guys either got the electric chair at Sing Sing or got thrown out a window. I remember going to the cemetery, standing by the grave and getting an eerie feeling that I was looking at the headstone of a guy I was portraying in a play.

Another time, we went to the funeral of an actor that was working on a show I was in. At the funeral we talked about how he was always fifteen minutes late for everything, including rehearsals. The funeral service was ready to start when the lights went out. The lights didn’t come on for fifteen minutes.

I love that.

A special thank you to Rico Simonini for sharing his fascinating life and stories with us. Rico’s upcoming projects include movies on Lifetime, Hallmark and BET. You can also see him playing an FBI agent tracking down Whitey Bulger in My Last Best Friend, an international assassin in The Greek Job and a philosophical hitman in Camp Joy.



Jennifer K. Hugus

About Jennifer K. Hugus

Jennifer K. Hugus was born at a very young age. At an even earlier age, she just knew she would one day write for the LA Beat! Having grown up in Massachusetts, France, and Denmark, she is a noted fan of Asian Cuisine. She studied ballet at the Royal Danish Ballet Theatre and acting at U.S.C. in their prestigious BFA drama program. She also makes her own jewelry out of paints and canvas when she isn’t working on writing absurdist plays and comparatively mainstream screenplays. Jennifer would like to be a KID when she grows up!
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