Altman On “The Actor’s Life”

121509_Altman01.jpgby David Sepulveda

It’s not every day you run into people on the streets of New Haven that can say they have just finished filming a movie with Meryl Streep, or George Clooney - but Bruce Altman can.

The busy, but approachable supporting actor lives in Westville with his wife Darcy McGraw and daughter Anna. Mr. Altman defies the stereotypical persona of some actors who shun public interaction once they have made it to the big screen.  Between acting jobs, you may occasionally see Altman riding his bicycle, bundled up and braced against the cold, or walking his friendly Standard Poodle, Jack.

On Dec. 12, Altman spoke at the Congregation B’nai Jacob’s monthly Lunch and Learn lecture series, on the topic of “The Actor’s Life.” As some shielded their eyes from rays of tinted light pouring through the stained glass windows, Altman delighted the audience with anecdotes about the incredible actors he has worked with and answered specific questions about the craft of acting.

He began his talk by turning the tables on audience members, asking them for a definition of acting.  There was no shortage of those volunteering answers:  “Brando said acting is being a good liar,” offered one person to a burst of laughter.  Another suggested that acting requires becoming the person one is trying to portray—a technique used by some method actors. 

According to Altman, acting is more about being truthful than anything else. “The camera can see into your soul,” he said, and certain actors like Meryl Streep can go immediately to that truthful place when the camera starts rolling.  “Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances” he added, quoting words of the famed acting teacher, Sanford Meisner; a definition that seemed to resonate with the audience.

121509_Altman02.jpgThe Bronx, New York native knows something about acting. His stage and screen acting credits include over 60 stage productions and over 35 films—many with some of the most recognizable actors of our time.  In his 1991 screen debut, “Regarding Henry,” he played Harrison Ford’s best friend, and in 1996 he played the friend of the Peter Gallagher’s character in “To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday,” a role for which Altman was lauded by film critic and syndicated radio talk show host Michael Medved as an Oscar-worthy performance.  “I don’t agree with his politics—but I think the man’s a genius,” joked Altman in answer to a question about which critics he reads.  In 2003 Altman played Nicholas Cage’s psychiatrist in the Ridley Scott comedy “Matchstick Men.” Other movies have included “Glengary Glen Ross,” “Rookie of the Year,” “Mr. Wonderful,” Ron Howard’s “The Paper” and Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show” to name a few.

Altman has also appeared in several HBO offerings, including The Sopranos fourth season series finale and in the award winning HBO film “Recount,” starring Kevin Spacey and a large ensemble cast. He was hired for that acting job by the film’s original director, the late Sydney Pollack, who had to withdraw due to a serious illness.  Director Jay Roach assumed duties, guiding the film to many Emmy nominations and awards, while capturing both Golden Globe and SAG awards.

Over his career, Altman has worked with many well-known directors including most recently, Anton Corbijn who directed “The American” starring George Clooney; scheduled for release on September 1, 2010. Other notable directors have included Mike Nichols, Antony Minghella, Robert Redford, and Ron Howard.

Asked about his interactions with famous actors and whether he is treated as an equal, Altman reflected on the nature of some of the relationships.  “When I first acted with Robert DeNiro, I wanted to jump into his arms and suck my thumb” he said, acknowledging that he sometimes places people on pedestals. “I tend to get tongue-tied before and after, but during the filming,” said Altman, “we are all equal.”  Altman cited a list of leading actors - the late Jack Lemon, Robert Duvall, Robert DeNiro, Harrison Ford, Glen Close, Claire Danes and others that he said “could not be nicer… there is always a strong sense of camaraderie among actors when filming.”

While many will recognize Mr. Altman from his roles in high profile movies, some may recognize him through his recurring appearances on the ubiquitous television series Law & Order.  “I play guys with ties” he said referring to the doctor, lawyer, and professorial roles that seem to be tailor made for him.  In answer to a question about how he chooses his roles, Altman answered with a rhetorical question: “You know how the Jewish people are said to be the Chosen People by some…. I’m usually chosen,” he quipped, adding that directors are generally familiar with his work, and call upon him to play particular characters, but like all actors, he does have to audition—sometimes in an unsuccessful effort.

Before his success in film, Altman was a stage actor, having acted in numerous off-off Broadway plays.  He said that when playing stage roles “there is an incredible interaction and feeling of love with the audience, it’s an incredible experience.” When asked what stage role he would most like to play in the future, Altman referred to the Willy Loman character in Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer and Tony award winning 1949 play, “Death of a Salesman”—a long way from the Snoopy character he played in one of his early stage roles in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

The final question of the Lunch and Learn engagement involved Altman’s decision to live in New Haven away from the film industry epicenters of New York and Los Angeles. “The answer is simple: I love New Haven. I had a transformational experience here” he said, referring to an epiphany about acting while studying at the Yale School of Drama where he earned an MFA.  “Additionally, my wife was a lawyer here, and while we initially considered moving back to New York after drama school, it was [easier] to stay - I didn’t know my work was going to take off. I can’t believe it has been twenty-two years” he mused.

On Christmas day 2009, Altman appears briefly in the new release “It’s Complicated” directed by Nancy Meyers. The romantic comedy stars Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.

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posted by: Priscilla on December 16, 2009  9:22am

Great article! Westville is home to so many interesting people! I really enjoyed reading about Bruce Altman. Keep up the good work!

posted by: Lori on December 16, 2009  2:08pm

It’s funny, now that I see the face I know the characters he’s played.  Guess I never knew his name when watching him in movies.  Great to see he’s just a regular guy.  Now I’ll watch for him in up coming movies.  Thanks for introducing him to all of us.  Nice article.

posted by: LORI DATLOW on December 16, 2009  8:51pm

nice story. glad to see Westville is as vibrant as ever. and written about so well! Westville has always been one of the gems of New Haven.
the best thing is the neighborhood friendliness. thank goodness for dog walking, events such as this one,and city sidewalks. I live in the country now, and these are just some of the things I miss most.  (after living in New Haven for 21 years.)
you could be writing as the city ambassador to entice relocating to New Haven, if it was needed .
thanks to Mr Altman for being so willing to give back to the community. It’s things like this event that make communities feel like a home, not just a place to sleep at night.
and I do love his dog…..

posted by: Bill L on December 16, 2009  10:47pm

Dave, always enjoy reading your articles. The story on Bruce Altman was once again, interesting and well written. I’m also glad to see that not all the celebrities are living in Fairfield County.

posted by: Katie Kindilien on December 16, 2009  10:53pm

nice, David- I’ve always loved this actor whenever I see him, even before I knew he was a loyal new havener..

posted by: michelle Webber on December 17, 2009  4:38pm

This was a wonderful article, very well written and fun to read.  Keep up the good work.

posted by: DAFeder on December 17, 2009  4:59pm

Awwww—we knew him back when he was just “East Rock Actor Speaks!”  We miss you, Bruce, Darcy, and Anna.  Having moved to North Carolina, we also miss Best Video’s “Bruce Altman” section—not to be confused with their “Robert Altman” or “Bruce Lee” sections…

David and Adinah

posted by: V on December 17, 2009  5:00pm

Whoa.  I kept thinking I had seen the house-selling attorney from the Sopranos around . . . now I know I’m not crazy.

posted by: Bennett on December 17, 2009  5:59pm

Excellent article, Dave.  Keep up the good work.  To me, you’re the celebrity.  Maybe Bruce should write an article about you!

Bruce was kind enough to read for the New Haven Review fundraiser at Lyric Hall—a real mensch.  Thank you, Bruce.

New Haven Review

posted by: Susie on December 17, 2009  8:48pm

Really nice job Dave, I’ve always liked your writing. I’ll have to get the other articles out of the chest of drawers.

posted by: dana on December 18, 2009  12:14am

Dave thanks for sharing the info.  It is so refreshing to get such a nice article that captures the actors reality.  We need more of this and less reality shows.  I am looking forward to the new movie It’s Complicated.

posted by: Bill Connelly on December 18, 2009  6:49am

Who would know that such a talented guy was amongst us. Even though he’s is secondary roles he is very accomplished. He also seems like a regular “Joe” type of guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously….......Bill

posted by: Anne on December 19, 2009  3:53pm

Great article! Many parallels between an actor’s life and a writer’s life. And I’m thrilled Bruce, too, has an M.F.A….it could mean something for me, too! You asked great questions and produced an insightful interview. Wonderful.

posted by: David on December 20, 2009  12:45am

See Bruce Altman in this video clip from the opening scene of

posted by: Wolcott Bill on December 20, 2009  11:23am

Great article, great character actor, I have seen Mr. Altman in movies and tv series usually in my opinion high quality tv. Always great on Law and order. Did not realize he was a new haven resident.

posted by: Kris on December 21, 2009  8:01am

Nice article on Altman. I watched few movies on tv of Altman. But I really don’t know more about him..Really Thanks.