From Newark To Hollywood, Actor Richard Zavaglia has Chased, and Reached, His Dream
The path for a kid from Newark to the bright lights of Hollywood and Broadway is neither traditional nor easy, but it is the one actor/director Richard Zavagila has carved in what can be described as a fruitful and colorful career. A career that sees him just slightly off Broadway in the play “Dinner With The Boys,” through the end of June at The Acorn Theater and back probably, to a stage or screen near you before too much longer.
“It’s really hard to describe how it started, but it was something I always knew I wanted to do, even if acting wasn’t a traditional career choice for someone in the East Ward of Newark back in the day,” he said recently during a break from his eight performance a week run with two other prominent Italian actors Dan Lauria (who also wrote the comedy they now star in) and Queens’ Ray Abbruzzo. The three have arrived at this point in their veteran careers through different paths, but all of which share a passion for original American works of theater, and it is that passion which fueled Zavalagia’s run to success in entertainment.
“When I was a little kid, maybe eight or nine years old, I could go to the movies for a whole day and lose myself in the characters,” the Eastside High School graduate said. “I didn’t really understand what theater or radio or TV was all about at that age, but I knew that world would be amazing; the question was could I ever get there?” Zavaglia, a self-described “street kid” from Newark was raised by a single mother who work for 35 years at The American Can Company in Jersey City. He spent his time after high school about as far from the arts as one could think possible, living a blue collar life in and around New Jersey; factory worker, truck driver before finding his first calling with some slight connection to the entertainment world, learning how to be a hair dresser. “It seemed interesting, you get to be with people and work around women, so I went to the Wilfred Academy of Beauty and started my career,” he said. “It wasn’t what many of my friends were doing, but I wanted to give it a shot to change my life.” Jobs for male hairdressers were tough to find, but Zavaglia kept chasing leads and eventually landed a fulltime job at Bamberger’s in Newark. He then moved from shop to shop building his reputation, and eventually married and co-ran a very successful business in Short Hills, New Jersey.
Even with his business success, Zavaglia still loved the theater and the stage. Life to this point had gotten in the way of chasing his dream, but with a successful business up and running, he felt the time had come to finally give acting, and directing a shot. “Here I was, running a successful business in the suburbs with my wife, and I realized that if I didn’t try this soon, I never would,” he added. He enrolled in classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts while leaving his business to his wife, commuting to New York on a daily basis, and kept going to auditions to try and get a chance. His talent was recognized and a stellar group of teachers encouraged him to continue, and the passion he had first realized when he was a young boy started to grow even more. Jobs in and around the theater came and went, but he got his first big break with a role in Neil Simon’s play “Chapter Two” in 1979, and got to work with Frank Langella in another original work, and the hair dressing career started to fade more and more into the rearview mirror. He split time between New York and New Jersey, eventually got divorced, and lived the New York actors’ life of auditions, parts and part-time jobs, before deciding to move west to Los Angeles to see if movies and a more lucrative TV career could take him to another level.
“It was 1986, and I realized that if I was really going to move my career along I had to go west, so I bit the bullet and made the move, and for the most part I have been there ever since,” he said. “I arrived at the airport and ironically one of the first people who I reconnected with was Dan Lauria, who had built a successful career with ‘The Wonder Years’ and other projects, and he helped me meet people and get things started.” Zavaglia’s LA career included directing and acting, and he was asked to help cast a new movie starring Al Pacino and a rising young actor named Johnny Depp, named “Donnie Brasco.” His work was so impressive he landed a role in the film as well, and his career continued to expand from there. “I was getting steady work and growing my contacts and it was all going well, I had come a long way from Eastside High School and The American Can Company,” he joked. He also continued to work with Lauria and a host of other veteran actors at The Playwright’s Kitchen Ensemble in LA, honing his craft and getting a continuing education of all things Hollywood, A simple passion had turned into a career, with roles in TV series’ like “Prison Break” and several others.
All the time he was in Los Angeles he wanted to return to New York and the theater, and his longstanding relationships in the acting community gave him that chance, joining Lauria and Abruzzo in their current original work, first at The New Jersey Repertory T heater in Long Branch last summer, and now at Manhattan’s Acorn Theater. The show has also opened up other opportunities, including a an upcoming theater project called “Burning Desire” with Lou Diamond Phillips, which will make a run in Connecticut in the winter of 2016. “It has been a grand run for me, I can’t complain at all,” he added. “For me to have run a successful business, then with no experience to have finally realized my dream took risk and some pain for sure, but it got me to a place where I really enjoy everything I am doing and the people I work with, and in this life, that’s really all you should ask for. Hey if I can do it, anyone with a commitment to a dream can, you just have to have the ability to take the risk, and hopefully reap the reward!”
These days Zavaglia does make a trip back to Newark from time to time. He is married to the former Marilyn Rosamilia of Newark and they live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during the run of the show)…but he always keeps his Newark upbringing and his hardscrabble, scrambling past with him, and those experiences play out in his work on stage and screen, no matter what the role. “Hey I’m Italian and we wear our emotions on our sleeves, it’s a good thing,” he joked.
He may joke, but his career has been a solid one to date, and a great example of where following one’s passions can lead you.