Act Two- Roger Marino (part two)

Idleness is truly wasted on the rich. Perhaps it's an adrenal memory that wakes them up, hands clenched white on their cell phones, at the unholy commuting hour. Marino's partner Dick Egan found that laurels make for an uncomfortable seat cushion, so he gave a lot of money to the Bush presidential campaign (Egan's family, in fact, gave more to Bush than any other family in the United States) and got himself appointed U.S. ambassador to Ireland. Politics, though,
wasn't to Marino's taste. “I think Italians are nonpolitical,” he says, shrugging off 2,700 years of evidence to the contrary.

It's harder to shrug off personal habits. Marino couldn't dismiss his 30-year immersion in high-tech capitalism, and he still felt the antiseptic allure of gadgetry and bytes. He didn't need the money, but the role of benefactor appealed to him. “You put money into a small company and hope it gets big. I became an angel. Who knew I was gonna be an angel someday?” One of his first investments was “with a little company that was toying with something called the Internet.” That company failed. “But at least I knew what the Internet was in 1992. Bill Gates can't say that.”

Defeat's bitter ashes taste better when they're washed down with Dom Perignon. Marino lost no time in investing in other companies. Some foundered. (One, called Invincible Technologies, turned out to be a deathtrap.) Others thrived, like Strakosch's TechTarget, on whose board of directors Marino still sits. He had an open hand with Northeastern, where he's a member of the board of trustees. He's also on the board of trustees of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

But wealth's true luxury is freedom, and even if he enjoyed his smaller gambles and philanthropies, Marino had yet to let loose the fun of a monstrous bank account kicked into full gear. “Roger loves sports, and Roger loves movies,” says Annie Tulley, who knew Marino when his shoes were several sizes smaller. His smile ignites at the mention of Ray Bourque or Jack Nicholson, and his voice fills with the passion that only playground heroes can command.

“I wanted to get involved in sports,” he says. “I wanted to do baseball. I tried to buy the Red Sox, but it got ridiculous. I was the first one in and the first one out.” Marino entered the bidding fight for a controlling interest in the Sox when the team went up for sale in 2000, and he cemented his intentions by paying the $25,000 application fee. Seven months later, he pulled out in a flurry of newspaper articles, citing other commitments. Perhaps his experiences in hockey had given him enough gristle to chew for a long time.
In 1994 Marino and a group of investors bought a minor league hockey team called the Springfield Indians. They gave the team a new city, Worcester, and a new, frostier moniker: the IceCats. The experience pleased him. “I've been a hockey fan since Bobby Orr,” he says. By 1997 he was ready to upgrade.

This he did by becoming co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins — home of the sainted Mario Lemieux, who would one day sue him for unpaid wages. Before signing the deal, Marino met with Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner. Bettman asked why he was interested. “I said, 'You know what? The truth of the matter is that I really love all sports, and hockey's the only one I can afford.'”

His proprietorship got off to a slippery beginning. After a particularly ugly game, a reporter asked him for his impressions. “I said, 'It's too slow. Everybody's grabbing each other, it looks like they're playing in molasses. There's too much fighting.'” Unremarkable words from an irate fan, but incendiary ones from a major franchise owner. The league fined him $10,000.

Petty conflicts, though, weren't what caused Marino to abandon the NHL after an ignominious two and a half years, sending the Penguins to bankruptcy court. “Hockey is dead and they haven't thrown the dirt on its face yet,” he says. “You can't break even in hockey. In football, everybody makes money, because it's structured the right way. In hockey, the union is so damn strong. They had a strike in '94 that almost killed the game, and then they didn't improve it. They don't have the leadership there.” Marino left Pittsburgh after suffering a reported loss of $40 million.

Where, then, to funnel his very considerable remaining riches? After he joked to the Globe that he was flirting with the film business, he says, “I got about 17 scripts mailed to me.” One was from two brothers from the North End, Frank and Joseph Ciota. It was a romantic comedy about a Harvard boy teaching American football in the old country, the sort of script that celebrates hauntingly beautiful European women instead of blasting caps. Marino produced it under the name Ciao America.

“I like what they call art films. Little movies that are quirky and have some intelligence,” he says. “People want to identify with a movie, or at least I do. They want to see things that happen in real life, instead of, 'I'm gonna shoot you!' Bang, bang!” Among the films Marino counts as his favorites are Rocky, Casablanca, and the 1948 Italian neorealist film The Bicycle Thief. He says his dream movie to produce would be the oddball romance Harold and Maude. “I sat through The Matrix Reloaded. Holy moley! What was that about? But it's good to know that the computers are working well.”

Ciao America had little to do with Marino's former product lines. It was sentimental and “human” in the manner of pasta commercials and the Mediterranean peasantry. But it was also his first attempt at producing, and his inexperience took a toll. He was unable to work out a satisfactory distribution deal. The picture never played anywhere long enough for it to gather box office steam.

It did, however, introduce him to Michael Corrente, director of films including Outside Providence, Federal Hill, and American Buffalo, which starred Dustin Hoffman. Corrente ran his own production company, and Marino wanted to continue his foray into filmcraft. They shared tastes in movies, and they were both natives of working-class New England towns. Marino had money to spend, and Corrente had advice on how to spend it. Revere Pictures was born.

“If Roger wants to do it, he pulls the trigger. He doesn't mess around,” says Corrente. Money may buy freedom, but Marino learned decisiveness in the boardroom, and he learned when to delegate. “He gives me a lot of creative control,” says Corrente.

Since the company's inception, Corrente and Marino have produced four films, the heavyweight of which is the upcoming The Door in the Floor, starring Kim Basinger and Jeff Bridges. “There have been lots of times where people in the industry were shocked that we were able to make decisions as quickly as we made them,” says Corrente. “That was primarily because Roger wanted to do it, and we did it.”

Marino is reserved about the future of his production company. “We'll see how these four movies go. If they do well, then I'll jump in a little harder.” Movies may be his abiding passion, but he's unwilling to entirely shake off the pragmatics that he'd learned over a lifetime of investing. “If they don't do so well, then I'll say maybe I shouldn't be in this business. It's all risk.”

A new risk will be sitting in a particular canvas chair. “I'd like to direct a movie,” he says. He even has a timetable: 18 months or so from now.

While Marino's cinematic appetites have found their smorgasbord, he's still sensitive to opportunity's whiff. When Broadway producers Ron Kastner and Robert Fox approached him about a revival of the classic musical Gypsy, his first impulse was to turn his nose. Then they told him Bernadette Peters was involved. “I really love her,” says Marino. “People want to grab her off the stage and eat her up. I said it first: If Ethel Merman played that part after Bernadette Peters, they would boo her off the stage.”

The critics — to many people's astonishment — agreed. The production had been the subject of much black-hearted speculation. This was fueled in part by criticism from Arthur Laurents, who had penned the book, and also by the suspicion that Peters was too much the waif to pull off a role made famous by the strapping Merman. Gypsy, of course, is one of the great American musicals, a tale of bad mothering that, if not comparable to Medea, is still a beastly portrait of a would-be vaudeville queen. A revival was bound to draw comparisons, and director Sam Mendes worked the cast to their thespian bones to make sure that the critics were friendly.

“Take the hearse back to the garage, and start popping Champagne corks,” wrote Ben Brantley in the next morning's New York Times. Within four days of opening, Gypsy had sold $950,000 in tickets. It set a record at the Shubert for box-office sales in one week.

Marino had a hit. Then came an unexpected snubbing at the Tony Awards. “It absolutely sucked,” he says. “I was there in a tuxedo, waiting to go onstage. If Bernadette had won, then I would have said, 'Okay, they made a mistake with me.' But to make that big of a mistake . . . ” Asked if he'd ever produce a musical again, Marino will only reply: “If Bernadette was in it.”

No one likes to lose, but if there's a distinction between most people and the ultrarich, it's that the wealthy have a thicker, perfumed insulation. Marino has weathered disaster with the Penguins and triumph at the Broadway box office. He's still a heavy investor in Massachusetts tech firms, and if clicks on the abacus don't keep him awake anymore, he understands the cost of failure. “You've got to stay successful, or you're responsible for these guys being on the street, which is awful.” But he has no intention of taking his many pots off the burner.

“The reward is in the doing, and seeing the fruit,” Marino says. “Otherwise, what? I play too much golf as it is.”