John D’Aquino Chronicles his Acting History and Workshops
Today, it’s our great pleasure to be talking with writer, director, veteran actor and master teacher, John D’Aquino. You may know him from shows such as Corey in the House, NCIS, Dexter, Quantum Leap, seaQuest, Hannah Montana, and Seinfeld, where he played the notorious, Todd Gack.
From weathering a slew of acting rejections, to getting discovered while slinging drinks at a famous seafood restaurant, we join John on his rollercoaster journey through the extreme highs and lows of booming Hollywood in the ‘80s. Be it auditioning for The Godfather III in front of Coppola, or hobnobbing with Barbara Streisand and Warren Beatty during the ‘84 Olympics, John shares endless industry stories, including how he finally got his big break.
Mentored by Tony award-winning Charles Nelson Reilly and iconic Burt Reynolds, John has had a deep yearning to share his knowledge and passion for the arts, eventually leading him to found his own Young Actors Workshop, which has grown successfully and exponentially over the years. To top it all off, he serves as a big brother with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
John can honestly say that he’s made Larry David and Seinfeld laugh, really respects the art of acting, has a heart of gold, and lucky for us, he’s made time in his busy schedule to be here today.
Please hit play and follow along below. Thank you for joining us for today’s enthralling episode.
In this Episode
[01:54] Jason and John reunite at Hennessey Studios. Jason informs us that John is one of the reasons he’s in Los Angeles while his son, Zach, is pursuing his acting dreams.
[03:49] Jason and John play an improv game called “Fortunately, Unfortunately” to warm up for the interview. Fortunately, they have some fun playing. Unfortunately, they only have an hour, so they continue the interview.
[06:54] Jason asks John what he’s been up to lately. John lets us know about the full online transition his acting workshops have undergone due to the pandemic. He also just returned from Oklahoma, where he was working on a new film project.
[10:00] Jason highlights John’s acting and production workshop for kids called Camp Hollywood that his son has enrolled in. John shouts-out the great team he works with, that includes Japheth Gordon and Shane Brady.
[12:18] John tells us of the successes of the many students that have gone through his program. The list contains a trio that all have been on a show, The Thundermans, and Chase Vacnin, who stars in the new Soprano’s flick.
[14:10] Jason invites John to reflect and tell us about where he grew up. John reminisces of his days glued to the TV screen, his high school tennis days, and how he discovered that he had a knack for acting.
[17:35] After John mentions he went to high school in Coconut Creek, Florida, Jason asks where he went to college. John tells us he studied acting at Florida State and all about how he met acting legends at the Burt Reynolds Theater in Jupiter, Florida.
[18:49] Jason is interested in what John did after graduating from college. John fascinates us with stories of his time spent at Burt Reynolds Theater and being mentored by people like Charles Nelson Reilly, Burt Reynolds, and Liza Minelli.
[22:41] Jason asks John about the odd jobs he’d work after college when he moved from Florida to LA. John recounts being discovered while bartending at Hymie’s Restaurant near Fox Studios, at the same time the city hosted the ‘84 Summer Olympics.
[28:02] Jason mentions John’s IMDB and discovers a YouTube clip of John and Dom DeLuise in John’s first movie starring role. John is surprised that the clip exists, and tells us the tale of how that production transitioned out of theater and onto the big screen.
[29:59] Jason brings up Quantum Leap as he continues down John’s IMDB credits. John recalls auditioning for that show about 4 times, along with Godfather III, before finally landing a role that impressed the people at NBC, which eventually landed him a show.
[34:52] Jason remembers running into John in Florida, and telling associates that John was Todd Gack in an episode of Seinfeld. John recalls the surreal moment when that episode ranked number 1 on the charts, and a different episode he guest starred in on another show ranked number 2 in the same week.
[36:35] Jason is curious how John got his audition for Seinfeld. John reminds us of the failures he had before landing a role on the iconic show. He credits his successes to the teachings of his mentors, Charles Nelson Reilly and Burt Reynolds.
[38:56] Jason wants to know how John felt while being recognized on the street for playing a memorable role on Seinfeld. John describes the surreal and humbling sensation that he hopes other distinguished actors experience as well.
[40:43] Jason references a photo he’s seen at John’s home office showing John and Johnny Depp. John remembers the photo being taken after they shot an episode of 21 Jump Street, and mentions other notable actors who were on the set.
[41:30] Jason inquires which audition has been the biggest of John’s life. John looks back on the time he sat nervously in front of Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather: Part III. Also, the time he got audible laughs from Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.
[43:28] John shares a quick tip that Burt Reynolds shared with him after Burt’s impactful guest appearances on The Johnny Carson Show.
[51:22] Jason asks John how long he’s been married, and how many kids he has.
[52:08] John gives us reasons why everybody should try improv after revealing how it’s helped improve his daughter’s confidence.
[52:31] Jason wonders if John spends most of his time teaching, or acting nowadays. John updates us on some of the recent projects he’s been involved in.
[53:25] Jason asks John if he analyzes or enjoys the movies he watches. John tells us that it depends on the quality of the story, and its ability to reel him in. He references a film mentioned by a previous guest, Dan Lauria, that exemplifies filmmaking.
[55:47] John reveals the movie he can sit down and watch even if he’s seen it numerous times, and another film he greatly enjoys from the same director.
[56:23] Jason and John call it a wrap. Jason appreciates John’s words of encouragement and for coming down to the studio.
Jason Hennessey: Well, Mr. John D’Aquino.
John D’Aquino: Mr. Sir Lord, sir.
Live in the flesh here. The last time I seen you, we were probably 3 or 4 years younger.
I don’t know about you, I was in my 30s.
You see? John is kind of a connection to me being here in the studio and living in LA. My son, Zach is an actor, still a struggling actor and he was in Georgia. We were living in Georgia and a guy by the name of Erik Lingvall was his acting coach out there. And Erik had this mentor and this mentor was this guy from Hollywood that is an awesome acting coach and one of the most sought after acting coaches for kids. And he was coming to Georgia to do a bootcamp.
And so, we got in on that and it sold out in a day and sure enough, couple weeks later, we’re in class with Mr. John D’Aquino learning everything about acting.
I forgot I met you there at Catapult Studios with Erik.
That’s where it was.
One thing would lead to another and I ended up- sold my company and pursued this acting thing and we ended up in LA and I reached out to Erik. I’m like, “Give me John’s number. I’d love to connect with John.”
And we didn’t have a place to live yet and we connected to you, and you were so nice. We met at Bob’s Big Boy right there in Burbank. And then you gave us a drive in your Tahoe, I believe. And you kind of showed us all around Toluca Lake and you’re like, “This celebrity lives here and this person that created all of these sitcoms lives here.” And it was this beautiful little place and so we rented a place in Toluca Lake, not far from your studio.
That’s right. Great place.
And I want to talk a little bit about your career but first we’re going to play a game. Going to play an improv game. Because you teach improv.
I actually don’t teach improv.
Be very clear on that. That Japheth Gordon is our improv coach. When I was growing up, improvisation was not the standard. It was more of just that regular in-the-box sort of acting, if you will. But I’m game. Let’s go.
Let’s do it.
I did some Second City classes for a little bit. See.
Here we go.
And listen, I know about algorithms, so get ready.
I suspected her from the beginning. All right, go ahead.
How this works is, I guess I’m going to read off a prompt and then we’re going to go back and forth for a little bit. And there’s a couple prompts. We’ll pick a couple of them here. And basically, I will say a prompt. You say fortunately and you’ve got good news to share about this prompt, and then I’ll have to go unfortunately and we’ll just kind of go back and forth.
Never played it before but let’s have fun.
All right. The first one is: I saw a coyote in my backyard last night.
Fortunately, I love coyote meat.
But unfortunately I’m really allergic to it.
Fortunately, I’m not.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a whole lot of room in our refrigerator, John.
First of all, it sounds like you and I are living together. I like you. Fortunately, I just bought you a brand new refrigerator. I had to move the television.
Unfortunately, that television broke and I’m stumbling here so you win that round.
I went to “Third City.”
There you go.
All right, we’ll do one more here: Last night, John, the wife and I decided to break out the old Ouija board.
Oh, now you’re married. Okay.
Fortunately, it spiced up our sex life in a weird way.
Unfortunately, I got a call from your wife this morning.
You don’t even have to say anymore. Well, fortunately that call went well because we’re going to break it out again tonight.
Did you just say fortunately? No, I’m doing.
Thank you for playing along. That was a little fun, man.
Your wife’s going to smack you or condemn me.
What has been new for you, my friend?
Everything. Everything’s new for everybody these days, I think. For me, pre-COVID fortunately, I already was teaching two classes online. I was used to that. When COVID hit, we just put the whole school online. It wasn’t that jarring for us, but the world was very unknown, just like for everybody else. Trying to figure it out. The one thing about acting online, which at first I was quite dubious about- it was because: how do you get into somebody’s head online?
And then, what I was surprised- this is when I first started doing it, I was really surprised that it was, in most cases, more intimate, because everybody’s in a closeup. And also, with our younger classes, the tweens, typically I’m telling them to be quiet 20 times each class.
Sure, I can imagine.
I wasn’t having to do that anymore. It was really interesting. And so, now I have everybody facing forward, eager for whatever today’s lesson is going to be. I think that’s been an interesting development. You have to evolve, you can’t teach the old way. You have to teach a different way to get in there.
And I’ve started in the last two months getting into the physical world. We’re in California so it’s not the same as Erik, for example, he’s been barely down in Georgia, in Atlanta. And the state of Georgia has capitalized by being very careful where they need to be careful. And so, they’ve got a lot going on there in terms of incentives and studios and things like that.
I just came back from the state of Oklahoma and also Ohio. Both of those states also have incentives. State of Oklahoma is doing quite well with it. As I was arriving, Scorsese was finishing a project and so was Brad Pitt. And then as I’m leaving, no, it was De Niro and DiCaprio came in for our project. All of these names are gargantuan.
In- running around Oklahoma.
In Oklahoma. If you cross every T, dot every I, you can get up to 35%.
Tax credits back.
Which is amazing.
State of Ohio has incentives, I understand. I don’t know to what degree, and other states are doing it. I think and I believe the state of California is changing some things now where we hope to keep more going on here.
We’re going to have to hold on tight and be very competitive moving forward.
With there being so many new places to consume content, it doesn’t seem like there’s enough sound stages to kind of even produce all this content these days, right?
Yeah. I literally went to Oklahoma to shoot a movie. Shot it in Stillwater.
I want to talk about earlier how you kind of get into this whole acting thing but one of the things that was really magical about, to make that connection back to my son, Zach, was so when we first got out here, you have this thing called Camp Hollywood. Camp Hollywood is- it’s this- such a special thing. You spend months kind of writing out the actual, the story, and then you have these young kids that are in training. Some have more experience than others that bring it. They bring their artistic talent. And within two weeks you produce two or three short films.
And the coolest thing about that is these kids get to see what it’s like being on set and who is that person? And who’s that guy over there with the camera? And why are they holding this crazy microphone above my head?
Thank you. Thank you for that. That’s something that we took a lot of pride in. And actually it takes a lot of our time. It takes about 9 months really to prepare for because you have to have storylines and then you have to create archetypical characters that can adjust according to who is coming in.
And then inevitably Japheth Gordon, my main associate now, just sold a television show to HBO Max so he’s with us in limited capacity at this point. But Japheth was cutting teeth on these movies and he’s very advanced technologically. He’s always doing something interesting.
And then Shane Brady comes aboard and Shane is amazing. I can throw something at him fairly quickly and he’ll just do a phenomenal job. We felt it was magical because we also, it was really hard. We’d have to put two to three editors, working simultaneously around the clock, to get those movies ready before people from out of town were returning home. We could have a premier. We were having them at Raleigh Studios.
That’s where it was. That’s right.
Want to thank Brad Pitt for walking by during one of them so all the moms got to see Brad Pitt.
Is that right? That wasn’t the one we were at.
I couldn’t afford that so I really appreciated that. But the thing was to give them a live experience. How do you get ready for set? Kira Kosarin who was one of our students early on, she had only had two or of our camp movies plus maybe one small guest star spot, I think Austin & Ally or something like that. And then she’s the lead of a Nickelodeon show and her brother on the show is one of our other students from our movies, Jack Griffo. And then another one of our students, Audrey Whitby, played the best friend. We literally had three people from our school on the same show. It was remarkable.
And that was The Thundermans, right?
The Thundermans. And as far as cheap as you were charging, you weren’t making a whole lot of money doing these Camp Hollywood.
We’re lucky if we break even on those because you’re guessing at cost. But normally we’re working with our students who are year-round with us anyway so we’re just trying to keep it affordable. But we feel like it’s worth it. It really is worth it because it’s our signature event that we do each year. Truth is we actually owed some people money from last year’s and I knew I couldn’t do it in LA s o we just put something together in Oklahoma.
But I actually was able to do an idea that I’ve really wanted to do and I’m very excited about. I think it’s going to come out quite strong. Starring in this movie is a boy named Chase Vacnin who is out of New York. And he’s also coming out in the new Sopranos movie. We worked together on something. He booked a Nickelodeon show called Drama Club, so he’s on that now and doing some other work but he’s also got another movie coming out. He’s our lead in the movie in Oklahoma.
And what’s the name of this?
It’s called Night.
Okay. I want to go way, way back. You were born in Brooklyn, New York. And were you raised in New York too?
Up until I was 9.
Okay. In Brooklyn?
Yeah. Brooklyn and Queens. And the pivotal point was my father had a heart attack when I was 8 years old. That set a different trajectory for the family. He was fortunate to survive. It was a pretty big heart attack.
It’s interesting, years later, my older brother became a cardiologist as a result of that event. I was the second oldest. We didn’t have a lot of money. Nobody had a lot of money back then. And all of a sudden, my father who had a decent paying job at best, was no longer working. My mom, it was super hard on her. We had just literally, the day before he had a heart attack, brought home my baby sister from the hospital.
Is that right?
Yeah, pretty crazy. And then it was hard on her. I think part of the reason why I became an actor, I was always trying to entertain her and get a smile on her face. And so, I was always doing stupid stuff around her but I focused, those gigantic boxes with the rabbit ear things called antennas on top of it? That was my world. And I would go in and I kept looking in that box going, they’re having an awful good time in there. How do I get in there? And then, literally my journey was putting one foot in front of the other until I figured out how to get inside that TV box.
That’s fascinating. And so, you were, what about 12, 13, 14? Were you kind of doing anything like drama club or were you into sports?
I thought I was going to become a politician. I was doing sports, played baseball. I’m an okay athlete. I act my way through most sports. I was playing some sports. I played some tennis, loved tennis.
But I think the drama teacher eventually figured out that I had a big mouth and I wasn’t afraid to get in front of a crowd and started to put me to use. We did a play called Angel Street that’s done a lot. And that’s actually the old movie Gaslight comes from that and the expression gaslighting comes from that play.
There was a point where I open up a window box, I’m in my elderly aunt’s house. And what I didn’t know is they had murdered a man and stuffed him in the window box. And so, my character opens it up briefly. He’s looking for something, takes about four steps downstage and all of a sudden has the discovery, the Scooby-Doo moment of what he just saw.
And in the front row, a lady literally passed out, down on the ground, when I had that reaction. And as everyone’s rushing to her to see if she’s okay, I’m sitting there with the lights on me going, “I think I’m pretty good at this.”
Yeah, I would say so.
I think I should do this.
And this was a high school play. And where’d you go to high school?
Ah, so that’s the connection.
You know it? Coconut Creek?
I do. That’s the connection to Florida because I ran into you in Florida at a place called Louie Bossi’s.
On Las Olas.
Yeah. But, so I guess that leads you into where you went to college then, right?
Yeah. I went to Florida State and they had a great acting school. Richard Fallon was our leader, our mentor. Burt Reynolds had gone there. Burt was number one box office actor on the planet six times. I don’t know if it’s ever been matched again. There were only two people that have ever achieved that. And the other, ironically, because you wouldn’t think it was a woman. It wasn’t only a woman, it was a little girl with curly blonde hair, Shirley Temple. You had to go back to Shirley Temple to get six times top box office.
Burt’s friends were everybody. Anybody who’s anybody was Burt’s friend. And in this little theater in Jupiter, Florida, this “miracle at a truck stop” is what it was called, everybody came in. Liza Minelli, Farrah Fawcett would be there, Martin Sheen, god, the names go on and on, Sally Fields.
Fields, of course.
That was a big break for me.
You went to school, Florida State, you ended up graduating from there?
Yes. And going down to the Burt Reynolds Theater.
Okay. And then after you graduated, what were your plans? Were you going to stay in Florida? Were you going to head to LA? What?
I think it was a natural trajectory. I always wanted to go to Los Angeles. Going to Burt’s theater, I didn’t understand the type of training I would be getting. I thought it would be just theatrical but then Burt’s friend, Charles Nelson Reilly, became the master teacher. Charles was a staple on television for many years. He also was a Tony award-winning actor and director, I believe. He also directed opera, so Charles was always bringing in the best of New York from Broadway and the opera world.
You would work all day long. You would be so tired, and then all of a sudden, it would be announced that there would be a class at midnight with, pick somebody, Liza Minelli, Sly Stallone.
Roberta Peters, the opera singer, Dolly Parton, Vincent Gardenia, who was a great actor. He’s the father in Moonlight with Cher. You may remember him. And he came down with Julie Harris, a five-time Tony award-winner and they did Death of a Salesman down there and that was extraordinary.
Okay. Charles Nelson Reilly, I didn’t know of him. He might have been a little bit before my time but I was watching YouTube videos of Charles last night. And boy, talk about a charismatic person.
But he had this energy and he was also a genius and he was brilliant. And he was also equally as loving. And he had this thing about the underdogs, he was always helping the underdogs.
He helped so many of us rise in town. A lot of teachers, acting teachers, besides myself, that come out of his school.
It’s interesting. He was your mentor.
Primary. I would say primary with Richard Fallon at Florida State and Burt Reynolds. I call Burt my mentor as well. But Charles was a game changer for all of us students, not just me, all of us. Going to his class was like going to a theatrical church. It was an experience every time.
You ended up in LA from Florida. You’re trying to pursue this acting career. You probably don’t have too many friends and family out here.
I didn’t even know how to get an agent properly. It’s interesting. Back then, you didn’t expect to get work right away. Nowadays, there’s something called Nickelodeon and Disney Channel. Young people, they were infrequently used, if you will. Infrequently. It was kind of understood, you’re going to study for a decade and you have to be able to rise to the higher levels of people in your category.
And back when you’re auditioning in town here, I would see the same guys at every audition. And in a way, you knew you were invited into the family if you were part of the group for your category.
And in the beginning, your 20s and the early 30s, it’s very competitive, but then after a while people start to fall out and then you’re sort of patting people on the back and wishing them luck and realizing, “Hey, we’re still alive. We’re still in the game.” Because it takes a lot to stay in the game.
And what kind of odd jobs were you working? Were you waiting tables?
Well, I want to tell you the story of how I got discovered. Guy walks into the bar. I’m working at Hymie’s Seafood, which is a big industry joint on Pico Boulevard. And sitting over on that table would be Barbara Streisand, Warren Beatty‘s over there, Goldie Hawn‘s over there.
And this is a normal thing at this place.
Yes, because it’s very close to Fox and the food was amazing. And it was the seafood house that had a full bar and opening night of the 19-, this’ll date me a little bit, 1984 Olympics. I am “John at the bar is a friend of mine.” I’m the bartender.
But I’m having a great time. We have television monitors up. Half of LA left. They were fearing the traffic so you could go anywhere in 20 minutes. It was a fantastic time to be in Los Angeles. Sitting at the bar, think George Burns, you know George Burns?
Oh God. There was a man sitting there with this beautiful young 20-ish, 30-ish, young lady and I don’t know who he is. And I’m so busy. I’m taking care of all the drinks to the bar. I’m running all the checks for the register. I’m telling a joke where I can and he’s watching me.
And he finally calls me down. It’s been a long time since I remember this story but he calls me down and he says, “How long you been working here?” I’m like, “I don’t know, six months, nine months. Want a drink?” “No.” I look at the gal. She shakes her head, no. I’m like, okay.
I go back to work. I’m really busy. Calls me down again eventually. I’m really busy. I go, “Yes?” He goes, “Are you an actor?” I said, “Yeah, I’m an actor.” I point around the restaurant, “He’s an actor. She’s an actor. The busboys, the cook, they’re all actors. Shrimp cocktail?” “No.”
Okay. I go back to it. It’s busy, opening night at the Olympics. And finally he called me down four times total. The final time, no, the third time he calls me down he says, “Are you any good?” He was watching me.
He was just watching me be John at the bar at that time. Now the thing that he didn’t know is, I had already trained for a decade. And I had phenomenal teachers. You might argue, I had some of the best teachers.
Sure, some of the names you mentioned. Sure.
And so, I look at him and I’m like, “Well, don’t be an idiot, John.” He says, “Are you any good?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m good. Dessert?” “No.”
And before he leaves, he calls me down and he hands me his business card. And remember I had nothing happening, nothing. And on the card it says his name, Sam Weisbord, the chairman of the board of the William Morris Agency. Number one in the world, by the way, at the time. The William Morris Agency: Los Angeles, New York, Beverly Hills, Miami, London, Rome.
“Chairman of the Board.”
“Chairman of the Board.” And I look at him and I’m like, “Are you this guy?” And he says, “Yeah.” Said, “Well, I guess I’ll call you then.”
Two weeks later I’m watching college football because I’m a maniac about college football for Florida State. It comes on early in LA and I see a news flash, “The chairman of the board of the William Morris Agency passed away this morning,” and I’m like, “No!”
Oh my God.
“Nooo,” I’m pounding the floor. And then they put up the picture of the previous chairman of the board, the very famous Abe Lastfogel who basically is the William Morris Agency.
He was just very, very famous. He’s the one that brought Frank Sinatra back from the dead.
And I think got him The Manchurian Candidate. This guy was a legend. And I was like, “Thank you, God, thank you.” And then eventually agents would come in and sit at my bar just to stare at me and not tell me who they were because the old guy was forcing me on them.
And they were like, “God, Sam wants us to go in and see this kid. Oh God.” Two and a half months later, I have my first series, ABC Disney.
But you got signed with William Morris?
I did. I did. Begrudgingly. Those youngsters had to take me in.
It’s an A-list kind of a agency.
Back in the day. And in a way it was, Sam could look at them and go, “See, I can pick them.” Because he’s the older guy and they all think they know more than him at that time.
You ever think how life kind of talks to you? You working at the restaurant, him sitting there, all these connections, life is talking to you.
Well, back it up to nothing’s happening for me for the first two and a half years, and every night I would go out to the dumpster that smelled like the worst old fish and alcohol, and I would literally hit my knees and pray, “Please, God, soon.” I would literally do that.
There’s an actor doing that right now.
Oh yeah. And God sends Sam Weisbord to my bar. It was pretty amazing. Pretty amazing.
Such a powerful story. It’s always interesting to hear how people kind of get their big break. Man, I was going through your IMDb last night and there’s just so many. And in fact, it’s funny because we were talking about Dom DeLuise and there was a video of you and Dom DeLuise.
From a movie.
In some movie, hold on. I think I have it. It’s All About You.
You were young.
Yes. I was young. Where’d you find that?
It was on YouTube. When you just YouTube your name, there’s this internet thing and you YouTube “John D’Aquino” and there’s a video.
Is there a video from that movie with Dom?
There’s a video from that movie.
Starts out as a play up on Franklin Boulevard at the Tamarind Theater. And Mark comes to me and says, “Hey, I’m writing this scene for class,” it was Charles Nelson Reilly’s class, “and I want you to play this actor, this famous actor with a small penis.” And I’m like, “Get the hell out of here.” And he goes, “No, I really want you to do this.”
Well, Mark is one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet in your life. And I’m like, “All right.” He talks me into it. We do the scene. It kills. It just kills. He writes a full play. That kills at that theater.
As a matter of fact, my wife, my future wife, came to see the play. She must have thought anybody who’s willing to make fun of their penis, he’s got to be a pretty confident guy. I don’t know. Maybe it was reverse psychology but at any rate, then it became a film and we just used a lot of the friends and Dom was in it. I got to work with Dom.
He was so freaking funny. If you watch that scene, you have to watch me trying to not die laughing.
Other things, let’s see here. You were on Quantum Leap for many years.
Okay. I had already auditioned for that show I think four times, if not five. And I’m like, “Seriously? They want me to come in again?” And on the Friday before, I was waiting to hear if I was going to go forward on Godfather: III. No.
Is that right?
Andy went. What’s Andy’s last name?
Oh, he lives here in Toluca Lake.
I know who you’re talking about.
You know who I’m talking about.
Yeah, it’ll come.
Losing his last name. Great actor. And so, it was for that role. And then there was a movie with Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. called Flight of the Intruder, I was hoping to go further on that movie. On a Friday afternoon, I get the call, none of them are going further. And I was just really decimated.
And years ago, Jason, there were these boxes. You would open them up and press a button, and there’d be a recording of something funny. I don’t know why I brought it with me from Florida. Hadn’t worked in 2 to 3 years and I’m really down, I’m really down on a Friday afternoon.
And all of a sudden this box is about 10 feet away from me. I wasn’t anywhere near it. I’m sitting on the edge of the bed and it goes off. The lid is closed. It goes off. And I hear: [clapping] “Bravo! Take a bow! Bravo! Take a bow!” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me?”
It’s the worst day ever.
That was a God moment. But I stand up and it kind of got me out of the funk, and I’m bowing to myself in a mirror, “All right, good try. Good try.” That afternoon, the audition comes in for the fifth, or whatever it was, Quantum Leap. And that happened to be the right marriage of role with the actor. That also happened to be a super blessed episode because everybody was fantastic, including the writing, the producers, the director. And it knocked it out of the park.
And before the episode was even halfway over, I’m getting called into NBC and they’re asking me, “We watched your dailies,” not giving anything away. And I’m like, “Uh-huh.” And they’re like, “And we called the editing room to find out if it was a fluke.” And I’m like, “Yeah?” And he says, “And they assured us it’s not and would you like to do a show with NBC next year?”
And then I get the same thing from.
And this is now really your big.
This is happening.
This is the big-
I thought it was going to be one of those movies on Friday but now this is turning into something better. Those two movies actually didn’t do so great, believe it or not.
But it still would be cool to be in a Godfather movie.
That would have been cool.
And as I’m walking there, three guys in suits approach me and say, “John D’Aquino.” And I’m like, “Nobody knew me on Friday the week before.” And I’m like, “Yes?” Am I going to get escorted off the lot? And, “We saw your dailies.” I’m like, “Oh.” “Would you be interested in doing a show for Universal next year?” And I’m like, “I can do that.” And then I went to Don’s office and he said the same thing.
It was amazing. It was really amazing.
What has to happen ultimately is there also has to be scripts and roles, that things have to align. I wish it was smooth sailing past then but it was still a little bit haphazard.
No. The highs and lows…
I got a call to go be on a Disney show. I had no idea what that was going to be but that was actually- I was teaching adults primarily acting in LA simultaneously, and that got me into the youth world, which I love. That’s how I know you. That show is the reason I know you and I’ve been really blessed over the years because you get to play. You’re with the kids. You’re with great kids, with this incredible energy, constantly.
You got to work with Miley Cyrus even, too, the show.
On Disney. That’s when she was just starting out. And Dwayne “The Rock “Johnson, I think we might have had his first television show. He was on the show.
Is that right too? Okay.
Yeah, I think so. It’s good. Lots of people came off. Abigail Breslin, the first time ever met her.
She was on set as a fan. I can remember her there. And anyway, some other girls.
You know what? All of this, because you’ve got a lot of stuff on your resume, but when I met you in Florida, it was like, “What? John?” It was totally, “Why am I seeing you in Florida here right now?” And I see you on, like, every day in the studio in Burbank or Toluca Lake.
And so, after I gave you a hug and we kind of went our own ways, I went back to my table and they’re like, “Who was that? How do you know somebody out here?” Because I don’t live in Florida. And I’m like, “That’s the weirdest thing. That’s my son’s acting coach, John D’Aquino.” And they’re like, “What? Acting coach?” I’m like, “Yeah.” “Is he an actor?” I’m like, “Yeah.”
And they’re like, “Well, what has he been on?” And I’m trying to remember, because I just met you. I’m like, “Yeah, he was in Cory in the House, he’s been on a lot of stuff.”
And you know, I had the pleasure of being, well, pleasure’s a different word, but I was on Seinfeld and it came in number one for the week, and I was the main guest star on 3rd Rock from the Sun, and that came in number two. And I’m the main guest star in both of those shows.
In the same week.
No, not only the same week. One came on at 9 and the other came on at 9:30.
Is that right?
It was back to back. It was pretty crazy.
That’s interesting. I wonder how many other people can say that.
But I want to know because here it is the number one show in the world and number two, I guess, but I was a big Seinfeld fan. How did that happen? How did you get that audition?
No, you got to back it up.
I want to know that story.
I could say it in three words: Charles Nelson Reilly. If I don’t have him as my teacher, none of this happens.
If Burt Reynolds doesn’t have an altruistic heart, and just spends a lot of money taking care of young people in his community and building up that community, none of this happens. These guys, they’re everything.
And then if you follow form, Charles used to say, “The theater is your church and you have to love the craft. And if you love the craft, the craft will love you back.” You have to love the craft. You have to dig deeper. You got to rise. It’s like anything. You got to be the best. You got to be the best in your category. And acting’s hard, so some days you’re the best, some days you’re not. But when I was at my best, I would say I was trying to outwork my competition. Outthink them, bring things in. And then also it comes with confidence. You’re pointing to a lot of my successes, what you’re not pointing to are the 2,000 failures, if you want to call them failures or near misses.
The lessons along the way.
But you have to survive those. You get knocked down, you get bloodied but it’s all about getting up and doing it again.
Now as a teacher, it’s very different for me because I’ve lost some students, I think, as you know, kids that are no longer with us anymore. For me it really is all about creating an environment for people to grow, to learn more about themselves.
I’m more interested in: who are they going to be in their 20s? Are they going to be okay? Are they going to be vibrant? Actors are typically pretty smart people. They’re very sharp. They come in and they get to be able to do comedy and great dramas. You have to be intellectually diverse if you will. But they’re all about what’s going on inside them and I want them to thrive.
Understood. But while you’re on set on Seinfeld and you’re just like, are you pinching yourself? Is this really happening? When the show aired, because it would’ve aired a couple weeks later, months later, how long does it take for it to air?
Could be a month or two.
When that show, when you walked around on the street and got coffee, were you getting, “Todd Gack!”?
Yeah. Number one show. Humongous.
It probably happened all day the next day. Just kind of walking around, not John D’Aquino, you’re now Todd Gack.
There’s a surreal aspect to this. I think for most actors though, it comes with great humbling, unless you’re a superstar. Normally you have incredible humbling along the way to hopefully kind of keep everybody grounded, not just when it’s going well. And not that I did everything correctly, I wish that I had.
Charles was a wonderful acting mentor. I needed Sam Weisbord to live longer because he would’ve been a phenomenal mentor for me for the business.
And then there was another guy who was the director of a show that was my show called Shades of LA, years ago, which actually was before the movie Ghost about a guy who gets an injury and he has these encounters with people that have passed away and are trying to solve their crimes through me. I play a cop. But this one guy, Bob, came from radio, Fibber McGee and Molly. And he was also one of the creators of The Andy Griffith Show. Bob was a big force and then he passed away early.
If anything, as a teacher, I really want to try and share my mistakes and try and help people avoid them.
And that’s what you’re doing. I saw in your home office you have a photo of you, there’s somebody else and there’s Johnny Depp in the photo. Did you work with Johnny?
Oh, is that who it is in the photo with you?
Peter DeLuise, he’s also from the show. On that same episode, and I haven’t had the courage to watch that episode, believe it or not. But Josh Brolin is a young guest star on that show.
The very first episode.
The first episode with Johnny. Johnny was a young guy.
He was just an upcoming kid back then.
Yeah. Wow. What would you say would’ve been the biggest audition of your life?
Well, I think sitting across from Francis Ford Coppola.
Is that right? You made it all the way through to the directors?
Yeah. To him. And I was just nervous and I literally, I had the good sense to say, “I’m nervous.” Because he’s my…
One of your idols.
Probably, The Godfather‘s probably the number one movie for most people. And he says, “Why are you nervous?” We’re sitting like you and I are right now. And he’s got a pad in front of him, he’s recording everything that I’m saying. And I said, “Well, you’re a Francis freaking Copolla.”
But anyway, then he says, “Tell me about your family.” And he wanted to know about my Italian heritage and he wanted to know how I grew up. And so, then he’s just taking notes and notes, and then it was really nice and it went on for a while. That was really nice. Sorry, I won’t be able to even remember.
To get Jerry and Larry David laughing at an audition, because these guys don’t laugh, typically. Comedians will typically look at you, point at you and go, “Funny,” but they don’t laugh. But they’ve heard every, “Funny.” But I got them to laugh a few times at the audition. I was really pleased about that.
And one thing with 3rd Rock from the Sun, I had an instinct that I was coming over to date the girl in the show, the lead girl, and I saw the way they put me in the blocking, and they put me next to John Lithgow, and so I went over to the prop department and I said, “You have any flowers I can bring over on my first date?” I knew he would grab them because they played aliens who don’t know our culture. I knew he would grab them.
Burt Reynolds would tell me, I used to ask him, “How did you master The Johnny Carson Show the way you did?” Because really that’s what made Burt, his guest star appearances on The Johnny Carson Show. Was so funny, every girl wanted to be with him, all the guys wanted to be like him. He was so funny. And he said to me, “John, I studied Johnny Carson like a college course. I knew how to feed him.”
And Johnny, when he went on vacation, he gave Burt the mantle. And Burt had it for a week and that made him. And then people were going, “We don’t miss Johnny.” And then Burt, knowing how to take care of people said, when Johnny came back, he says, “Can you believe these idiots who said that stuff?” And he basically was self-deprecating with Johnny.
When I first moved out here- everybody has their “only-in-Hollywood” story. My only-in-Hollywood story, and I want to hear your only-in-Hollywood story, you probably have many of them but there’s probably some that come to mind.
My Hollywood story: So here we are, we had just gotten to Toluca Lake, Zach just did the Camp Hollywood. We haven’t seen any of the Hollywood people yet. And so, we walk into, for lunch, at Angelino’s right there on Moorpark in Toluca Lake, and we’re sitting down. Actually we are not sitting down. We’re walking in. There’s nobody in the restaurant, but there’s one person and it was Jay Leno.
And it’s just surreal because he’s sitting there eating. There’s nobody else in the restaurant we walk in with me, Zach, JJ and Bridget, my wife, but he’s sitting there and he ordered two steaks. And I’m like, is this really happening right now? Is Jay Leno just literally sitting at the next table, and Bridget’s like, “Well, should we ask him for a photo?” I’m like, “No, you don’t do that kind of stuff. You don’t bother them when they’re eating.” He’ll notice. Hopefully he’ll come up and say something to us.
And so, sure enough, he got up and he came over and he’s like, “How are you boy?” And he was just one of the nicest guys. And he’s like, “Let’s take a picture.” And he had his signature shirt on, a denim shirt. And it was just so surreal, man. It was just pretty cool. That was my first, like, Hollywood story. What is the story that comes to mind for you?
You have many.
But let’s do a Jay Leno connection. My dear friend is Dan Roebuck. Daniel Roebuck, the actor, great character actor. He played Jay Leno in The Late Night Wars with Kathy Bates, which was a great mini series, I think it was, or “Movie of the Week.” Where it’s David Letterman.
Jay Leno, the battle.
It was quite a battle too.
Yeah, it was.
And Dan played Jay. Now I’m going to cut to how I know Dan.
I’m in Europe shooting the television show, The Dirty Dozen, in Yugoslavia. And there was a movie called The River’s Edge that had come out and it was a critical success, but it was such a dark piece about finding a girl’s naked body by the river, it was just, ugh. The whole thing.
And these kids just kind of like, they saw her there, they might have killed- She was killed down by the river and nobody just, nobody brings it to the attention of anybody. They just go home to their lives like it didn’t happen.
We’re sitting there and everybody loves this movie except me. And I’m the last one to speak, and they’re talking about it. And all of a sudden, they come to me and I said, “Well, I hated that freaking movie.” And everything got real quiet at the table. And I’m like and I told them why I hated that movie. And everyone’s looking at me.
And then, but I said, “The only redeeming factor to me in that whole movie was the actor who played the killer,” who was this big, 280-pound guy, whatever he was. I said, “He was amazing.”
Little did I know that Dan Roebuck was the murderer but he had lost a 120 pounds, and he’s sitting across the table from me.
Is that right?
Dan and I fell in love that day.
He lives in Burbank and he and I are very good friends.
Oh, that’s awesome.
I don’t know where I pulled that one out of but I somehow pulled that one out.
I’m going to read a quote and it’s going to transition into what you’re doing now and what you have been doing. The quote reads, “The most selfish thing that you can do in the world is help someone else because of the gratification, the goodness that comes to you. The good feeling, that great feeling from helping others, nothing is better than that.”
And so, what you’re doing now with Young Actors Workshop is so critical. You are helping. You’re setting the stage for a lot of these young actors to pursue their dreams and their careers. How did you get into teaching and coaching?
You have to love the craft, going back to Charles. There’s teachers around town, my good friend, Robert D’Avanzo, is a wonderful teacher as well, acting teacher in the Valley here. And there’s a lot of us that came from Charles.
It’s just sharing the love of this craft. I don’t know how else to put it. At its core it’s probably something that every- You said you did Second City. It’s something that everybody should do because it helps prepare you for any time you have to stand in front of the PTA or anything. People get nervous being in front of audiences. One thing that I like to say is be of service. If you make it about you, then your ego gets involved and it gets distorted.
If you are being of service, even in the work that you’re doing. So, even if you’re on a television show, serve the character, serve the show. As a teacher, I need to be of service and what I hope is to help people grow their confidence level by understanding a little bit better who they are.
So, I have adults as well. And I really enjoy working with adults who have worked an entire life at a job and now are finally doing something for themselves. That’s really rewarding. And they bring a different type of depth. They’re not just actors trying to pretend to be something. They’re moms and grandparents or they’ve had a full career, and now they’re just doing this for love. And that’s really rewarding to see how that affects them.
Years ago, I had the honor of being a big brother with the Big Brothers Association. And all of my friends used to say- Working with kids, right? And all of my friends used to say, “Oh, it’s so nice that you do that.”
But if they knew how selfish it was because of the joy that it brought me… You’re helping a kid out that doesn’t have anything going on, to go throw a ball in the park, to do something like that. I said, “Well then, maybe you should consider doing it if you think it’s,” I said, “because it’s so rewarding.”
I’m a dad. You could argue that it helped me be a better teacher working with kids. Helped me be a better father.
I’ve maybe had six interviews and three of the six have been big brothers.
Yeah. It’s a great program. We should probably consider having somebody from Big Brother come in and be a guest on the show.
That’s really nice to hear.
How long you been married, John?
I was with Catherine for seven years prior, but I’m now, gosh, do the math. However many years that is. But we’re in the midst of a renovation. That’s where I just came from.
Renovating the house?
Finally, finally. Finally.
And then you have a beautiful daughter. How old is she now?
She’s 12 and a half.
12 and a half.
Tall, string bean of a kid. It’s great. She has no interest in acting but she does take Japheth’s improv class. And because of that, she’s much more courageous. In school it helps her out there. That’s why improvisation is great.
Regardless of what you do.
Everybody. Everybody should do it.
First of all, it’s fun. I really wish that I grew up with it. If I had time, I probably would just go for fun myself and do it.
I would’ve done the same in school. Same thing. It keeps you so witty regardless of what you do, whether you’re just interviewing for a job or whatever.
Improv keeps you ready. Ready to be and appreciating the moment.
Now are you spending more of your time these days acting or coaching?
I’ve been acting a good bit lately. The last thing I did was S.W.A.T. not long ago.
Didn’t they film them in Santa Clarita?
That’s what I thought.
Probably in your backyard.
Yep. I see them at the bagel shop all the time, the crew. They’re always wearing S.W.A.T. jackets and stuff.
They have a really tight crew. It’s a great job.
But I write, I direct. I just directed the movie that I wrote. Which I say, movie, but it’ll probably play out as episodes. And I find that I’m always busy with something; having the school, you’re either coaching, teaching, writing, directing, acting in something.
Can you just enjoy a movie or are you dissecting every scene?
Well, when it’s amazing, I’m just like you are or anybody else, I’m fully in. When it gets clunky, technically. I’m into performance.
That’s exactly what Dan Lauria was saying, back when he was acting, you had to really act, you had to bring it. There weren’t so many cuts.
Oh yeah. Well, exactly. And way back the cameras were humongous and very heavy. If you want to point to a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life.
It’s so funny you say that. That’s the same exact movie that he referenced.
Dan and I should have lunch.
I’m going to connect you two if you don’t know each other.
Let’s get together.
If you look at the scene where they’re dancing at the high school, it’s a stationary, still static shot. But they have the dancers dancing in and out of the shot in the background.
Because remember, directors these days are afraid of just static shots where people aren’t- Two actors talking scares the hell out of them. Because of how many ways you’re going to cover it, they put it on sliders. They may put it from above. However they can do it.
But in that scene you’ll see how, who was it? Capra? Capra, I think. Frank Capra was the director, and he put so much life into the frame of how people come in and out that you’re never bored. It was an art form and the extras were so much more than that. They were really strong components of the film.
That scene gives you a beautiful idea of: it should be about performance. It should be about the story. Well, when you can. I’m a story guy. I’m old school on that one.
Those actors were so brilliant in The Wizard of Oz.
I look at the performance of the Cowardly Lion. Oh my God. To this day, it’s genius. It just cracks you up, the commitment to that character. “Auff!” So fun. So fun.
What’s one movie that you probably can say you’ve seen 50 times, it just comes on and it doesn’t matter.
The first movie that’s coming into my head, I just can’t walk away when Sideways comes on.
I just laugh my ass off. I just laugh. It’s so wrong.
That’s a newer movie. Within 10 or 15 years.
Alexander Payne is the director. It’s a brilliant movie, Sideways.
Well, we’ll end on that note, John. I sincerely appreciate you coming down.
This was a blast.
And I will make that connection with- yeah, we’ll go have lunch with Dan. Get some good Italian food and reminisce about old movies.
This was fun. Thank you so much. I’m really proud of you.
Thank you. I appreciate that, that means a lot.