Although he is known for his somewhat gruff characters, actor Burt Young is incredibly soft-spoken and has a true heart of gold. We spoke with the Oscar-nominated actor at his studio in Port Washington about being Paulie from the Rocky movies, how life affects his artwork, and why he considers himself more of a potato than anything else.
Burt, we’re at your studio in Port Washington, Do you paint here or outside?
I might sketch outside but I paint here in my studio. I work out in the morning and shadow box at 3:00 in the morning. I am a very quiet guy and I don’t like to attract attention.
Your paintings are everywhere. There are some that represent sad times. Is it hard to have that surrounding you?
Well, that’s life, no? A friend’s son died in an automobile accident; I made the teddy bear go with the angel. I get inspiration from everywhere. I went down to 9/11 when it happened. It was like an atomic bomb went off. I was pulling the firemen out because they got injured and they were choking with the ashes. I had a boy who died, he’s gone and it makes me sad. But then I got [wife] Lisa, and I’m a very lucky son of a gun.
They say that, as artists, we always have to find ways to express ourselves. Writers always write.
I’ve written movies and I’ve written a novel, and I write in my paintings. A critic once said that there’s a story before the canvas, during the canvas and after the canvas, which is a compliment.
Is it hard to part with the paintings once you sell them?
Yes, it can be. I’m an actor, I let go of everything in the performance, never to have it again, you know?
That’s very true. Now, another passion of yours is boxing. But I would think that boxing is more than just two guys beating each other up. It’s an art.
Absolutely. It’s an art under pressure. To operate with poise and not get hurt under an audience looking at two goons. You’re both naked in the middle of an arena; it’s very unnatural. A three-minute round is more than an average man fights his whole life. You gotta have poise and brightness. It’s more than a sport; it’s an art form.
How do you apply some of the principles of boxing to your own life?
I protect myself against her [pointing at Lisa]! I used to fight and then go where I didn’t want to go. Every time you win a fight, you celebrate for the moment, but then you know that you have another bout coming up. I was very good; I never lost a pro fight. Cus D’Amato was my manager; he was also Mike Tyson’s manager. I used to spar with Jose Torres all the time. Cus was one of the greatest managers of all time. He would say to the new boxers, “You’re going to be in the locker room. You’re going to see your opponent. He’s going to have more muscles than you. He’s going to look tough. Your heart’s going to be beating and you’re going to think, “What am I doing?” He used to walk the kids through the heebie jeebies that were to be expected.
You’re a very unassuming kind of guy. I would think that you took that from boxing.
Well, when you got it, you don’t have to show it. [laughs] That could be very facetious. But when you’re there, you have to be very calm. You don’t have to be challenging, or challenged. You can be calm. I’m a pretty secure guy. With my work, with my acting, with my paintings. I’m just anxious about time. I want more things to happen. For me, for us, for the children. I want more things to happen.
Look, I’m getting old. I never thought I’d be where I am. I lived a very choppy life. I was in the Marines; Okinawa, Japan, Taiwan. I’d get in trouble. I had to paint the barracks. We never worked; we laid down in the bunks the whole time. I would disappear and go to the gym and box with this guy. Sure enough, I got this letter from him and he’s now a farmer. I was a crazy kid. When I was in the Marines, we were in Japan, and I felt we needed some fresh meat. So we went to a farm, and there was this huge hog with hair. I stabbed him, but he stomped the shit out of me! He knocked me down, and the guys were laughing like crazy. They thought it was a party. The farmer sued the government! And they made a bandana for the company with a pig’s head and a patch on his eye! It’s still at Parris Island!
Did the hog die?
No! But I almost did! I was always in trouble. I was the worst marcher but the best fighter.
How would you describe yourself as a dad?
When my daughter was younger, I borrowed some money, and went to California, Beverly Hills, because I heard they had good schools. I moved my mom and dad out there, too. My mom was a godsend for my kid.
With my daughter, I would get down eye to eye. You have to get down, eye to eye with the children. I made myself silly to the kids, so they could bond with me. I had a father who was a perfectionist; I used to run away at 12 years old. He was a good guy but perfect in everything he did. He did mechanical work and I didn’t want to do that. It’s so hard to be small and look up to everyone. To hell with that; get down so they can look straight with you. With Lisa’s kids, I just love them. I’m a very good dad.
Lisa’s girl is a socialite; she’s a track star, a musician. She does everything; she can’t stop. And the boy is a musician too; he’s a strong little boxer. He’s one of my favorite humans. He makes you laugh without trying. He ditched me today; he sold me out for a friend! [laughs]
It can be hard for families to blend.
It can be, but they love my daughter. She’s out in California, though. Lisa is a strong woman; she cares for me and my daughter. And her kids, they’re my babies. I want to say they are my kids to everybody but I don’t want to push the guy out the door. I really enjoy them though. And I’m blessed with this lady, who has worked since she was 14 and hasn’t stopped. The kids adore her and they have this anchor.
The story of you and Lisa is really sweet. She picked you up at a hotel, right?
She really did! [Asking Lisa] You did, didn’t you? She was too young to flirt with her when I was there. Me and my friends would hang out there, talking business. She was behind the counter, but I would say hello, since she was a young kid. She saved the receipt that I signed for the hotel for 30 years. My mother died and I brought her back here, and I couldn’t get he rooms that I needed, and I called up to see if she remembered me. I said my name and then I looked at her. She was gorgeous and I thought, “Is this the kid I left?” I thought, “Oh shit, I better get close to this girl.” It’s true. And now we’ve been married for 10 years. You balance each other out; you’re a yin and yang.
What are you working on now, Burt?
I have several movies that we did, small things. The Lemon Grove, I play a college professor with a cigar. Sometimes the writing needs a lot of help. I try to help with the heart of the story to match what the author is trying to do. Lee Strasberg was my mentor. He used to criticize me for worrying too much about the other actors. He would say to me, “Let them come to you; do what you’ve got to do.” But I always put my hand out to help.
I would think that a role like Paulie in Rocky is a once in a lifetime kind of role. Even though you’re so much more than that, do you feel that is what you’re best known for, and if so, how do you feel about that?
I have mixed feelings about that. We never knew there were going to be other movies, sequels. In the second one, I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to be a part of an ensemble group. I was doing a lot of theater; I had always done a lot of theater and I still do. I have a one-man play now called “Goodbyes Are Hard to Do.” It’s a pretty sharp piece of work, if I say so myself. But it was a great ride, and it brought me to the audience in a great way. I made him a rough guy with a sensitivity; he’s really a marshmallow even though he yells a lot.
Isn’t that kind of like you in a way?
No, I’m not a marshmallow. I’m a potato more than a marshmallow. [laughs]
But a sweet potato.[laughs] Jennifer, that was good!
Looking around your studio, Burt, there’s a lot of light and dark in here. Everything is emotionally charged. Everything packs a punch. There aren’t a lot of pretty landscapes.
I saw a photograph of life starting as a barren land. And a date tree surviving in the middle of a desert. It says a lot.
I guess we’re all survivors, aren’t we?
We try to be.