The Godfather fanatic

One man indulges his gangster fantasies off Broadway.

godfather broadway 88 (photo credit: )
godfather broadway 88
(photo credit: )
We all know what it's like to have obsessions. Many of us spend years in therapy trying to sublimate them. But instead of paying someone a small fortune to talk through his obsession, actor Seth Isler decided to indulge his. It all began back in 1984 when the now 45-year-old Isler saw a movie that changed his life. That movie was The Godfather. Isler found himself transfixed, and began regurgitating the dialogue ad nauseam. "I knew there were legions of people out there who had the same reaction [to the film]," says Isler in his dressing room an hour before the curtain rises on a Los Angeles performance. "Everyone knows that every guy loves The Godfather...there are metaphors for life that are scattered throughout that film." Perhaps, but not every guy then decides to turn their obsession into a one-man comedy show. In "The Godfadda Workout: A Parody in 12 Rounds," Isler takes 12 scenes from the original film, playing each and every character himself. It's a marvel to watch as Isler leaps, slithers, slides, and jack-knifes across the stage, switching from character to character, channeling everyone from Robert Duvall, James Caan, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and even Diane Keaton. Isler brilliantly affects their nuances, speech patterns and physical quirks, prancing around the stage for 90 minutes without pausing for breath. "The comedy," he reveals, "is in moving from one character to another. I thought 'how would Dick Van Dyke, Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin get from one end of a desk to another?' So I vaulted the desk and said, 'That works.'" To train for his grueling gymnastic feats, Isler worked with a track and field coach. "He trained me like a triathlete," says Isler. "The key to the play is that the audience has to see sweat, but they cannot see you out of breath." The premise of the show is based on Isler's own obsession in which he has a (recorded) conversation with "The Don" who promises Isler he will rid him of his obsession if he acts out certain scenes from the show to the Don's satisfaction. And so "The Godfadda Workout" was born. But back in 1984, Isler was performing one scene at various comedy shows and clubs. But it was only when he met up with producer/director Susan Jane Sullivan in 1995 that the show eventually took off. "This show has gone beyond our wildest imagination," Isler boasts. As he states in the show's program notes, "When we finally opened (in a small theater in Los Angeles)...we knew that there were Godfather fanatics out there, but we never knew for sure if they would find us. Not only did they find us, they kept coming back again and again (one night the entire Van Nuys District Attorney's office came in trench coats and Fedora hats). Yet it wasn't always smooth sailing. Isler and Sullivan toiled away for six years with the show in small venues, with their ultimate dream of opening in New York on Off Broadway. They received a huge boost when HBO asked them to open the comedy festival in 1997, but Off Broadway was still a pipe dream. "To perform Off Broadway is really an acknowledgement of your work," says Isler. "It's like the Promised Land." And in fact, Isler credits some part of "The Godfadda Workout"'s New York debut to the Promised Land. Isler, who is also a television producer, was in Israel in 2000, filming a documentary about Masada. "My mother, father and other people gave me stacks of notes to put in the Kotel when I went," Isler recalls. "I'd never been to the Wall," he continues. "And when you stand there, something happens to you. It's so powerful. So I put this prayer in the Wall together with a copy of our program from the show asking God if He could get our show to New York - I'm sure God got a kick out of that - and less than a year later we were there." So how does a nice Jewish boy from Cleveland Heights (an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood) Ohio, land up playing Italian mobsters? "Our neighborhood was very close to the Italian neighborhood," Isler recalls. "As I grew older and learned to shoot pool I started hanging out at unsavory places, and met a lot of the Italian kids." And there was "something" about them. "They had an edge, they were very colorful and cool, and I wanted to emulate that. And when I saw The Godfather that just kind of iced it for me." Plus, he adds, he believes it's every Jewish kids' fantasy to be Italian for 10 minutes and, "What's more glamorous than being a gangster?" Big stars of the original movie have already seen - and admired - Isler's performances. Mo Green, Abe Vigoda, Johnny Fontaine, Al Pacino, Bruno Kirby, James Caan and Robert Duvaal have all either seen the show or a tape of it. "I was also invited to perform part of the show for [Francis Ford] Copolla on the Conan O'Brien Show, as a surprise for him on the 25th Anniversary of The Godfather. So what did Copolla think? "He really laughed!" Now, after 10 years of doing "The Godfadda Workout," Isler admits he's finally over his obsession. "I got over it a long time ago," he laughs. But he still loves doing the show, which is constantly evolving. "I'll do this show when I'm 85 in a walker in Miami on a shuffleboard court," he promises. While it is a one-man show, there are enormous sets, props, and seven stage hands that manipulate the scenery and furniture seamlessly. "It's really a mini-circus," says Isler. "We were even asked to take the show to Bombay, because physical comedy resonates in any language and everybody knows this movie." Isler hopes that maybe the show could make its way to Israel as part of the Israel Festival. He also has dreams of possibly franchising the show. "All you need is an obsessed actor thinking he can play all these parts and then doing it," says Isler. "And that's the show in essence."