As a kid in Los Angeles, Tony had no idea what he wanted to do. His mother, a painter and a musician, hated the Hollywood life, and his father never let the kids visit movie sets. “My parents were obsessed with us being normal kids, so I never knew movie stars,” he said. “They didn’t want us to be Hollywood brats. And yet, on the weekends we’d go to my grandparents’ house, and they lived a very formal life, a life of another era.”
There he met the directors George Cukor, Billy Wilder, and William Wyler. He also had a strong connection with his grandfather.
“I was almost 14 when he died. He was very old—he was 94—when he died, but we were really close, yeah. I think I share certain aesthetic sensibilities with him. I think I’ve inherited a kind of…willfulness, a kind of quiet willfulness that I’ll just hang in there with something until it happens. But he was much more volatile than I am, much tougher than me, more of a visionary than me. This is a guy who walked from Poland and made his way to America on foot, with one suit of clothing, at age 15. He was a tough son of a bitch. And the most charming man ever. But he had trouble getting along with people—he was irascible. I’m more diplomatic.”
“Everyone loved Tony,” John Goldwyn said. “Even when he got into trouble, he would look at you and say, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ And you would start to laugh. He always made friends very easily. And he was handsome. Girls threw themselves at him. He has a genuine talent for people, understands how to talk to people, and, more important, how to listen to them. There is nobody in my family, including myself, who has Tony’s charm. I’m convinced he was a foundling child.”
Tony went to an all-boys boarding school in Colorado, where, in ninth grade, he auditioned for a production of Inherit the Wind. He was hooked, although he didn’t get the part. “That was it,” he said. “I immediately knew.” He became “very, very focused,” and his father was impressed. After seeing him onstage, he told young Tony, “That’s the only time I’ve ever seen you concentrate.”
He left Los Angeles to attend Hamilton College, in upstate New York; earned a BFA at Brandeis University; and did a stint at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. But his time at the Williamstown Theatre, in Massachusetts, is what gave him confidence as an actor. It’s also where he met and fell in love with his wife (“a Jersey girl”).
After a shaky start, he got steady work, making himself a TV fixture from the eighties onward (Designing Women, L.A. Law, Murphy Brown, Dexter, The L Word, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, The Good Wife). He also did character work in numerous movies (Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI, Kuffs, The Pelican Brief, Bounce, The Last Samurai, Nixon, The Mechanic, among others). Along the way, he started directing, helming episodes of The L Word, Law & Order, Private Practice, Dexter, Damages, and Grey’s Anatomy, the hit medical soap opera created by Shonda Rhimes, who is the brains behind Scandal (of which Goldwyn has also directed an episode). He also directed the 2010 film Conviction (“It delivers,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review).
One last question: What would Samuel Goldwyn, an American patriot, make of his playing the president?
“I think he’d be really thrilled and proud at that, because he would think it had stature, and he would be excited about the career I’ve forged for myself. Because my grandfather was a survivor. He overcame extraordinary adversity. He understood that this is a business of surviving and hanging in there. It’s sort of what we were talking about earlier, about being at this stage of my life, with this opportunity happening. It’s a testament to working your ass off all the time. And then, every once in a while, something hits”—Goldwyn smacked the table—“and you reap the benefits. But not if you don’t hang in there.”