Len Cariou On a Six Decade Career That’s Included Shakespeare, Sondheim, and Selleck

The 84-year-old actor—currently off-Broadway in 'Tuesdays With Morrie'—looks for shows without a Wednesday matinee so as not interfere with the shooting schedule for 'Blue Bloods,' now in its 14th season.

Len Cariou in Blue Bloods. Eric-Leibowitz/CBS Broadcasting

Len Cariou has amassed all manner of awards bric-a-brac in his 65-year career, including a Tony in 1979 as Broadway’s original Sweeney Todd. But Cariou’s collection does not include a Rosie—an oversight that will be remedied May 13 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center where Amas Musical Theatre will present him and choreographer-director Patricia Birch with its annual award, nicknamed for Amas’ late founder, actress Rosetta LeNoire. Cariou — currently wrapping up a run in the two-man show Tuesdays with Morrie at the Sea Dog Theater — has crossed paths with Birch before, in 1973 when Birch was the choreographer for Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Hence, the title of the Amas evening, A Lotta Night Music, which will include performances from Robert Cuccioli, Liz Callaway, and Cyndi Lauper. 

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Cariou has also previously crossed professional paths with Amas. The company produced his one-man show Broadway and the Bard and presented it Off-Broadway in 2016. It made capital use of his strongest suits, sandwiching together Shakespearean lines with showtunes. (Before he was turned loose on Main Stem musicals like the aforementioned Sweeney, Cariou was brushing up his Shakespeare as Prospero and Petruchio and Iago in places like the Stratford Festival and the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.) “We created a nice little piece of theater,” Cariou tells Observer of Broadway and the Bard. “And I hope to do it again at a theater in New York.”

Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd in 1979. Martha Swope

On June 10—less than a month after he gets the Rosie—Theatre World is seconding the motion by presenting Cariou with The John Willis Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. The 84-year-old actor doesn’t mist up much over awards, though. “It means I’ve been around too long,” he shrugs off. 

He’s too busy keeping up with the present and anticipating the future to look in the rear-view mirror. Currently, he has a couple of irons in the fire—which is par for him. In addition to filming his CBS cop show with Tom Selleck, Blue Bloods (now in its 14th season), his recent stage forays have been mostly two-handers.

In 2019—till Covid shut them down—he and Craig Bierko executed an aging father/prodigal son comedy-drama at Manhattan Theater Club, George Eastman’s Harry Townsend’s Last Stand.

Chris Domig and Len Cariou in Tuesdays With Morrie at the Sea Dog Theater (aka St. George’s Episcopal Church). Jeremy Varner

Currently, Cariou and the artistic director of Sea Dog Theater, Chris Domig, can be found forming an similarly moving bond in Tuesdays with Morrie, Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom’s adaptation of Albom’s 1997 bestseller. This breakthrough memoir turned a newspaper sports writer into an inspirational-talespinner.

When Albom happened to catch Morrie Schwartz, a favorite sociology professor of his at Brandeis, being interviewed on Ted Koppel’s ABC Nightline show about his terminal illness, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), he decided to pay the old boy a visit in suburban Boston. That “guilt trip” evolved into weekly visits and discussions about life and death. Somewhere along the line, a surrogate father-son relationship took hold.

All this is played out in a touchingly reverential setting. By any other name, Sea Dog Theater is St. George’s Episcopal Church on East 16th Street. With its sky-high cathedral walls and acoustical echoes, it’s a place where Becket would play just as well as Tuesdays with Morrie.

“It was kinda like a happenstance” is Cariou’s way of explaining how the church subtly turned into a theater. “We were going to do it in a regular proscenium arch theater. Eventually, that went away, and we thought, ‘We’re going to miss our chance.’ Then we were told, if we wanted it, we could have the chapel. At first, we didn’t think it would work, but we turned the chairs around, away from the altar and facing the Steinway in the middle of the hall. We realized, ‘That may be our set.’ The piano is a vital part of the play anyway, so we were off and running.

“We’d talked about the play being a memory play as opposed to a literal play, and our director suggested we do the whole play without ever having a prop. That’s really how it happened.”

Cariou always felt Morrie was a part that didn’t need any unnecessary accessorizing. “It’s all there, obviously a great role,” he says. “I happened to meet Mitch Albom right after the book had been changed into a play.” That was 2002, when the show opened at the Minetta Lane Theatre. “I read it, and I said to him, ‘I’m going to play this part one day.’”

That day has arrived. Albom will see the play this week. “I’ve talked to him, and he plans to see it before it closes April 21,” Cariou reports. It’ll be a genuine change of pace for Albom, who just fled the violent rioting in Haiti. “I got home after the play, and it was on the news,” Cariou recalled. “I felt, ‘My God! I’m just an actor who does this and that, and he was in real danger.’”

In his “other job,” real danger blissfully continues to elude Cariou. “Blue Bloods is kinda like a part-time job, if you will,” he admitted. “I’ve been doing it for 14 years. Whenever I do a play, I know I can still do the series as long as the play schedule doesn’t have a Wednesday matinee.”

One of the Sunday dinners on Blue Bloods. Clockwise from left: Will Estes, Vanessa Ray, Bridget Moynahan, Tom Selleck, Donnie Wahlberg, Andrew Terraciano, and Len Cariou. John Paul Filo/CBS

On Blue Bloods he’s Henry Reagan, a retired NYPD Commissioner and patriarch of an Irish-American Catholic family that gather for Sunday dinner each week. His first-born, Frank (Selleck), has inherited his Commissioner title. Other brothers-in-blue: Donnie Wahlberg and Will Estes. In Season 12, Henry was diagnosed with prostate cancer, leading to industry speculation that Cariou would leave the series, but all that seems to be in remission now. 

“We all get along terribly well,” Cariou says. “And that doesn’t happen every time out.” He has something of a holy alliance with Selleck, who happens to be only five years and four months younger than Cariou—a time paradox that they both manage to get away with. “Tom has been doing this all his life, and he’s a master at it. It’s a real pleasure to be with him.”

The murderous sociopath Cariou played in Sweeney Todd remains his most famous and draining role, but now he tends to downplay what he went through to deliver that performance. “You have to realize the role I did just before Sweeney Todd was King Lear,” Cariou points out. “It changes everything, playing a role like that. And playing a role like Sweeney changes everything, too.”


Len Cariou On a Six Decade Career That’s Included Shakespeare, Sondheim, and Selleck