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The Commissioner's Son

Illustration for article titled The Commissioner's Son

Dig David Kamp's 2006 GQ profile of Paul Giamatti:

The twist on this premise is that Giamatti’s life has been anything but ordinary. He grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, as the youngest son of A. Bartlett Giamatti, the beloved Yale English professor who became the university’s youngest-ever president in 1978 and served in that position until 1986, when he left to become the president of baseball’s National League and, subsequently, commissioner of the entire league. Bart Giamatti died on September 1, 1989, just 154 days into his tenure as the big league’s top man and just eight days after he famously banished Pete Rose from baseball for betting on games. “I don’t have an opinion on Pete Rose, which people find hard to believe,” Giamatti says. “All that event means to me in my mind is, it’s when my father died, so it’s just depressing.”

Giamatti’s education was heavy-duty—Choate, followed by Yale undergrad, followed by the Yale School of Drama—and he spent his childhood in the company of some of America’s greatest public intellectuals, who just happened to be his dad’s colleagues and buddies: the literary critic Harold Bloom, the architecture critic Vincent Scully, the art historian Robert Farris Thompson. I put it to Giamatti that his performance as Harvey Pekar, my favorite, must have been influenced by knowing Bloom. I’ve seen the latter shufflng around the campus of New York University, where Bloom also teaches, and I thought I detected echoes of the great Western Canon man in Giamatti-as-Pekar’s dyspeptic facial expressions and extreme posture—the head slung low and forward, almost perpendicular to the shoulders. “Probably, unconsciously, I did think of Harold Bloom,” he says. “I mean, there’s definitely a turtle-out-of-its-shell kind of quality, the super-world-weary thing, that they both have. You know, when I did Planet of the Apes, I actually think I do remember consciously thinking of Harold Bloom a couple of times, ’cause I had that sort of big orangutan sac-goiter thing around my neck. So if you want to see any Harold Bloom in any of my performances…”

Of his upbringing among the all-stars of academe, Giamatti protests that he can’t view his youth as having been anything but normal, since it was all he knew. “These were just guys my dad worked with,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s not special. The place, physically, to grow up in, was amazing. I can remember playing with Robert Thompson’s kid, sneaking into the Kline Bio Tower and stuff. But it was just my dad’s job.” Giamatti likewise downplays his time at the Yale School of Drama, incubator of such talents as Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, and Sigourney Weaver. “I was the old-man actor,” he says. “If there had to be somebody in a Chekhov play, you know, in a wheelchair with a blanket over his legs and a Panama hat on, that was me.”

But to hear it from others, Giamatti was not the nonentity he makes himself out to be. Ron Howard says that a former executive at his production company, Imagine Entertainment, was a classmate of Giamatti’s at Yale and told Howard that “the whole student body went to the theater when they heard that Paul Giamatti was in a play.”

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