Tony Roberts' New York

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We sat down with the iconic actor and discussed his bromance with Woody Allen, growing up in the city and his new movie role


  • Shane Harper, Colt Prattes and Tony Roberts in “Dirty Dancing,” airing May 24 on ABC. Photo: © 2016 American Broadcasting Companies.  

When Tony Roberts walks around Manhattan, he often gets stopped with questions like, “Where do I know you from?” or “What have I seen you in?” This proves difficult to answer since the actor has enjoyed a five-decade career on stage and screen and is still working.

Those encounters were the inspiration behind the title of his memoir “Do You Know Me?” which chronicles his lifelong acting journey with varied roles ranging from leads on Broadway to soap opera stardom to six Woody Allen films. It quickly becomes apparent that he could not tell his story without New York City being a significant backdrop. Not only at the start of his career-attending PS 6 on the Upper East Side and taking an acting class at the 92nd Street Young Men's Hebrew Association – but later on for moments such as when Allen introduced himself backstage during Roberts' run in “Barefoot in the Park,” or having a recent conversation about fame with a woman while sitting in Central Park.

And at 77, he is still sought after in the industry. He added audiobooks to his prolific resume, lending his voice to the novels of Stuart Woods. And he was offered a role in the “Dirty Dancing” remake, which will air on ABC on May 24.

How did being raised in Manhattan shape your career?

I had a tremendous advantage growing up here, not just because it's New York, which is such a great place compared to any place else, in my opinion. But my father was in the broadcasting business, so I was able to see actors rehearse and perform when I was young. And that was an amazing revelation to see them pretending to be other people in an imaginary story. They played cowboys, gangsters, politicians, anything you can think of. They used different accents. And yet, they were these people who said hello and gave me a hug when I came in and then turned themselves into these other things. For kids with imagination, this was like an open door to pretend. So I was blessed to be exposed to all that at an early age.

Your father started as an actor and then became a successful radio announcer. He gave you a lot of advice when you were starting out, including encouraging you to hit the streets to give out your resume. Explain how actors looked for jobs in those days.

Well, there was actually a little publication that came out every month called “Ross Reports,” which listed all the casting agencies in the city. There were no computers or iPhones, so you had the advantage of going yourself and opening a door and having somebody say, “Get out, we're not taking any resumes today.” But that secretary who told you to get out would be the agent a year from then. She would have moved up inside that company. Well, they need their own clients; they don't want somebody else's clients. So the door is open for you to become the new client. But to do it, you have to prove that you're ambitious and responsible, and that doesn't mean showing up once or 20 times either, because then you become a stalker. But it becomes knowing when you have something to offer. So if you're in a play or get a job, then you go back to all of them … . People who think you walk in and it happens, it doesn't. But if you put your foot in 10 doors, there's a chance one or two will open.

You explained that people liked your rapport with Woody Allen on camera, which is also your relationship in real life. Why do you think that is?

There was a nice article in the New Yorker by Richard Brody about the relationship between Woody and the movies and he referred to it as a “bromance.” And he tried to explain what it was. Nobody knows what it is. It resonates. Most people want to know why we call each other Max and there's a story behind that, which is in the book. But it was his genius to know that everybody who's really friendly talks to each other with nicknames that are true only to those two people. And that gave it an authenticity right away. It was also because we are the same, but different. We're both from New York City, but he's from Brooklyn. He grew up in a crazy household of relatives and noise and not a lot of money. And I grew up in Manhattan with a very sophisticated, enlightened crowd of performers and actors. But there was something that connected us about being maybe Jews. Maybe neither one of us was particularly athletically gifted. He would hate for me to say that because he's more athletically gifted than I am, but he doesn't look like it. But mostly it was the way he wrote us. He was as surprised by it as anybody. Because when “Annie Hall” came out, he said, “You know, I hear a lot from people who say they like our schmoozing.”

After “Annie Hall,” people started recognizing you more in Manhattan, which still continues to this day. You talk about some of those encounters in the book. Tell us one of those stories.

The first one that comes to mind is Joe Biden. He poked his head out of a hotel lobby as I went by on Park Avenue and couldn't wait to shake my hand and thank me for everything I'd done. And I thought, “What did I do that Joe Biden thinks I'm important?” But every time it happens it's so startling. If you go out of the house in the morning thinking you're going to be recognized, you're going to be very disappointed. So you learn, if you live by the sword, you'll die by the sword. So you don't expect to be recognized to protect yourself from the ego of thinking, “Why don't they know who I am?” So instead, you think, “Nobody's going to know who I am, nor should they.” And then every time it happens, whether it's an anonymous person from around the corner, or whether it's Joe Biden, it's a lovely surprise.

How did your role come about in “Dirty Dancing?” What was that like?

They offered me the part. I wish I knew how I got the part because it's rare you get an offer out of the blue, usually they want you to audition. And I don't even know to this day where this came from, but I'm very glad it did. It took me about four or five weeks to film in North Carolina. I can't say much about the new one because I haven't seen it. It took about seven weeks, I guess, to make the whole thing. And I was there for my scenes and then I left. And I haven't seen the rough cut of it and don't even know what parts are in and out of my own performance. There are more plot lines than there were in the original, if they're kept in and there's new music. Some of the music is the same, because some of those were iconic numbers, but there are new ones by new performers. And it's more ethnically diverse and intentionally. The original one, you can say, is about Jews in the Catskills in 1963. I think that their intention, ABC and Lionsgate, was to make it more universal, with less Jewish identity. My part was originally played by Jack Weston, and we were in a television series together which failed, called “The Four Seasons,” based on the movie of the same name by Alan Alda. Jack and I became pals and he is no longer with us. And Jack played it very Jewish, very broad, almost comical. He was wonderful. It wasn't written that way for me and I didn't want to impose a value on it that wasn't there.

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