Washington state

He modeled his ‘Tootsie’ character after his Tri-Cities grandma. It earned him a Tony

A Richland High graduate took home his first Tony Award on Sunday night.

Santino Fontana, 37, received the award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role at the Tonys in “Tootsie.”

“I am from a very small town,” he said as he accepted the honor Sunday night on CBS. “The Tony awards were the only time I was able to see anyone who professionally made a living in the arts. It was incredibly important to me as a child.”

He thanked his parents, Sharon and Ernie Fontana of Richland, and his sister, a teacher in Snohomish, Wash., in his acceptance speech, saying they always supported him and never told him no.

Santino Fontana, center, and the cast of Tootsie, performs at the 73rd annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday. Charles Sykes Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

He also thanked his 92-year-old grandfather, Tony Simarro of Kennewick, for “telling me the power about storytelling and embedding that passion in me and telling me I can.”

His proud mother told the Herald on Monday that he’s the image of his late grandmother, Thelma Simarro, when dressed as Dorothy Michaels in “Tootsie.”

The Broadway musical is based on the movie, with Fontana playing Michael Dorsey, an out-of-work actor, who disguises himself as an outspoken actress named Dorothy Michaels. Dustin Hoffman famously played Tootsie in the 1982 movie.

Sunday night, Fontana called his grandmother by her Portuguese and maiden name, Delmira Pereira.

He said he’s thought of her every day since he started work on the show.

She “was a fiery red-headed woman with a singular voice and a passion and a spirit that you wanted to walk into the room. Every day I get to bring her into the room, and it’s been the best experience of my life,” he said.

The Tony is not all he is celebrating.

He said during the acceptance speech that he and is wife, fellow actor Jessica Hershberg, are expecting a baby girl. He told People magazine backstage that the baby is due Sept. 21.

His second Tony nomination

“Tootsie” is his ninth Broadway show and the second time Fontana was nominated for a Tony. In 2013 he was nominated for his leading role as Prince Charming in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.”

He may be most familiar to Tri-City residents as the voice of the villain Prince Hans in the Disney movie “Frozen.”

His parents have seen him in “Tootsie” multiple times, including at its trial run in October in Chicago and the opening on Broadway.

Santino Fontana poses in the press room with the award for best performance by an actor in a leading role in a musical for “Tootsie.” Evan Agostini Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Sunday night they could not wait for the broadcast of the award show to be seen on the West Coast. Instead, a relative in Philadelphia used FaceTime on an iPhone to show them the East Coast broadcast in real time.

They could only hear it, and then waited three hours to watch him win on TV, said Sharon Fontana.

She was impressed by his performance of the song “Unstoppable,” during the live, nationally-televised awards show.

He started the performance singing the male character Michael Dorsey and 40 seconds later was back on stage to end the song as Dorothy Michaels, complete with makeup, red nails, high heels and an evening gown.

Hoffman reportedly spent 90 minutes each day to transform into the movie version of Dorothy Michaels.

Growing up in Richland

The Fontana family moved to the Tri-Cities when Santino was about 10.

His mother had known he was a born performer since he played the role of the turkey when he was 5 in a family and neighbors’ performance in the garage, she said.

He was an early performer when the Tri-Cities Academy of Children’s Theater was launched, acting in productions that included “Charlotte’s Web” and “Heidi.” He also played the Artful Dodger in the Columbia Basin College musical production of “Oliver” in 1994.

He went on to perform in nearly every musical at Richland High, his mother said.

But she was not certain that would be his career path. He also played baseball, was the Associated Student Body president at Richland High and was the only high school member at the time of FreeForm, a Columbia Basin College jazz vocal ensemble.

At the University of Minnesota Twin Cities as part of the Guthrie Theater program he received classical theater training.

Santino Fontana 1999.JPG
In 1999, Santino Fontana was a multifaceted performer who caught the eye of more than a few show business folks across the country. Bob Brawdy

He launched his professional acting career, with theater, film and TV credits, after receiving a bachelor’s in fine arts from the the university in 2004 and later moving to New York.

Teacher and mentor shout-out

He remembered a teacher at the university and its theater training program Sunday night.

“Ken Washington was a teacher and a mentor who single-handedly changed my live by telling me, ‘You are an actor and anything that you do that doesn’t feed that is a waste of your time,’” Fontana said.

Fontana 1999 2.JPG
Santino Fontana played Pseudolus in the Richland High School production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 1999. Andre Ranieri

Fontana’s television roles include playing bartender Greg Serrano in the first two seasons of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and playing a recurring role as a detective in NBC’s crime drama “Shades of Blue.”

In the movie “Sisters,” starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, he played Mr. Geernt.

In 2008 he made his Broadway debut.

His Broadway credits include playing the role of Moss Hart in Lincoln Center’s production of “Act One,” which was filmed for PBS.

He also performed in “Hello, Dolly,” “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “A View from the Bridge,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Billy Elliot the Musical,” and “Sunday in the Park with George.”

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.