We live as long as we can and then we die. For some people, that’s not good enough and they try to do better. Armen Garo is that kind of person. He was born and raised in upstate New York where he attended public schools. His behavior was, suffice it to say, somewhat less than perfect; the hallways just outside his classrooms (the forerunner of quiet time rooms) and the principal’s office were familiar surroundings. He always had a nagging feeling that he didn’t quite fit in. Because of behavioral issues, his parents—father (Vahan Harmaian), born in Istanbul, and his mom (Macrouhi Tavanian), a first-generation American—took him out of the public school system and sent him to Albany (military) Academy to have some formal discipline drummed into him before he was drummed out of life. The regimentation process eventually worked. Despite the boy’s intuitive inclination to deviate from some accepted norms, the man finally adjusted and wound up attending Emerson College in Boston, graduating magna cum laude in 1977 and participating in enough extracurricular activities to be listed in the Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities.
In 1978, he was named the New England heavyweight kickboxing champion and competed in karate to the point where, by 1982, he had been ranked among the top karate fighters in the world for three years by the Professional Karate Association. But then he decided this wasn’t something he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He decided to try his hand at law enforcement, so he joined the East Providence (R.I.) Police Department in 1985. “It was a perfect match of my abilities and the job’s requirements at the time,” he says. “I loved it but I never could have predicted that.” He rose through the ranks while also acquiring his B.S. and M.S. degrees in criminal justice disciplines. Do you see a trend here?
While at Emerson he dabbled in theatre arts and nurtured that interest throughout. No grass growing under this guy’s feet. In 1983, he began a career in film by working with William Conrad in the American Playhouse production of “The Great Whodunnit,” in which he played a police officer. Usually, art mimics life; in Armen Garo’s case, life mimicked art. And sometimes, art doesn’t mimic life, as witnessed by his portrayal of a corrupt Providence police officer in “Federal Hill,” a critically acclaimed crime film set in the smallest state’s biggest city. He has too large a body of film and theatre to mention individually, but he played a Providence gangster in “The Departed,” which exposed him first hand to the professionalism of Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and, of course Martin Scorsese, and he feels he learned and benefited greatly by the experience. You could have also seen him in TV commercials he’s done for AT&T, Cingular, Nike, GEICO, and Miller Lite. I’m wondering if a little bit of his wild side is paying off better than the disciplined side does. (Just kidding.)
But his total “acting” earnings between 1983 and 2005 were $2,500, and one of the main reasons for the shortfall was because he’s instinctively an artistic animal, not an economic one. Hard to believe, but his career is the documentation. I got the impression that acting is how he has chosen to find expression and represent himself to the world. He said he acts for the love of it, not for the money. Believing that requires a leap of faith. But we discussed it and he convinced me—and he wasn’t acting. “If you do what you love, you’ll never be working. I believe in doing what you love to do. This is what I happen to love to do.” He finds happiness by doing meaningful work. The concept is simple; the application in current society is rare and, consequently, challenging to accept. Artists are different and Armen Garo’s an artist. “But, hey,” he reminds me, “we all have to eat and provide.”
“My parents always drilled in me that no matter what you do, do it the best that you can, and do it as honestly and as forthrightly as possible. Not to cheat, not to take unfair advantage, and to pursue everything that you do that way. And the Academy that I attended drilled that in me. My parents were heavily influential in the way I do things. Maybe not in the specific fields that I’ve engaged myself in, but certainly in the manner in which I conduct myself,” he says.
So those were the primary lessons that they passed down to you? “Well, I ignored the primary lesson, which was to find a nice Armenian girl. I completely ignored that. Completely. Like an idiot. I married and divorced three times, and never to an Armenian. That’s how much I liked it. I liked marriage so much I did it three times. I enjoyed divorce even more, so I did that three times, too.” No children, thank goodness; if there had been, I may have had to write a book or seek therapy. Happily for his parents’ memory, he’s now dating a nice, attractive Armenian girl, a “Parskahye” on whom he’s quite sweet. “My parents would’ve really loved her, Seda Azarian. She appeared in the world premier of “Avida” on Broadway, in the chorus, and she’s appeared in other Broadway musicals. She’s the director of training for a health and beauty company named Repechage.” (I hope she feels the same, and would bet that way if this were a Las Vegas story.)
In view of his youth, I asked him what life or career message he would give an audience of eight graders if he were addressing them today. “I would tell them to concentrate on what they’re doing, listen to their parents and their teachers…develop as many skills as possible while still in school, experience everything that the school and athletic program have to offer so that at some point in your life you can make an informed choice about what you want to do, but that no matter what you do, always do the best you can at it, and make sure that you do something that you love to do because if you’re doing something that you love, you’ll never feel like you’re working.”
Those were the messages his Dad gave him repeatedly as, perhaps, most Dads should, and his Mom constantly validated them. What about the message of doing something you love? “That’s something else I remind young people of. Follow your dreams. Never forget them. I didn’t really latch on to that until later on in life because I was always somebody who, well…I was a typical kid…I wanted a car…I want to be able to do ‘this’…I want to do ‘that’…I wanted to have some money…I have to get another job to get more money…I’ve gotta work some overtime…and, at some point, much later, maybe just a few years ago, I said, You know what? Screw that. I’m going to do something I really want to do. I’m going to do ‘this’ and only ‘this,’ and that’s what I’m going to do. And that was in 2004. You see, many years ago I had a dream. I never forgot that dream. So I finally pursued it and will continue to do so until I die. Why? Because you have to follow your dreams. No one will do it for you. No one. If you don’t, they’ll forever remain just dreams and you’ll never know what you could have done. If you’re lucky you’ll end up in a nursing home waiting to die while being fed, cleaned, and barked at by some total stranger. If you’re fortunate enough to still have a memory, you’ll be lying there on your own bed sores wondering what you could have accomplished if you had just followed your dreams and tried the best you could. That’s not for me. I’d rather die right now. Everyone wants you to fit in. Nice and neat. Don’t rock the boat. No fuss, no muss. Right! That’s BS. If you follow your dreams, you can at least have the settling feeling that you tried and you can live out your days in peace, no matter what your final circumstances may be. I’ve seen too much of the evil people are capable of to care whether or not I fit in. I’ve seen it firsthand. Look what we’ve come to. Elected officials making a career of living off the public’s largesse, religious leaders sexually preying upon children, cops dealing drugs, major financial institutions fleecing the public’s trust while bilking people out of their savings, investments, homes, and jobs. And I’m not even mentioning the foreign and domestic misfits that are hell-bent on committing despicable acts of violence upon people in this country. Our guide posts are rotting from within. Too many of us just look the other way or are too busy in their own denial. Each of us has an obligation to denounce and do something to deter that kind of behavior. I’m glad I don’t fit in. Life is much too short not to make a real effort in something that matters to you.”
One of the activities Armen Garo elected to take up partly as a result of the foregoing adjustment was to serve as the honorary chairman of the Rhode Island chapter of the Make A Wish Foundation, and Garo’s now an Ambassador for Life of the organization, helping to raise money to finance the wishes of children suffering from life-threatening illnesses. “Look,” he says, “it’s what being successful is all about. I feel blessed that I’ve been so fortunate. I’d be remiss if I didn’t try to parlay that success into helping those less fortunate by making charitable public appearances, donating time for a cause, and so forth. Otherwise, what’s the point, other than to feed a narcissistic appetite? I’m not that myopic.”
We ended the interview and began discussing the tradeoffs revolving around being a motion-picture actor. Garo liked the fact that, unlike in boxing or other sport, he can work no matter his age because there are always roles for the middle-aged and elderly, if one’s able. Perhaps more important, the evidence of his work and skill are recorded on film, according him immortality. It pleases him that his legacy may be a living one rather than just ashes or cash. He may have been a naughty child, but he’s a responsible, caring, productive adult.