By Tom Reardon, March 2019 Issue.
If you have spent time in Phoenix, Arizona, particularly as the town transitions from what Phoenicians call winter to spring and then to the unofficial tenth ring of hell (from mid-July to September), you probably understand what it means to slowly go from a happy, well-adjusted person, to someone just shy of total insanity.
For an actor, this is often the best type of role to play. The character that starts as a relatively ordinary person, but over time, things begin to happen, and they gradually become more and more insane.
According to Greg Lutz (pronounced “Lootz”), an acclaimed local actor and business owner, this is precisely the type of role that floats his boat. The look in Lutz’ piercing blue eyes as he talks about this shows his inherent sense of mischievous, and dare we say, slightly evil glee as he considers the prospect.
It makes sense, though, since Lutz is a Phoenix native, and we — meaning those of us who spend the majority of our time here in the Valley of the Sun — understand that slow descent into summer hell better than most other Americans.
As an actor who specializes in going from relatively sane to the edge of madness and beyond, Lutz has been honing his craft on a variety of stages and mediums since the early 1970s when his ability to mimic the voices of his teachers and, at times, the school secretary, helped buy him and his friends some valuable free time.
“I could impersonate all the teachers, matter of fact, I could impersonate the lady on the intercom, and I used to get our whole class some free time to ourselves because I’d go, (makes his voice sound like an intercom) ‘Mrs. Romek, could you please come to the office?’ And she’d leave, you know, and she would leave Cynthia, the ‘do-gooder’ in charge,” says Lutz as we chatted in the Echo office on a rainy afternoon.
Lutz, who was in second or third grade when he discovered this particular side of his many talents, remembers being scared of what would happen when the teacher realized that it was a fake call to the office, but it took the school a while to catch on, and he and his class would enjoy 10 or 15 minutes of free time each time he pulled it off.
Growing up relatively poor in Maryvale, which is suburb on the west side of Phoenix just east of Luke Air Force base, was not particularly easy for Lutz, as his family was one of the only non-military families in his neighborhood at the time.
Lutz talks openly about feeling like an outcast in the late ‘60s as he thought his neighbors could not wait for him and his family to leave the neighborhood. As a child, Lutz learned to use comedy to battle his feelings of inferiority and ingratiate himself to his peers.
“People could not wait to turn on Greg Lutz on the playground. They would turn me on, and I would do whatever they wanted me to, you know, do weird sounds and impersonations,” shares Lutz.
Turning on though, was not always easy for Lutz. He developed a fairly significant stuttering problem in elementary school when his parents were going through a divorce, and it was an astute school counselor who suggested that Lutz combat his growing stammer by going out for the school play. This opened the door for what has become a career for Lutz, and the handsome fellow has been a fixture on Valley stages, as well as television and feature films since he began working in community theater at age 15.
Having spent his formative years in the desert, Lutz appreciates how Phoenix has come of age, culturally, in the past decade. We discussed whether or not the town has experienced a renaissance regarding theater much in the same way that it has with food and music.
“(Speaking about the past) it’s kind of like the restaurant scene where there was a lot of mom and pop things and then now, in my opinion, everything (in the theater world) kind of feels like a corporation or franchise, but it’s damn good theater. I just did something with Phoenix Theatre Company, and I don’t think they’ve put on a bad show or a mediocre show for the last 10 or 15 years, but I don’t think it’s had a renaissance just yet,” says Lutz, before continuing.
“And again, you know, when I say that I don’t think that renaissance is here is because I’m not as well in touch with all the theater (happening in town). If I am going to act, it’s typically with iTheatre Collaborative, which is one of the resident theater companies at the Herberger Theater Center. I think they’re on their 20th anniversary or something now and they are cutting edge, just like Stray Cat (Theatre) is cutting edge.
If you want to see something where people are taking chances and doing a theater to get a message out also, but at the same time entertaining and being on the edge, you know, Phoenix Theatre I think is the leader in this town when it comes to good-quality, Broadway-type shows.”
Physically, Lutz could be the love child of Kirk Douglas and Pat McMahon of The Wallace & Ladmo Show (or maybe McMahon’s Wallace & Ladmo character, Aunt Maude), but spiritually his parentage would probably be more of a combination of classic funnymen, Ernie Kovacs and Jack Lemmon.
For younger folks that might not get the Kovacs/Lemmon reference, think of Zack Galifianakis and Paul Rudd being your parents, and there you have it.
Either way, Lutz is one of a kind and sharp as a tack when it comes to humor, albeit there is a dark side there, too, much in the way that Kovacs and Lemmon, or Galifianakis and Rudd, like to flirt with (and often brilliantly nail) black comedy.
Lutz thrives being on the edge, though, when it comes to his acting. Our conversation takes a turn back to the beginning again, as Lutz shares another layer of what makes him the actor he is.
“I like being weird … atypical, askew, dysfunctional. I like being the actor that’s hiding being dysfunctional and has some baggage to unpack,” says Lutz.
This has helped him with his other day/night job, as well.
In addition to his work in front of the camera, Lutz also owns a local company called Murder Ink Productions, which has been doing interactive murder mystery and team-building events since 1989.
Lutz enjoys performing with his fellow actors, as well as willing participants from the crowd, in a variety of shows, some of which Lutz has written himself. Murder Ink Productions works with local and national companies to entertain their clients at local restaurants like Avanti or hotels in the Valley where there is space to do a show while patrons enjoy a good meal, as well.
Lutz will proudly admit that his favorite character to play, though, is Jackie Fontaine, which is a character Lutz created himself and he’s done over two thousand performances as this lounge singer/comedian from Hoboken, New Jersey.
“I came up with Jackie Fontaine. I engineered that name and boy; it just took off. He’s a pretty good singer, you know, personally, I’ve been trained, but he’s a pretty good singer. He can, you know, make the women swoon, and he does blue comedy — stand-up comedy. I’ve been doing Jackie Fontaine since probably 2001. When I retire, I’m going to become Jackie,” says Lutz with a grin and a chuckle.
Between Murder Ink Productions, which typically does two events per month during the majority of the year and sometimes two or three a night during the holidays, and acting on stage and in films and television, there are not a lot of spare moments for the central Phoenix resident to enjoy his favorite restaurants (which include Otro on 7th Street, as well as Whyld Ass “When I want to take care of my body,” according to Lutz) or time at home.
In the coming months, look for Lutz in the film, Eminence Hill, which also stars Barry Corbin (Northern Exposure/War Games/No Country For Old Men) and the iTheatre Collaborative production of Frost/Nixon here locally. Eventually, there will also be a Jackie Fontaine movie, The Miss OTB Scandal, which is currently in production.