WATERTOWN — In 1985, early in his career, the actor and writer Eric Bogosian met a talent agent. The agent suggested that he change his name, straighten his curly hair, get a nose job, and otherwise draw attention away from his Armenian heritage.
Bogosian refused. He went on to carve out a successful creative career for himself. The highlights: writing and starring in several one-man shows and plays, including “Talk Radio” and “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” (both later made into movies); landing a leading role in the TV series “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”; writing three novels, “Mall,” “Wasted Beauty,” and “Perforated Heart”; and nabbing several awards, including three Obies, the Drama Desk, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
Still, “as an author and actor, I refrained from emphasizing my roots,” Bogosian, 62, writes in the introduction to his new book, “Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot That Avenged the Armenian Genocide.” “I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an exotic ‘ethnic’ actor.”
Now, in writing this book, Bogosian has grappled with that cultural ancestry.
Until he was 7, Bogosian lived with his family in Watertown, home of one of the nation’s largest Armenian-American immigrant communities. Though he now makes New York his home, he comes back often to visit his mother. He returns on Wednesday to speak at 7 p.m. at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington.
During a recent stop in Boston, Bogosian traveled down memory lane and into the local Armenian cultural scene.
“Mount Auburn Street was like Armenian Main Street USA for a while,” said Bogosian, his 24-year-old son, Travis, in the back seat, as he drove past Armenian markets, car repair shops, gas stations, and the Armenian General Benevolent Union. Rolling into Watertown center, Bogosian pointed to where his mother still lives “over there a little bit” in what was his grandparents’ home, about a 15-minute stroll from downtown. “I used to walk down here from their house where [my mother] lives now, with my Grampa Megerdich when I was a little kid. Right there was an old-fashioned hardware store where he would take me that had barrels of nails and cool stuff like that. I spent a lot of time with him.”
The Bogosian clan would gather at his Grampa Megerdich and Grandma Lucy’s house to feast on homemade lamb shish kebab and honey-soaked Armenian pastries. Grampa Megerdich was also a “real escapee survivor”: His father died in the genocide (which began during the decline of the Ottoman Empire at the start of World War I) and he had nearly been killed himself. Megerdich would tell stories to a wide-eyed young Eric of “burning churches and sadistic horseman.”
“If you ever meet a Turk,” he’d say, “kill him.”
In a way, “Operation Nemesis” is an echo of that generation’s memories. The book was released in April to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. It tells the little-known true story of the network of assassins who, in 1921, began to avenge the victims of that atrocity by systematically killing six Turkish leaders. Bogosian’s tale is part history lesson, part thriller. One of the leaders of the secret operation, a newspaper editor named Shahan Natali, lived in Watertown.
Bogosian’s tour of his childhood had started earlier in the day at Watertown’s Armenian Library and Museum of America. “This is a place where our culture comes alive,” said Berj Chekijian, the director, who gave father and son a private tour of what the museum says is the largest collection of Armenian cultural artifacts outside of the Republic of Armenia. “Everything here is a survival story because it was donated by people who survived [the genocide].”
“It’s a very intense, distilled museum,” said Bogosian. In writing “Operation Nemesis,” he became an expert in Ottoman and Armenian history. Before 1914, Bogosian said, more than 2 million Armenians lived in their historic homeland ( the eastern part and beyond of what is modern Turkey and what is now the country of Armenia). Fewer than 100,000 remained after 1920. “Today, for anyone to call it a bunch of massacres, or inter-communal strife, is absurd,” Bogosian said. The genocidal plan devised by the Turks “worked so perfectly, like a watch.”
“My mother’s mother, who lived in Watertown, she never knew what happened [to her father],” Bogosian continued. “She just said he was in the army. They didn’t understand.”
After 1960, Bogosian’s parents moved his family to Woburn, where he spent the rest of his childhood and adolescence, attended Woburn Memorial High School, and began acting in and writing his first plays. Years later, Bogosian based his play “subUrbia” on his time “hanging out” in the Woburn neighborhood of Four Corners. When the Burlington Mall opened, “I was one of the first ‘mall rats’ in the US,” he says.
But on Sundays, Bogosian’s family would go back to Watertown, to St. James Armenian Apostolic Church on Mount Auburn Street, the same church Bogosian’s Grampa Megerdich helped found in 1931 and served as a deacon, and where Bogosian attended Sunday school and was an altar boy. “If you went in here, the first thing that would hit you is the aroma of the incense,” Bogosian said, standing next to a khachkar, an Armenian cross-stone, outside the church. Back then, services were held in classical Armenian, “which no one knows how to speak,” and ran from 6:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. “Then we’d go to Grandma’s house for Sunday dinner. I must have come down these steps hundreds of times.”
After the church visit, Bogosian drove past Aram Bedrosian Funeral Home. “Most of my family has been buried by the Bedrosian family,” he said. “We’re even related in some way.” The business “goes all the way back” to when Armenian families like the Bogosians first arrived in Watertown in the post-World War I wave of Armenian immigration to the United States.
Next stop: Eastern Lamejun Bakers, in Belmont. Bogosian entered, pointing out such Armenian specialties as braided cheese and baklava. “When I was little,” he said, “I was fascinated by this conveyor belt making these little round pizza things” — lamejun, flat breads covered in minced meat, vegetables, and spices. He bought a box to snack on later. “This quality you won’t find in New York.”
The final stop was at Ani Catering, what Bogosian called “a nice little Armenian hole-in-the-wall,” for lunch, where he and his son were joined by his “partner-in-crime,” Aram Arkun, an Armenian scholar and executive director of the Watertown-based Tekeyan Cultural Association. Over lamb shish kebab and a yogurt drink called ayran, the conversation turned to the many hundreds of books Bogosian and Arkun tracked down when researching “Operation Nemesis.” Arkun translated documents from Armenian and Turkish, and vetted the book, which took Bogosian “five hard years” to write.
After a chorus of goodbyes and well-wishes from Ani’s staff came the capper of Bogosian’s nostalgic tour. “We hit a mother lode at the end,” Bogosian said, behind the wheel. Ani’s proprietor, Hovannes Janessian, also heads the Boston chapter of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, or ARF, the parent organization that masterminded the assassination plots back in the 1920s. “I’ve never been in this network before. Now I’m really hooked up in it. They are all interconnected. They are all cousins.”
With “Operation Nemesis,” Eric Bogosian joins that network of Armenian-Americans — his tribe, his extended family — and fully and publicly embraces his past, his people, and their tragic legacy. Closed-minded and shortsighted talent agents take note.Ethan Gilsdorf, the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks,” can be reached at ethangilsdorf.com. Follow him on Twitter @ethanfreak.