Working Actor Steps to the Set
By Andrew Faust
Viewers probably know him best as the hard-bitten Jeff Mumford on the CBS police drama “S.W.A.T.,” or as the embattled Stanley Pearson on the NBC family drama “This Is Us.” But Peter Onorati, MBA’80 (Flor), counts dozens of film and television credits over the course of his 34-year acting career.
“I’ve evolved to a place where acting is no longer a lark,” he says. “It’s my living.”
Arriving at an acting career took a few real-life plot twists for Onorati. After playing football at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania, the Boonton, N.J., native signed to play on the World Football League’s Philadelphia Bell and made it to the last cut.
Onorati, whose undergraduate degree is in business, went to work for Ford Motor Company’s export division in Newark, N.J. Ford paid most of the cost of his MBA at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
When business took a downturn at Ford, Onorati was laid off. He then presented his MBA thesis — a 100-page strategy document for McCall’s “Working Mother” magazine. The company created the job of director of marketing and research for him, working on this and three other titles.
Around this time, Onorati remembers going with his girlfriend to see comedians — including Jerry Seinfeld and Joe Piscopo — perform at the Improv in New York City.
“On the bus back to New Jersey, I kept saying to her, ‘Geez, I think I could do that,’” Onorati recalls. “She got so tired of me saying it that she bought me a one-night, stand-up comedy class. I was done with my MBA … and I didn’t have any creative outlet, so I started messing around with this improvisational group.”
He spent about four-and-a-half years performing in small clubs all over the city. He met his wife, Jeanette Collins, in his improv group. His experience with the group was so positive that he left his job at McCall’s to take on the role of apartment superintendent Lou Carello in the 1980s sitcom “Kate & Allie.” He and his wife made the move to Los Angeles.
“I figured, well, I’ll try this for a while,” says Onorati. “I put some money aside and figured, when it runs out, if I’m not an actor, then I’m not an actor. It’s back to being an ad man. But it started to snowball.”
He’s had parts in the films “Goodfellas” and “Postcards from the Edge.” But the work he is the most proud of was done alongside Steven Bochco, first in the short-lived “Cop Rock,” then in the legal drama “Civil Wars,” starring Mariel Hemingway. He also did a recurring stint on “NYPD Blue” and was a regular on Bochco’s final effort, “Murder in the First.”
His current role as Stanley Pearson on “This Is Us,” he says, “holds us up to a mirror and shows us that we’re all the same — that we all have some of the same problems. When it flashes forward, you figure out what those people did with the same problems that you have,” he adds. “Some of them conquered them and some of them were destroyed by them. That’s the kind of TV I like.”
As a frequent guest star, life on the set for Onorati lacks some of the professional gravitas afforded regular cast members. “As a guest star, you are a hired gun,” he notes.
“Your job, as we say, is to hit your mark, find the light, say your lines and collect your check. There is no time for artistic process.” It’s not unusual for Onorati to report to work at noon, and wrap 16 hours later.
His timeless showbiz advice: “You have to learn not to take things personally. As a young guy growing up in New Jersey, I was always looking for a fight. I took everything personally. If you did that in this position, you wouldn’t last two minutes.”
Ed. note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2020 edition of FDU Magazine.