‘It Wasn’t Beaver Cleaver, But It Was My Version Of It.’ — Joe Mantegna

Life was very unlike what it was like on television. We used to watch “Father Knows Best,” my favorite TV show, with Robert Young and Jane Wyatt, and the father would return home in a suit. He’d take off the suit jacket and put on another jacket, this one with patches on the elbows, and the mother would have clean plates well stacked with white bread next to plates stacked with butter. I’m thinking, what planet is this from?

We were living the family life, too, and we had a bowl of pasta, and my brother is in his T-shirt drinking a Pepsi. That seemed pretty normal. That seemed like what everybody did. When I was a little kid, my mother worked all the time at Sears Roebuck, which was at Homan and Arthington on the West Side. You can still see it—well, a shell of it—just off the Eisenhower Expressway. We first lived on Homan Avenue and Harrison, 3400 block, and then, when I was five years old, we moved to 3412 Flournoy Street, which runs between Harrison and Lexington. My dad traveled a lot for work, so I was a latchkey kid. I would come home for lunch from grammar school. My parents would give me a quarter to buy two hot dogs. I’d come in the house, eat lunch, watch “Uncle Johnny Coons” and “Lunchtime Little Theater” and then walk back to school. You walked to school then, not that it was far. There was no driving or buses to school. They were neighborhood schools. It wasn’t any trouble. We lived a lower-middle-class existence. It certainly wasn’t affluent. We never owned a home. There isn’t a place where I say, “That’s it. That’s our house.” We never broke through to the American dream, but I think that’s why I value it so much today. I have probably more money invested in real estate than anything else because I equate success to property.

My father grew up on a fifty-acre farm in Oklahoma. What’s funny is my grandmother held on to that farm, and we still actually own it. No one does anything there. It just sits there, but it’s like the homestead. My grandfather bought it when they came over from Sicily. He worked in coal mines for five years to buy it. If his father didn’t die on the farm from an appendicitis attack, my father would have stayed. He belonged in Oklahoma. It was always in his heart. My dad was ill all his life. He and two of his brothers contracted tuberculosis while on the farm. His brothers died, and my dad spent World War II in the hospital. They took out one of his lungs and part of the other lung. So my dad only worked until he was forty. That’s why my mother had to keep working at Sears, wrapping packages, because my dad was on disability for the last twenty years of his life. Then he died; he was only fifty-seven. I always felt he was just a guy with bad luck—out of time, out of place. If he hadn’t gotten sick, he may have stayed on the farm and been happier in his life. But he met my mother in Chicago, so it worked out. And my mother, who lives in Deerfield, is going to turn 100. My father wasn’t a city guy, but he became one, and I certainly became one very early because that’s all I knew.

Initially I grew up in Garfield Park. My grandparents owned the building on Flournoy. It was right off the Eisenhower. The L train used to go through our backyard. I could literally stand on my back porch and see the engineer. He’d go by and wave. They completely knocked that down when they built the Eisenhower. Then, it was quiet. When we moved to Cicero, it took me a while to get used to sleeping at night because I was used to the L going by.

I started at Gregory School until fifth grade and then I went to sixth and seventh at Mother Cabrini. It was nice back then, the Garfield Park area—the golden dome, the Garfield Park Conservatory. That’s when I was a kid; I’m talking the late ’50s. They used to have a beautiful park in front of Sears then—I’m sure it’s all gone now—but just a park with flowers. It was a walking park. It was a good neighborhood. It was Italian, Irish; it was a mixture. I still remember a lot of the neighbors’ names: Majeras, Racanelli, LaMontagne. Those were the days where you knew your neighbors, hung out with your neighbors, and barbecued in the backyard.

And for us kids, it was different. You just hit the streets. That was it. You came home from school and you were on your

A young Mantegna on the front steps of his family’s home on Flournoy Street on Chicago’s West Side. Provided by Joe Mantegna

A young Mantegna on the front steps of his family’s home on Flournoy Street on Chicago’s West Side. Provided by Joe Mantegna

own until it was dinnertime. It was like those old commercials where the mother sticks her head out the window, yells “Joey!” It was that. You rode your bikes everywhere. We would ride our bikes all the way from 3400 west to Forest Park. We’d just take Washington Boulevard all the way. That was an adventure for us. We’d ride all the way out past Maywood, Forest Park, Dellwood. Just for fun. It was a simpler time. You’re at play till dark; then you went home. It seems a little different now, until you get into more rural areas.

The homes were classic brick, two-flat, three-flats, very neighborhoody. Cicero was pretty much the same, but Cicero was a blue-collar town, too, because you had a lot of industry there. You had Kropp Forge and HotPoint, a bean plant. A lot of people worked at the race tracks—Sportsman’s, Hawthorne. Cicero was just like a micro version of the West Side of Chicago.

In Cicero, I went to Roosevelt School, then four years at Morton East High School and two years at Morton Junior College. Then, when I finished junior college, I started going to the Goodman School of Drama, which was located in the Art Institute in Chicago. Then, I moved into the city. I had a bunch of apartments all over—Old Town, New Town, up on LaSalle Street. In the ’60s, that’s mostly where people lived—Old Town, on North Avenue and Wells Street, and LaSalle Street and Clark; and then, New Town, up around Fullerton, Clark, Belden, all the way up to Irving Park. I had apartments all over New Town and Old Town and on Fullerton, and Clark, up by 2400 North, right by Wrigley Field at Cornelia for a few years. I was in the Organic Theater, which was in Uptown on Beacon Street. I never lived on the South Side, but when I was a kid, I was in LaRabida sanatorium with rheumatic fever. I spent five months in LaRabida, which is still there in Jackson Park.

I look back on it and it wasn’t Beaver Cleaver, but it was my version of it. One of my closest friends was Ernie Majeras, a kid who lived next door. I hadn’t seen him since 1961. Ernie just showed up at the Memorial Day concert I do in Washington, D.C. I found out he had been in the Navy, was a veteran, and was retired. This was my childhood friend who I hadn’t seen in over fifty years and it was still like we were around the neighborhood, “Hey Ernie,” “Hey Joe.” Upbringing like that can’t help but shape you. Same thing with neighbors. I remember all the names—the Lulows and Racanellis, the Gallies, and the Irish people who lived next door, the Sullivans. I’d like to think everybody has those stories. I have no sad, terrible memories. I had that period when I was sick as a kid, but I’m sure that was harder on my parents. I wouldn’t have changed anything.

Unfortunately, it’s not that much different on the West Side. The West Side needs some help. It’s not like I remember it. But Chicago is great. Chicago is beautiful. It’s my hometown. I love Chicago. The best skyline in the world. I haven’t been everywhere, but from Moscow to Australia and all over the world, Chicago holds up. But it’s tough in the winter. You have to embrace that, and I don’t. My motto is when the snow blows, Joe goes. That’s why you don’t see me here much in the winter. I love California, and I’ve lived in New York for a good amount of time. But this is a great city and my family is here, and my wife’s family. We own a restaurant in Burbank, California, called Taste Chicago. It’s all Chicago food. So, I can’t get away from it.
— as told to Publisher Joe Coughlin

Joe Mantegna has been featured in more than 100 films and is in his ninth season as Special Agent David Rossi on CBS’s hit crime drama “Criminal Minds.” He is also the longest running non-lead role on “The Simpsons,” voicing mobster Fat Tony.

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