Joe Mantegna is saying farewell to a famous friend in a special way.
The “Criminal Minds” star recalls one of the show’s recurring guests — the late Meshach Taylor (“Designing Women”) — in the second episode of the long-running CBS mystery series that Mantegna also has directed, airing Wednesday, Jan. 21. It brings Behavioral Analysis Unit agent David Rossi (Mantegna) unsettling news about fellow war veteran Harrison Scott (Taylor’s character) just as Rossi is about to spend time with Joy (Amber Stevens), the daughter he recently learned he has.
“It was emotional,” Mantegna confirms of filling two jobs on the story by Bruce Zimmerman and Mantegna’s longtime assistant, Danny Ramm. “The last 10 minutes of the episode is basically the burial of Meshach’s character, and it’s one of those times when art imitates life.
“I had a lot of personal connections involved in the filming,” notes Mantegna. “I had two three-star generals in the Marine Corps, who are dear friends of mine, fly in for it. I also had Lt. Col. (Robert J.) Friend, who was one of the Tuskegee Airmen and is in his 90s, sitting among the mourners. And in a group meant to represent members of (Rossi and Scott’s) platoon, I used real Vietnam veterans. I wanted to personalize that scene, which I did.”
Mantegna reflects that his friendship with Taylor “went almost 45 years. We started our professional careers together, since we met doing the play ‘Hair.’ I came right out of acting school and tried out for it ... and so did my wife, which was how we got together.
“We were in the Chicago company, then they bused us down on our ‘off’ night to see the Indianapolis opening, and Meshach was in that show.” Taylor and the Mantegnas then toured nationally in “Hair” and “struck up this strong friendship,” per Mantegna.
Another serendipitous touch to the “Criminal Minds” episode: Guest star Stevens is the daughter of Shadoe Stevens, the actor and veteran disc jockey who worked with close friend Taylor on the 1990s CBS sitcom “Dave’s World.”
Mantegna was consulted on the casting of Joy, and he selected the actress without knowing who her father is. “Shadoe Stevens was at the memorial service for Meshach that I gave the eulogy at, and at the birthday party I threw for Meshach in my backyard last April before he passed — but each time, he came with his wife. I didn’t even know he had kids.”
While wrapping up the Harrison Scott story is a largely personal mission for Mantegna, he allows that it also helps “Criminal Minds” continue to delve into its characters’ off-the-job lives.
“When a show’s been running 10 years, it’s not just because viewers want to see a crime solved,” he reasons. “You could just watch reality shows if that’s all you’re interested in ... but they’re invested in the characters, so you have to satisfy that as much as you have to tell the story of what these people do for a living. I think that as long as there’s a balance there, and that it evolves, it works.”