Perhaps there is a bit of irony intended in a scene in the new film “Jersey Boys” where on a black-and-white television set there is a glimpse of Rowdy Yates, the character Clint Eastwood played on the series “Rawhide” in the early 1960s before he shot to movie stardom.
It's almost like Eastwood is winking at the audience and saying, “Who would have thought?”
Now some 50 years after he played that role, the 84-year-old Hollywood icon has directed the long-awaited big-screen adaption of the jukebox musical, which opens today.
“Jersey Boys” tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, who had a string of memorable hits in the '60s and '70s like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don't Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Rag Doll.”
“What's amazing is that (Eastwood) can be as efficient as he is and even be ahead of schedule and still give us all the time in the world to play around with our characters,” says Erich Bergen.
In the movie, Bergen plays Bob Gaudio, who wrote many of the group's hits. The actor has done the role before; he was in the musical's first national tour, which stopped at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles in 2007, and then later, he appeared in the Las Vegas production.
After originating the part on Broadway, John Lloyd Young reprises his role as Frankie Valli for the film.
“Clint was sort of adamant we didn't change what we were doing. That's why he hired us to begin with,” says Young. “He wanted us to do what we had mastered doing in the stage productions.”
Written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, the musical premiered in late 2004 at the La Jolla Playhouse. A year later, it was on Broadway where it took home four Tonys, including best musical and one for Young.
But taking “Jersey Boys” to the screen required changes, and Eastwood called on Brickman and Elice in to expand the story and its scope.
Young relished the idea of being able to bring new sides to his character on screen.
“Since I first did the role on Broadway, I'm older and understand life a little more,” says Young, 38. “And I've been around Frankie Valli the man a lot more.”
The famed lead singer with the multi-octave range is now 80 and still performing. Judging from some recent YouTube videos, he hasn't lost anything vocally.
Valli and Gaudio, now 71, were very involved in both the stage show and the film.
“I've learned that there's something very interesting about Frankie,” continues Young. “He has this chronic uncertainty, an ongoing awareness of the duality of life — that with success comes pain.”
While mostly an upbeat musical because of the songs, “Jersey Boys” also has a serious side. The guys grew up in a tough neighborhood in Newark, N.J., where the mob was a constant presence.
For years, the group struggled to make it under various names — including the Four Lovers. When Gaudio joined them in 1960, they changed their name to The Four Seasons — not after Vivaldi's opus but from the name of a nearby bowling alley — and their fortunes began to rise.
Internal conflicts and personal problems, however, never made it an easy ride to success.
Michael Lomenda, in his first screen role, plays Nick Massi, the group's bassist, who was the quiet one. Vincent Piazza is guitarist Tommy DeVito, the early driving force in the band and its problem child.
Lomenda was performing in a satellite production of “Jersey Boys” in San Francisco when Eastwood spotted him. (He thought it was a joke when told the director wanted to see him.)
The actor did not get to know Massi, who died in 2000. But, he says, while performing the role some 1,200 times, “All these people who knew the Four Seasons came out of the woodwork to tell these incredible anecdotes about the neighborhood and their experiences with these guys.”
Piazza, who plays Lucky Luciano on HBO's “Boardwalk Empire,” is the only one of the four who didn't have his role on stage first. What he learned of DeVito, who turned 86 on Thursday , came from the Internet and stories from Valli and Gaudio and the others in the cast.
If the name Tommy DeVito sounds familiar, that was the character Joe Pesci played in his Oscar-winning performance in “Goodfellas” (1990). And by the way, Pesci is a character in “Jersey Boys,” being a friend of the real DeVito.
For Piazza, not only was he new to the role, but he's never done a musical. Yet he had to dance, sing and play guitar on screen. He credits the others in the cast for helping him.
“It was a daunting challenge, but at the same time, learning it was a real joyful process for me,” he says. “Singing is such an intimate thing but it was wonderful to learn. It was a lot of fun despite the natural intimidation.”
This is also the first musical for Eastwood, though he did play guitar and sing in the teary “Honkytonk Man” (1982) and made “Bird,” the 1988 biopic of jazz great Charlie Parker. A musician himself, since “Mystic River” in 2003, Eastwood has composed the original scores for most of his films. For “Jersey Boys” he had all the musical performances done live.
“Clint really wanted to capture everything we were doing live,” says Young. “We then went into the studio later to fix some things.”
Though Frankie Valli and the Four Season sold an estimated 100 million records worldwide and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, most people didn't know much about them until “Jersey Boys,” although their songs have long been part of their lives.
Remember Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken belting out “Can't Take My Eyes Off You” in a bar before shipping out for Vietnam in 1978's “The Deer Hunter”? It's an emotional moment.
Walken, who won an Oscar for the role, happens to be in “Jersey Boys” as a local mobster named Gyp DeCarlo, who tears up whenever Valli sings “My Mother's Eyes” and becomes something of his protector.
“It was so much fun to watch him work,” says Bergen about Walken. “He has to do very little to do so much.”
Lomenda joked that they wanted to get him to do a music video called “Walken Like a Man,” but couldn't persuade him. Nor did the acclaimed actor ever break into “Can't Take My Eyes Off You” on the set.
Walken does dance in the “Bollywood”-style number that is the finale of “Jersey Boys,” which was shot in front of Valli's real childhood home in Newark. When the actor showed up for the filming, Young says the locals “cheered him like he was a rock star.”
As for Young, Bergen and Lomenda, the film represents an end to a chapter in their lives, although playing their roles again is not out of the question since new productions of the musical are constantly being mounted. It's still running on Broadway and in Vegas.
Lomenda, who has been involved with the musical since 2008, says he was feeling a bit sad when the tour he was on was ending.
“So to have Mr. Eastwood cast me in this film was the most incredible bookend to the experience,” he said.
Bergen notes that “fans of the show — and now the movie — aren't necessarily Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons fans. It's now its own thing and has taken on a style and look of its own.”
Young, who has been involved the longest, admits that he feels a little sentimental about it and believes that “Jersey Boys” tells a compelling story that people can identify with.
“There are so many ethnic variations of the American dream story, and this is the Italian-American story of a kid and a group of musicians from the streets of New Jersey who have nothing going for them, yet they find their way to the heights of success. So for me to be part of that story in a permanent way in a movie by Clint Eastwood is a deep honor.”
Follow Rob Lowman on Twitter: @roblowman1