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.)

Fostering his own practice at the reputable medical institution since 2004, Simonini has also starred numerous stage plays, not only in Los Angeles,  but New York and quite a few other venues within the United States. Best known for playing Frank Sinatra in the self-produced, and adapted film Frank and Ava, he has used his 4 dimensional earthly talents on the 2-D screen portraying a doctor in more than a handful of films including Altered Perception, What Would Jesus Do, Judging Amy, Bruce Almighty, though uncredited, Dr. Anderson in Left for Dead, Dr. Russo in the short film Brothers, and a paramedic in Obsessed with the Babysitter. He has also portrayed characters after his own first namesake in films and various television shows including Letters of Confessions, Silver Case, and Days of our Lives. Not only has he played the ultimate Frank i.e. Frank Sinatra in his oh so poetic film Frank and Ava but coincidentally has also embodied the role of Frank (NOT Sinatra) in Supergirl, and Natasha Mail Order Bride Escape to America. Forging the genesis of his adult acting career in improvisation, while in medical school no less, his journey prior to, and thereafter, reads like a who’s who of Italian American History, American Comedy (minus the script)  and legendary medical repute. And his life story is nearly as fascinating, and varied, if not more so, than any film or play ever written.  I caught up with Rico on a generic (weather-wise) Los Angeles fall/spring-like day in November via phone interview:

Photo Courtesy of Sheri Giblin Photography

Simonini generously initiated the interview in fascinating form by setting the tone for the essence and backdrop of his 4D life vs. cinematic/theatrical existence without missing a beat:

“When I grew up, my dad was…one of those guys that hung around Sinatra…and so I always say, every time someone tries to make a TV Show about that, or write a script about that… the fiction they add is so… [un]realistic… We don’t have to be pulling bullets out of gangsters at 3 o’clock in the morning in basements… That’s not really what I did. The truth is even more interesting… But everybody has to make it commercial, sellable…”

LA Beat- Formulaic…

Rico– Yeah. So my dad knew a lot of gangsters… He was…in the restaurant business… He’s been dead 8 years now. But one time he came out [to L.A.] to visit me, and he [called] on these gangsters who live out here… Basically [when] gangsters…get out of jail, they have a choice. They can stick around New York…and Giuliani, and Giuliani’s wannabes try and arrest ‘em…try and make a career locking up a bunch of 80 year old Italian Guys…”[saving] the streets of New York City from Organized crime.” Or they come out to California, [get] away from that…surveillance, and they all come out here because they wanna make a movie about their life…. Good Fellas was made from Henry Hill’s story… So, my dad was out here visiting, and he called on one of his gangster friends, invited him to my house… [And] he makes four pounds of [food]… There was only like 4 of us… There’s this mob guy, my dad, and then our friend Johnny RoastBeef (aka Johnny Roastbeef Williams) who was in [Frank and Ava]. Dinner was like noon to 7…eating this pasta, talking back and forth…and outside was a white van, across the street. And at one point RoastBeef looked out the window and he goes, “Should we send ‘em some spaghetti?” And the mob guy says, “Nah, let them rats eat subway sandwiches!”

That sounds like the line out of a movie!

…A lot of my life there’s been a lot of lines from movies, woven together… [with] the characters I hung around… I wrote the screen play for Frank and Ava. A lot of the scenes were…based on people I met, situations I’ve seen, and just the way guys hang out with each other –Italian guys especially so that’s kinda the insight.

How long did it take you to write that script?

That’s a great story. So, Will Manus wrote the stage play [and] I decided [it would make] a great movie. [What prompted it was], my dad got sick and wound up dying…right before 2014…. At the time, I had done the play onstage, and I sent my sister a DVD recording of the play and I said, “Go show it to dad he’ll get a kick out of it!” And I remember my sister always had an excuse… [So, I would ask her,] “Did you send it to him yet?”
“Well, he doesn’t have a DVD player…”
So, I sent him a DVD Player.
“Well, his TV doesn’t work very well.”
So, I sent him a TV set.
“He doesn’t know how to hook it up.”
He doesn’t know how to hook it up… So, basically [through] this process of me buying things, and sending things, he never got to see it, and he got sick and ended up in the hospital in three or four months. And he passed away, and the last hours of his life, I played him Sinatra music…while I held his hand… And then [after that], the first thing that happens is the phone rings, and it’s one of the local Brooklyn wise guys he knew. And he goes, “Where’s Mike the Waiter?” and I go, “He just died,” and he goes, “Stay on the phone,” and five minutes later, some funeral director calls up and he says, “Hey, we need to make arrangements for your father. He was well liked by a lot of guys. Don’t worry about it…” And at his wake [with] all these guys coming in and out, hearing the stories, and talking, [while] we played the Sinatra Music and I said, “I’ve gotta make this movie”… And that became the impetus… And if took me about…a year and a half to get it down… We shot on random weekends. We’d raise money, shoot a weekend, raise money, shoot a weekend… [And the first weekend we shot was the craziest.]

I live on Wonderland Avenue, and up the street from me is the Wonderland Air Force Base. It’s a little-known location…[During the 50s it was used as] a bomb shelter with one-foot-thick concrete steel doors, where, if the President of the United States was in L.A., [if] Russia decided to launch a missile at us, he would go to Wonderland Air Force base, go to a bomb shelter, and he’d be safe. So, if you drive up Wonderland, you see this structure with a fallout shelter sign on it. [But there was also a production studio] in this base…That’s where they developed all films, all the surveillance of spy planes, and also where they [processed the ] films of the testing of the atomic bombs…

When the base was decommissioned, Balthazar Getty built a mansion with this beautiful swimming pool… [Then] some guy leased it, and turned it into a recovery home…[for] people who worked in show business mostly: below the line guys. He said, “Hey listen, if you could find a project that these guys could work on, this could be their therapy.” …So I said, “Wow! This is great!”… And a week before we were supposed to start shooting…that guy got kicked out. The neighbors were complaining, there were all these cars, all these people, and he got found out. He never really had a license to practice psychiatry, or recovery…and I’m like “Wait, we were gonna use this house!” [It went up for sale at $5 million.] Well, [I didn’t] really have $5 million. And then two days later, I got a call that Jared Leto bought the house. And…I knew Jared… He was somewhere in Europe working on a film [at the time] and he’s like, “Man I can’t wrap my head around people using the house I just bought…” So the answer was, a hard “No” or “Wait a few months,” and I think, “No, no, no. We have momentum!”  So… I had my producer search [and I said] “Find a house with a pool that looks like Sinatra’s house.” And she says, “What about Sinatra’s house in Palm Springs?”

I knew you were gonna say that. I don’t know why…

I’m like… “Uh sure…okay…” So I call [them and they tell me] “Oh yes, it’s a destination rental. People rent it for the weekend…for holidays…They bring their families. It’s decorated just as Frank had it in the 1950s… has a piano-shaped pool…” I’m like “Wow! How much is it to rent?”
“Well it’s like $25,000 a weekend.”
“Wow, $25.000 a weekend, really? Wow! Hm…Well, is it available next weekend?”
They go, “No it’s unavailable next weekend.”
“Why not?”
“It’s the weekend we use for landscaping and sculpting the hedges and pulling the weeds, and doing some maintenance work on the property.”

So…trying to negotiate a good deal, I said “Uh…what if I want to come that weekend anyway?” He said, “Well, you’re not gonna have any privacy. There’s gonna be people walking around all weekend.”
“I’m just doing photography. I can work around them.”
“Well, if you don’t mind people walking around and doing stuff… I mean, I guess you could have it for like, a day. I’m gonna have people mowing lawns, leaf blowing and trimming hedges…”

I go “How ‘bout, I give you 5 grand and call it a day?” And that’s what happened! 5 grand to rent a house! …We had it from 6 am, ‘til 6 am the following day. And here’s what happened: It poured rain the night before, so all the landscaping people cancelled, had the house all to ourselves, and we shot five locations, five setups of Frank’s house, so the first scenes in the movie were shot at Sinatra’s house.

Wow. That’s amazing. That’s kinda like Kismet in a way!

Exactly! It was Kismet! We were meant to shoot in Frank’s house. In fact, years later when the movie came out and I ran into Nancy Sinatra at… Joe Bologna’s funeral. I was like, “Hi Nancy, I’m the guy that…”

“I know who you are. You’re the guy that made the movie about my father without asking me.” And I was like, “I asked your bother but then he passed away…”
“Let me ask you, how’d you get the house? I just wanna know how you got the house.”
So I told her the story. She shook her head and goes, “My father would have loved that story…”

That’s so cool… Now, you mentioned your father either knowing or having a run-in with Frank Sinatra when you were growing up. Can you talk about that?

[My father] worked at restaurants in New York, and every restaurant he worked in was either owned by a mob guy, or had mob guys hanging out there…and everybody loved Mike the Waiter, that was his nickname Mike the Waiter, including Sinatra ‘cause those guys would come in. My father always took care of them and those guys would ask for him. So Frank used to play at this place called The Westchester Premier Theatre. It was up in Westchester just above Yonkers… So we went up there to go see him…and we go backstage and there’s Frank…and I’m like six years old… [My dad] goes…”Hey, Frank this is my son. Rico. Tell Frank what you wanna be when you grow up!”

When I was a kid, I always knew I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. So, I said, “I want to be a doctor…” And those blue eyes look at me, and he goes “That’s good Kid. That’s good. Whatever you do, don’t turn out like your old man!” And he put a C Bill in my pocket. And that was my fist visit with Frank. And, of course, we walked out of the joint, and we leave, and my father’s like “Where’s the 100 dollars that Frank gave you? That’s too much for a Kid. I’ll hold on to it for you.” And I never saw it again…

So I take it he never put it towards your college fund.

No…My father gambled on everything from horses to football. So he basically clipped it from me. So, the irony is this: I’ve gotten 100-dollar bills from three well-known Italians, one from Frank Sinatra when I was six, [and] one was Carlo Gambino at my first communion… My father’s like, “You see that old man over there? Go up to him. Kiss his hand, and tell him you just made your first communion. Tell him in Italian.” …I’m a 7-year-old kid with my little communion suit going up to this guy going “Scusate…” He looks at me with this sparkle in his eye, and he goes Bravo Ragazzo,” and he pats my head, and he puts money in my pocket. It was a 100 dollar bill. And of course, when we left the restaurant, my father took the money from me a-gain

And then, years later, my father was working at a place called The Grotto. The Grotto’s on Mulberry Street. It was a place where you had to go downstairs…very famous Italian restaurant…there for over 110 years. They were famous for telling Ronald Reagan where he could go, because basically…the thing about The Grotto: No reservations! — First come, first serve! There was a line up the stairs, and around the block always for this place! So, one time when Reagan was president, The…Secret Service came by and they said, “’Scuse me… We want to reserve a table for President Reagan.” And [they got told]: “No reservations!” And [The Secret Service] goes, “No, no, you don’t understand! We’re talking about President Reagan… [He] wants to eat dinner here. So we’re talking a table for [him], and a table for two agents.”
“No reservations. Everyone has to wait in line!”
And [The Secret Service] goes, “This is the President of the United States!”
“No he’s an ACTOR — Ronald Reagan — Okay? Sinatra waits on line, Dean Martin waits on line, and Reagan waits on line! If you want, you can wait on line for him, and he can sit in the car…but no reservations!”

So, Reagan got pissed off and didn’t eat there. He ate at Angelo’s instead. And according to my father, I don’t know how true this is, Reagan was so… miffed that he got [spurned] this way, while he was sitting in Angelo’s…he noticed…how busy the place was. [So allegedly] Reagan…asked,  (in best Reagan imitation) “Gee, I wonder how much money they make being waiters?” [He then] started asking the waiters how much money they made and…realized…waiters never declared their tips as income… So…the following year, the IRS passed a law that declaration of tips must be based on the gross income reported by the restaurant. And so my father said, “See? [We] told Reagan where he could go, and Reagan told the waiters of America where they could go!”

Wow! Surprising — yet NOT!

[But when] I was down at Bellevue Hospital doing my training…I would go to The Village and hang out, and go and see [my father at The Grotto]. So, one time…he [welcomes] me and goes “Good. You’re here. Come on. Someone wants to see you.” I said, “Who wants to see me?” He goes, “There’s someone asking for you.’
He goes, “What’d you do — go to school and become stupid? Who in this neighborhood could ask for you and you’ve gotta go see him right away?”
I go “Who?”
Johnny—Johnny Gotti wanted to see me. So he takes me around the corner… and there’s John Gotti, Sammy the Bull…the whole crew…and I walk in and [Gotti says], “You’re the guy… You’re Mike the Waiter’s son.”
I go, “Yeah.”
He goes. “You’re the doctor.” He goes, “Lemme ask ya a question Kid, how the fuck do you become a doctor with a father like that?… Kid, if you’ve got a pinkie’s worth of your father’s street smarts, you gotta be the best Doctor around,” and he slips $100.00 in my pocket… So, I’ve gotten $100.00 bills from 3 well known Italians, two from the Gambino family and one from an Italian singer…

Photo Courtesy of Courtney Michael Oblowitz

That’s amazing! So now, at what age did you get the idea that you didn’t just want to be an doctor, but you also wanted to be an actor?

That’s a good question. So it’s like this… My father had this crazy life where he was out all night: gambling and hanging out with the guys. He wouldn’t come home till 5 o’clock-6 o’clock in the morning… And, my mom wasn’t yelling at my father, or yelling at us about my father… [But] there were times, I’d wake up, and I’d hear the TV, and I’d come out of my bedroom, and I’d see my mom watching an old movie. She’d be crying [to] some old black and white…love story, and she’d go, “Look. This is how marriage is supposed to be. Look! They’re home. They’re together. And where’s your father?” And then, I’d get sucked into the movies, and my mom would tell me all the gossip: “Look, there’s Lana Turner. She got married so many times. There’s Clark Gable. Look at his ears… Big ears…just like you!” [All while we were sitting in this] little apartment in Brooklyn…we were broke. ‘Cause my father gambled. The world of those movies [felt] like…hope… I looked at those movies and [said] “It would be a great thing…to be able to be somebody that could make me feel how I was feeling watching [those movies].” So that’s kind of where the idea…germinated. But I was kind of a heavy-set kid, and I was a book nerd. [But] I always volunteered for school musicals and plays. And I would get the parts… Then, when I was in high school as a Jesuit – You have to learn Shakespeare… So, they insisted that we learn Shakespeare and do soliloquys… At the drop of the hat, you’d walk in[to the classroom]: “Okay, soliloquy. Stand up!” It was all about knowing the arts of performing! So, I kinda was like a closet actor/performer. But I never thought anybody would be interested in seeing me. I just was very critical and unsure.

So… I guess the first real kind of push [was when] I was in San Francisco. I was in research at UCSF. I was spending all my time in a lab doing mean things to mice and all kinds of stuff… I know…It’s medical research… [And] that’s when I started taking acting classes at The Conservatory Theatre in Downtown San Francisco. So I went, and I thought, “I’ll keep going to classes until they tell me to stop coming.” So, I [moved up] to the interim acting, and I got promoted to the second level, and the next level. Then I took an improv class. [And] I suddenly felt comfortable being onstage doing things. Then 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 these guys onstage doing improv, and they were all Second City people. [So I said to them] “I want to work with you guys. I’ve studied this.” So, I became part of this improv troupe that would play every Friday night, first at a coffee shop, then we graduated 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. So that was kind of my thing. I was a cardiology fellow by day, and an improv performer on weekends. And I had the entire cardiology division from Michigan come and see the show, [including] this World Class Japanese scientist Seigo Izumo. His entire lab was from Japan. Seigo spoke English fluently, but his lab, not so much… But they would come to all these shows, and they’d be cracking up at all the improv… And the weird thing was, when it came time to leave Michigan and find my first job, Seigo was going to…become the chief at Harvard. I said, “Seigo, I want to come with you. I want to go to Harvard.” And he says, “Well, you [can] come with me to Harvard, [but] I can’t pay you… What other place are you looking at?” [And I said] “Cedars Sinai’s looking at me. Columbia’s looking at me…” He goes, “You should go to LA. You’ll become a movie star if you go out there.” And I go, “Well, I’m here to become a scientist.” Then his wife says, “My husband always wanted to be an actor when he was growing up, but he was never good looking enough. But you, you’re good looking. You should go to L.A. You might become a movie star!” And all I could think is, “That’s not what I trained all these years to do.”

So, I came out to L.A. and I’m here a month, and a patient cast me in something. And I suddenly started getting jobs from my patients. Someone put me in a play. They put me in a movie, they put me in a show. And then, one of my Sicilian patients [says], “I got a great play for you. It’s about murder incorporated. You’re gonna play the lead. He’s like this devily guy and he never smiles, and he kills everybody.” I go, “You look at me and that’s what comes to your mind? A guy who kills people and never smiles?”
“Naw, it’s a great role! His name is Smiley and he never smiles!”

And that’s how it started. I was doing plays. I was doing theatre…original plays… and guys like Martin Landau would come to the show. Mark Rydell would come to the show, and eventually I became a member of The Actors Studio. So theatre kind of came to me.

Wow, that is so interesting. I thought I heard you say that Marty Ingels was one of your patients.

Yes. Marty Ingels. Marty Ingels was great…! When I was doing the play Frank and Ava he would bring people to the shows, and one time he goes, “I’m bringin’ 65 people to the show; I got one request, I wanna do 5-10 minutes to warm up the audience.” And I was like, “Sure!” So he’s up there doing his schtick, but then 5 minutes became 10 minutes, became 20 minutes… So…I wrote on a napkin, “Get off the stage or I’m gonna shoot!” And I go [to a bus boy], “Bring this to Marty!” And Marty’s like, “Wait. A note! ‘Get off the stage or I’ll shoot!’ I guess they wanna start the show!”

You guys could have just started doing the play around him!

Exactly. He could have been part of the set. Exactly!

Use your improv skillz Marty!!!

Exactly… So yeah, like I said, it’s been an interesting journey. And sadly [a lot of my older patients and cohorts]…passed away. And some are too sick to really come out, and it’s been tough, the last couple of years, burying friends [at] weekend memorials. But they were very inspirational. I was meeting guys who…[knew Frank Sinatra]. And they all had stories to tell about Sinatra, and being in show business, and working with Bogart. I asked to meet Shelly Winters. I asked to meet Quentin at this diner in West Hollywood…called the Silver Spoon…

… Oh I remember that place. Yeah.

…[in] West Hollywood yeah… So…it was one of [Tarantino’s] place’s. He used to hang out there and write stuff…and that’s where he ran into…Robert Forrester who he recognized and put him in Jackie Brown, and relaunched his career. So [at the time] I was in this theatre company, and had this idea of taking the movie Reservoir Dogs and turning it into a one act play… So  I wanted to ask him permission and I go, “Hey I got this idea…” And he goes, “Well whatever you do,  I don’t want a bunch of goombahs [up there] ‘cause I didn’t pen that movie to be about a bunch of goombahs — right? So if there’s no goombahs…then go ahead!”  And I did!  And I cast it, with NO goombahs… So the guy that played the…Michael Madsen part, Mr. Blonde…was this big muscular African American guy… He was bald. And instead of clipping/cutting the ear off, he did a Mike Tyson. He bit the ear off… And the kid that we had that played Mr. Orange, the undercover cop, was also this wiry African American kid from West Texas, and it was his first show ever in L.A. And he was phenomenal…  So we ran the play in Hollywood, and one of the guys that played Nice Guy Eddie, his mom was a producer. So she rented this bigger theatre in Hollywood and sent, Quentin invites. So he came and sat in his baseball cap and watched it. So yeah, that was kinda fun…but I used to run into these people at the diner… I’ve met everyone from Spielberg to… I used to do table readings with Al Pacino… It’s been a… a charmed life out here!

So just all from the Silver Spoon…?

I used to go to Ago’s. Remember Ago’s on Melrose?

Photo Courtesy of Courtney Michael Oblowitz

No. I don’t remember that.

So Ago was Robert De Niro’s restaurant, and Paulie Herman was his partner. He was the [host]. So I got brought there by Johnny Roastbeef because… Paulie had a medical question and Johnny Roastbeef said, “Oh I know a guy. He’s a doctor. He’s like one of us. He’s from New York.” And so he brings me in, and I talked with Paulie, and Paulie’s showing me all his medical records from some doctor he was seeing. And I looked at something and I said, “So your doctor told you everything’s okay? This is all based on these tests?” He goes, “Yeah.” [But] if he asked me, I’d point out something that this doctor didn’t tell him about… I pointed out the other problem with one of his heart valves. So, then he came into my office, and we reassessed, and he wound up having major heart surgery… It ended up saving his life. And the surgeon that operated on him told him, ”If this wasn’t worked on, you’d probably have been dead in like six months. It would have ruptured.”

Yeah, Paulie Herman knew everyone. He just passed away…this past March. But Paulie introduced me to everyone from Pesci, to De Niro, to Pacino, to David O. Russell…Wahlberg… So I met everyone…[for all kinds of different reasons] from free medical advice for them…[to] a part in a movie with Wahlberg… And then, they would come to my plays. One time, I did One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Harry Dean Stanton, who was in Frank and Ava, [and] a friend I met through Paulie, [who eventually became]…a patient…says, “I’m gonna come. I’ll bring Jack.” So he brought Nicholson. [Jack sat] in the back with a baseball cap on… And the cast was really great… I’m afraid to say this, but, the only weak link was…the one who played Nurse Ratched…. [So,] Jack left after intermission. Harry stayed ‘til the end, and Harry’s like, “Jack’s got a message for you… You did a good job doing nothing.” And Jack says the key to acting is doing nothing…just be: Right…? “But he has another message. He says, ‘That fuckin’ nurse,’ which is a line from the play meaning that the nurse killed it for him, that’s why he left at Intermission.”

And I had Warren Beatty come and see me do Heaven can Wait.

Oh wow! Did you play his role…?

Yeah, I played Joe Pendleton, [and]  in the the original play, Joe Pendleton was a boxer from Jersey… And yeah, Warren was in the audience. So I can say I get to meet a lot of people who come see my work and are supportive…. And people say, “Well do you have an agent?” I go, “Not really.” I just [go through] friends, or people I know are working on things… So I’ve done small parts in a lot of movies, and big parts in smaller movies…

Now I know you mentioned Al Pacino too. What was your experience with him?

[Al’s] cousin’s wife was a talent agent, and once upon a time she represented me…and she used to show stuff to her cousins [including] Al. Then one day I get this phone call: “Al wants you to be at [so and so’s] office ‘cause he’s doing the reading of a screenplay…and he’d like you to read…” And I’m like, “Okay”… And Okay, I’ll tell you this story… It’s terrible… Al was dating somebody who was an actress, and she would hand him these screenplays and say, “Al, I found a beautiful screenplay for us to do together.”  So, he wanted [me] to come in and read, and I thought he wanted me to read a part… No. He wanted me to read HIS part, and he would sit there and listen… And then he’d pull me aside and say, “I need you to read with her.  ‘Cause if I read with her… I won’t be able to look her in the eye… … ‘Cause she just… She doesn’t know what she’s doing up there!”  …So he would just sit there in the back, in his disheveled little outfit [with] his hand over his face… and she would be ‘overacting’ as he…called it… Like if you watch Spanish soap operas and everyone’s doing these big gestures… So she was doing all that at a table reading… [But the really crazy part of the] story is, at the time, this woman’s daughter would be in the room with us, this little kid with braces and pigtails…and years later, this girl grew up to be DiCaprio’s girlfriend Camila…the one he just broke up with… And I know Leo, and I met her at this party back in Malibu a couple Fourth of Julys ago… And she goes, “Hi, you’re a doctor,” and I go, “First time I met you…I used to read with your mother…” And [she] goes…”Oh yeah, yeah. I heard about that.” So Al used to have me read with him… Then…one time in New York, my phone rings – Private Number – and I answer, and he goes, “Rico Al! I heard you were in New York!” And I go, “Yeah, Yeah.” And he goes, “You gotta go visit Anna Strasberg… she’s not feeling well. I told her I know a doctor…” Lee Strasberg’s widow: She lived in this apartment off Columbus Avenue. And they used to call it ‘The Standard 8’ where there was a servant’s entrance into the kitchen, and…she was laying on this chaise lounge [in the living room] and there’s pictures of Marilyn all over the place, ‘cause Marilyn used to hang out with Lee. I guess Marilyn left… a lot of her estate to Strasberg… So that’s how I knew Al.

So, since you’re talking about all these people that you met, I’m curious to know how you hooked up with Eric Roberts. ‘Cause you had a great chemistry in Frank and Ava!

…Eric’s a good friend. So here’s how [it] happened… Eric’s wife is Liza Roberts. His mother-in-law was Lila Garrett. She passed away a little while back. She was 94 when she passed… Lila Garrett was famous for being a three-time Emmy Award Wining writer… She produced TV in the 50s, and 60s at CBS as a woman. She was a total trailblazer. She was tough. She was part of the Hollywood left wing…

Did she have a show on KPFK?

Yes she did!… So basically she had a reputation of hating every doctor she met. [But when] she met me…it was like love at first sight. I mean, she was difficult. She was tough. But somehow we resonated. She was a Scorpio like me, I guess that ‘s part of it. True story…[for years] she lived in this high rise up in Westwood on Wilshire Blvd. So, if she ever got sick, the ambulance would take her to UCLA. So, one time she got sick and they took her to UCLA, and she goes, “Rico, I’m here up at UCLA!” I go “Yeah, I know.”
“You gotta get me the fuck outta here! ‘Cause if I die, the obituary’s gonna say that Lila Garrett died at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Hospital and I don’t want that fuckin’ guy’s name in my obituary!”

Photo Courtesy of Courtney Michael Oblowitz

I like her already!

So that was vintage Lila! Or she’d call me at 2 o’clock in the morning and go “Rico, I think I’m dying!”
“Lila, we’re all dying. We just don’t know how fast…”
Then we’d talk about this, we’d talk about that, and she goes, “I’m gonna have a gin and tonic. I’ll call you tomorrow….” And prescribing her meds was always…a negotiation. [But], through her, I met her daughter Eliza who was involved in casting, and then Eric… Eliza came in for a checkup [and in the middle of her stress test Eric] says…”I could do that!” I go, “Well why don’t you do it then? I’ll hook it up!” So…I put him on the machine, and he failed the stress test! He said, “What do you mean I failed? I feel great!” Turned out he had two critically blocked arteries. And I can talk about it…because he’s actually gone in [public and  talked] about it… So he got two stents and it saved him. So he became my lifelong friend. And every time Eric would be doing a movie, Eliza would say, “Hey, why don’t you visit on set? Eric’s doing this movie here,” or “Hey Eric’s doing a movie in Bulgaria. You wanna go to Bulgaria with him?” So I would take, like a few days off and travel with him. And we kinda bonded. So I’ve known him for years now.

Lila had the best story though…[David Rayfiel was an Oscar Winning writer, and he wrote Thee Days of the Condor and The Way we Were and] she would look at me [and say]: “The love of my life was David Rayfiel…” She goes, “He was the love of my life. He was…this very WASPY guy, and I’m like this radical Jewish Girl from the West Side, and back then, that was considered a mixed marriage. And he writes a movie about this marriage, about his friends accepting me…—[The Way we Were]– and [it] becomes an Academy Award Winning movie… And what does he do? He casts Barbra Streisand to play me, and he leaves me for Barbra Streisand! He cheats on me with the woman he picked to play me. So much for true love. Then I try to get him back. I hook up with him… I get knocked up.  Figured, ‘Hey, I’ve got a kid. He’s gonna take me back!’ All he does is change the ending of the movie!! So at the end…Streisand’s there with a kid, and there’s Redford with his new WASPY wife. That’s true love!”

But…she was a great person to talk to. She would come to every play I would do.  She was very supportive and she would give notes. And at one point, I remember she said, “Okay, I know you’re doing 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.”

Wow! Now what’s your favorite role…the favorite role you’ve ever played…? Speaking of plays and independent writing.

So the role I had the most fun with on stage… [was] Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glenn Ross… Ricky has no morals. He’s a ruthless salesman. He does [everything he has to do] to win… And being Sinatra on stage was funny because people said, “How hard was it for you to get there playing Frank Sinatra?” And I said, “Well I’m playing a blue-eyed, Italian guy with street principles, who is madly in love with somebody he couldn’t have.” So I know about blue-eyed Italian guys. My father was one of those guys. My father could sing… He had those gangster morals as far as giving your word, and being there for people who were your friends, and being ruthless to your enemies. That was Sinatra. And then…combining that with finding someone that you can’t have. I go “Yeah we’ve all had that one person that makes us ponder jumping off the Eiffel Tower.” …Playing Joe Pendleton…I played Daniel Kaffee in A Few Good Men and Jack came to that too. [And I really enjoyed that role] for a couple reasons; One, because I started taking acting classes when I was out here, [and 2] ‘cause I wanted to get good at something and learn the most daunting dialogue. At the time [that] was Sorkin… Playing Kaffee was terrific ‘cause the second act was the trial scene…and thinking, and being on your feet and finally cornering the Colonel, and getting him to admit to calling the code red [was just so satisfying]… So that’s probably one of my favorite roles. And I got to wear uniforms… Navy Uniforms!

Photo Courtesy of Courtney Michael Oblowitz

What is a role that you have yet to play that you think you might like to play, particularly if it’s another historical figure…. And don’t say Ronald Regan – Ha. Ha. I’m kidding!

Don’t say Ronald Reagan– exactly! Besides watching all the super hero roles go by as I grew older [and there’s] maybe only Batman or 007 left… But if they ever remade Casablanca, or brought back Colombo [I would love to play those roles]…. But most on my bucket list is to work with Spielberg or Scorcese in a film or even be on their bandwidth as an actor as they’ve heard of me as a doctor.

So…you know how they say like theatres are some of the most haunted places in the world…? Yeah. So have you ever, like when playing a historical figure like…felt their presence in the room, or have you ever had like any kind of woo woo experience with anything like that?

You mean with ghosts?

Yeah ghosts. I didn’t wanna come out and say it but…

Wow. Well uh… Someone just threw away one of my ghosts, that’s another story. I had one of these motion sensor ghouls in front of my house that would moan every time someone walked by. And then it just vanished one day, and the neighbors were leaving notes that the thing was driving them crazy every time they would hear it moan in the middle of the night. I’m like, “Yeah, but it’s a motion sensor. So it’s moaning. That means that somebody’s lurking around my house. So hopefully that scares them away…” But anyway…ghosts in the theatre. That’s interesting. I tell ya when I did Joe and Marilyn the girl that played Marilyn Monroe used to go study her lines at Marilyn’s grave. She would sit there at the grave and study her lines so she could channel Marilyn. When I did the gangster play, Brooklyn USA, I actually traveled to the Brooklyn; to Brownsville which is really a great neighborhood. It’s probably one of the few neighborhoods in Brooklyn that’s not gentrified, and probably never will be gentrified. It’s pretty bad. But I went to the graveyard where these gangsters were buried, and all these guys…either… got the electric chair at like Sing Sing, or got thrown out of a window. And I remember going to the cemetery and standing by the grave, and it was kind of an eerie feeling…of portraying a guy, standing at his grave, and looking at his headstone. [Other than that] I’ve had two paranormal experiences…in the theatre… We went to a funeral for an actor that was working on a show we did, and at his funeral…we talked about how  he was always 15 minutes late for everything…for rehearsals…this and that, and basically when they wanted to start the service, the lights went out and they didn’t come on for 15 minutes.

Photo Courtesy of Courtney Michael Oblowitz

Ohhh…I love that!

And this is another story: So, Ray [La Tulipe] was on NYPD Blue for like 50-60 episodes. He played one of the detectives. He’d have, like a line here, a line there, and whenever people went to go work on the show, or were extras, he would sit with the extras and talk with them. And he’d say, “If you guys are good, and you do your job, you behave, and you don’t make trouble, I’ll take you where every great actor will wind up someday, if they’re really lucky.” So he would take them on field trips to the cemetery where Marilyn Monroe was buried… ‘Cause that’s where every actor will wind up one day… So of course Ray got… lung cancer and…he survived 4 years with the lung cancer.  And he used to come to my house for Sunday Dinner. I’d make macaroni. All these Italian actors [would come over], and Ray would come over. And he would [make] all these off color remarks and [someone] would say, “‘Scuse me Sir that’s kinda disgusting.”
“Hey I got cancer. I’m dying so…”
So it gave him open license to say whatever he wanted. And one of the things he used to say…I remember… even then they were talking about immigration and the border…and he’d say, “Are you kiddin’? If you stopped Mexicans from coming into California, California’s gonna stop! There’d be no one to work. Are you kiddin’ me? They can’t keep people out of California!” So [then] he passes away. People chip in to get him buried at the same cemetery as Marilyn Monroe… So he gets cremated. Everyone’s there: The cast of NYPD Blue, Jimmy Smits…all kinds of people from Hollywood, including three sons that never knew that they were related. ‘Cause he had three sons with three women that didn’t know about each other. So these three guys show up, one Asian, one African American, and one Caucasian, and they all look alike and they’re all looking at each other like, “Huh?”

Oh my God.

And then remembering what Ray said about the border [on top of that]… The minister [finishes] his speech… [Stands there] ceremoniously…while they take [Ray’s] urn, [which] they’ve got to put into this marble thing, [turn it upside down], and stick…into the ground, and the urn kept falling out! So finally some guy with a maintenance uniform with “Jose” on the nametag, grabs the thing, takes some duct tape…tapes it [up] and sticks it in the ground and [someone] goes “See? What did Ray say about the Mexicans?” So, there you go! And on his marker it says, “I’ll be waiting right here.”

Then I used to think that my father would visit me at my house…because…when he stayed here, he used to cook in the middle of the night, and I’d wake up to the sound of pots and pans rattling and the house smelling like garlic, and tomato sauce. And at three in the morning he’s making these big dishes of macaroni…and that and I go, “Ey, whaddaya doin’?”
“Makin’ dinner?”
And I go,
“It’s four in the morning!”
“Ey it’s dinner time somewhere!”

So, we’d sit down and we’d have these elaborate meals at 4 o’clock in the morning and then he’d be smoking these cigarettes and blowin’ ‘em out the window… He’s not allowed to smoke. For one, I’m a cardiologist. Number 2, he’s got heart issues. [But] he would sneak cigarettes, and the house would smell like cigarettes…. And the irony is that my housekeeper…goes, “Rico, your house smells like cigarettes.” I go, “I don’t smoke.” She goes, “Well somebody is.” And I go, “Well my father’s been dead eight years, and hasn’t been here for 10.” So sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night to…the sounds of pots and pans… [So] there are times where he comes by, and he “smokes a cigarette [while] rattling my pots and pans.”

That goes on the heels of my other point of curiosity which is: Considering the kind of doctor you are, have you ever had to consult, or have you ever heard stories about your patients having any kind of Near Death Experiences or anything?

Oh, all time…When I first came out here, I was in the heart transplant business. I would work with people that have end stage heart disease and…keep ‘em alive long enough ‘til they had a transplant. And I remember there was this guy—[50-years-old] one of the first guys who actually talked about it. He was somebody that had a cardiac arrest, and we’re doing chest compressions. We intubated him at the bedside, we’re putting needles in him, all these things… And we were working on him for…a good 45 minutes which was really a long time, which today, no one would do…anymore. And at the end we were like, “Let’s just give him a high dose of Epinephrine, if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, we’ll call it.” So we did it, and BOOM, he came back! So…he was…intubated…he was in the ICU, but within a few days, we took the tube out… So I spoke to him. I said, “So you were gone for like 45 minutes.” He goes, “Really? It seemed like longer.” And I go, “What do you mean?” And he goes, “Well, I remember you guys doing all these things to me. Like, you were pushing on me. You were sticking things in me. Then somebody shoved something down my throat, and I felt trapped.” He goes, “All of a sudden, it all stopped, and  I felt this relief. And the next thing you know, I heard my brother calling me. And my brother…died when I was a kid. And suddenly, I’m a kid too. And we’re having a catch…throwing a baseball in my backyard, and I could smell my mom making dinner…and we’re laughing, and I could hear the baseball game on the radio…inside and I [think], “This is great, this is where I wanna be. This is terrific!,” and I’m about to ask Mom what’s for dinner, and all of a sudden, I feel like somebody kicked me in the chest and I opened my eyes and I saw you idiots again standing around me. And I didn’t want to be there….!”

Rounding out our fascinating afternoon of conversation, the discussion turned to celebrities and so-called personages with whom Simonini had not had such exemplary of experiences i.e. a one Donald J. Trump and somewhat newly christened head of Twitter and former richest man on the planet Elon Musk:

On Trump:

So once upon a time I waited tables in New York to put myself through school, and one of the places I waited was a restaurant on Wall Street where [Trump] came in with his buddies. And they were drinking scotch, and doing cocaine, and hanging out with Heidi Fleiss girls… He was a slime guy then and he was a slime guy now.

And another story someone told me [was]…when he was building the Taj Mahal…in Atlantic City…he tried to screw all the unions… He said, “Listen, I don’t have the kind of money I thought I had. I’m gonna pay you guys 25 cents on the dollar. And you can take it, or you can try to sue me. But you’ll never win. I’ve got lawyers up the wazoo. You’ll be in court for years…” But back then, the wise guy who was in charge of Atlantic City [challenged] him: “Hey, these aren’t just any guys. They belong to the union, and they belong with me. So, you’ve gotta pay them everything, otherwise they’re gonna fine you off the pier!” But he was always trying to muscle people and hustle people. He was always that guy…

He started up his own football league because the NFL wouldn’t let him have a team. Remember that? That went bankrupt… Everything he tried to do went bankrupt. So, this guy failed up… When he announced he was running for president… I go to my friend, “Look who’s running for president… You’re gonna have these guys that sit in BarcaLoungers, eat TV Dinners, and beat their wives…voting for this guy.” …He’s a hero to them. It’s scary that enough of those guys vote to put him in office. But it makes me wonder how far we’ve come as a people that someone like this can sell enough people, to get elected.

On Elon Musk:

It’s funny…I met Elon Musk at a 4th of July Party…before…[the pandemic]. And I remember, this is when the stock was trading at like 100…and all these guys would [approach him for advice, and he would say] “Well of course I can’t say anything, but I would never bet against me.” And I said, “I’ve got a better question for you. You’ve got these cars that run with batteries…lithium cobalt batteries. What do you do with the lithium cobalt when the batteries can’t be charged anymore…lithium and cobalt, two very toxic substances. What are you gonna do with it?”  He goes, “Well, that’s what SpaceX is for.” I said, “So you’re basically gonna launch dead batteries into space?” [He says,] “Well they’ll be in orbit for 100,000 years. It won’t be our problem anymore…” So I said, “Y’know what? Screw this guy. I’m not gonna buy his stock. I’m not gonna buy his car!” …I just thought the guy was an egomaniac…

Words to live by!

Be looking for Rico in further upcoming projects such as Wildfire: The Legend of the Cherokee Ghost Horse, and Dante’s Hell.



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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