‘The Big Ragu’ comes full circle at NSMT

Eddie Mekka as Carmine with Henry Winkler as Fonzie in an episode of "Happy Days."

Eddie Mekka as Carmine with Henry Winkler as Fonzie in an episode of “Happy Days.”

BEVERLY — Forty years ago, a young dancer/actor named Eddie Mekka spent the summer on the North Shore of Boston in Beverly at the North Shore Music Theatre, alongside stars such as Hal Linden and Bonnie Franklin, honing his craft and waiting for that big break. That big break came shortly thereafter, when he was cast as “Carmine Raguso,” the Big Ragu, on the hit TV show “Laverne and Shirley.”

That  led to a career on stage, on TV and in the movies. Forty years later, he has come full circle, returning to Beverly to star in the North Shore Music Theatre’s production of the Cole Porter musical “Anything Goes,” beginning June 3.

Mekka, a Worcester native and a graduate of Burncoat High in that city, spent about a year at the Boston Conservatory after graduating from Burncoat. He then went off on a “cold call” at the now defunct Chateau deVille dinner theatres, looking for work, when suddenly an actor was needed for a production of “Promises, Promises” at the Framingham Chateau deVille. And presto, he had his precious Actor’s Equity card.

That led to other work and a summer at NSMT, learning from old pros such as Linden, with whom he appeared in “Kiss Me, Kate.” “A lot of people don’t realize that before Hal Linden was Barney Miller, he was a great song and dance man on Broadway,” Mekka said.

The year 1974 was important in another way for Mekka. The Vietnam War-themed rock opera “The Lieutenant” ran for only three weeks on Broadway, but Mekka picked up a Best Actor nomination from both the Tony and Drama Desk committees. He also appeared in such stage shows as “Jumpers,” “The Magic Show” with Doug Henning, and “Damn Yankees” with Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston.

Forty-year careers don’t happen by accident, and Mekka was asked if he as a young actor had a mentor or friend who showed him the right way to do things as a professional actor. “For me, it’s something you learned along the way,” he said. “You learn early on this is a business, and you have to do things right.” “Laverne and Shirley,” a spin-off from “Happy Days,“ was an audience favorite, running from January 1976 to May 1983, but didn’t always get credit from the critics.

Eddie Mekka will play Moonface Mullins in "Anything Goes."

Eddie Mekka will play Moonface Mullins in “Anything Goes.”

“We were No. 1, but we weren’t taken seriously by a lot of people,” Mekka said. The working class characters in Milwaukee they portrayed also struck a chord. “I think people from all walks of life who worked hard appreciated us, and we appreciated them,” he said.

Mekka was told it appeared that the cast, which included Penny Marshall, Cindy Williams, David Lander, Michael McKean and Phil Foster, all had a great time doing the show together. “It took a lot of work to make it look that way,” he said. “We had great writers.”

Mekka went on to numerous guest appearances on many of the most popular series of the 70s, 80s and 90s., including such television shows as “The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island,” “Moonlighting,” and “The New Rockford Files.” More recently Mekka appeared on “Family Matters” as Officer Charlie Canelli and The Jamie Foxx Show.” Mekka also enjoyed long runs on two daytime dramas. He appeared as Grady, Jenna’s sidekick on television’s oldest daytime drama, CBS-TV’s “Guiding Light” and NBC-TVs sudser, “Sunset Beach.” While on “Guiding Light”, soap magazines labeled him “The Joe Pesci of Daytime.”

On the big screen has been seen in several popular movies, playing Bette Midler’s cohort in the movie “Beaches,” appearing as Madonna’s boyfriend in the movie “A League of their Own,“ ‘Lt. Vincent Barbero in “Taking The Heat” with Lynn Whitfield and as “The Prophet” in Garry Marshall’s film, “Dear God.”

Most recently, he finished filming “On Top Of The World” directed by Sydney Feury and starring Dennis Hopper. Mekka has also found a steady living portraying Tevye in productions of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Mekk’s early appearance in the chorus of a 1969 production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Worcester County Light Opera Company led to the time spent at the Boston Conservatory and training under the guidance of famed choreographer Phil Black.

Mekka said the gymnastic training he did before taking up theater was both a blessing and a curse. “I could do flips, but I was a little too muscle-bound,” he said. “I had to learn to strike a balance.”

Still dancing, Mekka, as gangster Moonface Mullins. will perform a tap number for NSMT patrons in “Anything Goes.”

He said the old saw about young actors going to the Big Apple and struggling still has a lot of value. “Go to New York,” he said. “Get an apartment. Get a job and take classes. Get involved in the hustle and bustle. It will make you humble, but in the long run it will make you better.” For information on “Anything Goes,” go to http://www.nsmt.org.