Joe Pantoliano was in Risky Business and The Sopranos and has stories to prove it
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Since his breakthrough role in the 1979 miniseries version of From Here To Eternity—in which he played the role that won Frank Sinatra an Academy Award—Joe Pantoliano has experienced the kind of career about which character actors dream. He’s appeared in key roles in a string of memorable films, working repeatedly with everyone from Steven Spielberg to the Wachowskis to Michael Bay, and won an Emmy for his work on The Sopranos. Since being diagnosed with depression, Pantoliano has launched a public crusade to erase the stigma and shame associated with mental illness, founding a non-profit organization dedicated to that mission called No Kidding, Me Too!, which is also (almost) the name of a documentary he directed about depression, No Kidding! Me 2!! Pantoliano recently released his second memoir, in which he talks at length about his struggles, Asylum: Hollywood Tales From My Great Depression: Brain Dis-Ease, Recovery, And Being My Mother’s Son.
From Here To Eternity (1979)—“Pvt. Angelo Maggio”
Joe Pantoliano: Frank Sinatra was from Hoboken and he played Maggio, and then I got cast, and I was from Hoboken. I’ll tell you a funny story. Because of one of my cousins, the FBI would tap our phones all the time, and my mother got it in her head that if she whispered, the FBI couldn’t hear her. So she would say, [Whispers] “Okay, but don’t say nothing, because the FBI is tapping the phones.” So I finished From Here To Eternity and they started to do the press and all this stuff, and the New York Times calls up my mother unannounced. They just want to get an item on her son. How does she feel that he is playing [a role previously played by] Frank Sinatra, you knew [Sinatra’s mother] Dolly and all this stuff. So my mother calls me up, and she’s still whispering, even though it’s been years since the FBI gave a shit about us. [Laughs.] And she goes, “Joey, it’s mommy.” She goes, “Joey, somebody from the New York Times called me up.” I said, “Yeah?” She said, “I didn’t say nothin’.” I said, “Well, what did you do?” “I told them that you was dead to me and I ain’t seen you in two years and stop calling!” And so of course they went to the next best thing, which was my Aunt Rosie. And my mother threw a fit when four weeks later, or two months later, the article came out and they were interviewing my Aunt Rosie. And she was like, “Why ain’t they talkin’ to me! I’m your fuckin’ mother!”
Oh, by the way, on YouTube there’s a great cartoon from my first book [Who’s Sorry Now] that we reenacted, and it’s genius. It’s called “Animate This.” It’s a three-minute cartoon, you’ve got to watch it. You’ll just die.
Risky Business (1983)—“Guido”
JP: I was working on Eddie And The Cruisers at the time, my marriage with Morgan [Kester] was just about fraying, I was drinking heavily, I wanted to be single, I didn’t want to be responsible, and I got a call that Paul Brickman was taping this kids’ movie and I was like, “Well I might as well do this kids’ movie, because right now that’s all they’re doing.” There was this character Guido. So I went in there and read for it, and I met Steve Tisch and Paul, and I met Jon Avnet. And I went back to New Jersey, and was working, and my agent called and said, “Hey listen, they need to see you again.” And I said, “Why?” “Well… they just need to see you again.” And I said, “Well I’m not coming back. I mean, Jesus Christ, it’s a fucking gangster part. I know how to do that shit. Just tell them to offer it to me, or go fuck themselves.” “Just come back.”
So when I returned to L.A., I went in and they had Tom [Cruise] this time, and I read with him again, and when the reading was over, Nancy Klopper said, “Everyone go but Joe, you stay.” And now I knew something was up. And the agent, Bobby Gersh, was smart enough not to tick me off, you know? He knew I had a terrible reaction to that. So she said, “Joey, look. Last week, the guys called somebody that’s working on Eddie And The Cruisers and they wanted to know if he was enjoying the experience. Now I know that you and he are not getting along.” So I said, “So, what is he saying?” And she said, “Well, he said that you’re difficult to work with and you can’t remember your lines. And we want to know your side of the story.” And I said, “Well, I’m not going to crawl in the mud with him, so what I suggest is: Here’s my résumé, I’ve worked with those directors, call up Taylor Hackford and Buzz Kulik, and if they tell you that I can’t remember my lines and I’m difficult to work with, then I would suggest not hiring me.” And I left.
Well, I got the job. And now I’ve got to go back to Jersey. And I’m talking to Bobby, and he says, “Don’t say nothing.” Bobby Gersh is like the Gary Cooper of agents. He’s way laid-back, like “Don’t make a big deal.” So I said, “All right, I won’t say nothing.” “You won, you got the part.” “All right.” So now I go back, but it got me a little angry. So I went up to the guy who had talked shit about me to the Risky Business people, whatever his name was. And I’m shaking his hand now, and I’m saying, “Listen. I don’t know what you told those guys, but thank you, because I got the job.” [Laughs.] And his whole expression just dropped, and he was like, “You’re welcome, you’re welcome.”
The Goonies (1985)—“Francis”
JP: Yeah, that’s another good story. None of us read for that. Because there were so many people up for that. And they were putting us in pairs and just asking us questions to see how we’d react. And I was working with Robert Davi, and we were talking, they were talking to us, and Robert and I had a very caustic relationship back when we were kids, because we were competing. We were very competitive with one another, and always trying to one-up each other. In a mean-spirited way. We’re both from the same neighborhood, so while we’re doing all this, Bobby says, “And Joey wears a hairpiece!” Because I was wearing my hairpiece, and he thought he would throw me, right? So I pulled it off my head and said, “Yeah, so if you want me younger,” and I just put it really low, “I can be younger.” And I pulled it back and, “If you want me older…” And so we got that job.
Pat McQueeney was my manager, she had Harrison Ford and I guess a lot of the kids that were hot. American Graffiti. And when I did From Here To Eternity, Steven Spielberg had reached out to me and we made a plan to have lunch while he was shooting 1941. And I went and he introduced me to the people and we had lunch, and he said, “We’re going to work together some day, but not this next picture I’m going to do, because it’s a kids’ picture, there’s really nothing there for you.” So I mention that to Pat and said, “Do you think he’ll remember?” And she said, “Please, he’s got a mind like a steel door. He doesn’t forget anything.”
So now we’re out at Astoria, Oregon, and I got this really cool room, but the downside was in order to get this suite, it was above the production office, so I could hear everything. I mean, I could hear Richard Donner if I was in Jersey City, he’s got this bellowing voice. And I went down to say hello to him, and as this is happening, Steven Spielberg and Kathy Kennedy come walking into the production office, because they’re going to start working. Because Steven directed a lot of the movie, he did a lot of the action stuff with the Fratellis. And Rick says, “Joey, you know Kathy Kennedy and Steven Spielberg,” and I was putting my hand out, and Steven said, “Yeah, we know each other. I kept my promise, didn’t I?” Isn’t that something?
Empire Of The Sun (1987)—“Frank Demarest”
JP: Yeah, that was really wonderful. Boy. It was the first time that I could comprehend the scope of what this job might be able to provide for me if I could maintain being successful. I would have conversations with God, and I would say, “Dear God, please. I just want to have a 30-year career. I don’t want to be a flash in the pan, I’d rather do this character work and work my way up to character leads. But I want to have a legacy.” And so I was able to achieve that. But 30… I should have asked for more time. [Laughs.] I should have asked for 50 years. I didn’t think I’d live this long!
So, I had to drive a double clutch. I don’t know if you know stick shift. But, you know, you put the clutch in and then you put it in gear, and you let the clutch out. But with this old 1940 flatbed truck, you had to do it twice. So I had to go to China maybe a week in advance to practice, learning how to drive this truck. And then also, because it’s a communist country, they did everything by the book, and if they shot off of the call sheet, they wouldn’t be able to move into the next day’s work because the permits were only good for 24 hours. But they insisted that I have this driver’s license to drive this truck in the movie. So I was the only American to ever have a driver’s license in Communist China. And I thought that was pretty cool.
Then, I remember during the filming we were outside of Tokyo, I had landed in Meguro Airport. We had a 24-hour layover, then we were going to fly to China. I was with my girlfriend Patty. Warner Bros., the Japanese Warner Bros., wanted to show us a good time, and they picked us up and we went to Tokyo for the night. We had a blast. We went to all these nightspots… oh, it was amazing. Drinking sake and I was feeling no pain. None whatsoever. In fact, in the book [Asylum], there’s a photograph of me and Patty and I am plastered, you can see it in the photograph. And so the next day I was severely hungover. And we get on this Chinese airline and this guy can’t keep it straight, right? And the plane is just bouncing around and I was puking my brains out in the bathroom. I heaved-ho, and I put my head in the toilet and my ass hit the door and my head hit the wall and I puked all over my shoes. The turbulence was impossible. By the time we landed in China, I was green, I was literally green. I was so sick. And the quarantine guy was going to stick me in quarantine because they thought that I was contagious. And Warner Bros. Productions did a 912 and was able to get me out of that airport.
I often think of the stupid things that I got myself into because of my disease, right? If they put me in quarantine I would have to sit in a hospital for 30 days they would have recast me. I would have got out and they would have sent me home. It’s that kind of thing where I had these angels on my shoulder that were always protecting me from my diseasiness. That’s why I talk about drug addiction and all of this stuff, its ancillary effect to the mental disease. They call it drug addict when it’s bipolar or schizophrenia disorder. When Whitney [Houston] died and Amy [Winehouse] before her, all they talk about is that drugs killed them. It was their mental disease that killed them. Their medicine stopped working. Amy Winehouse before she died, God bless her, gave me—I wanted the cover song to be “Rehab,” because of the nature of [the documentary] No Kidding! Me 2!! The licensing fees can be enormous on movies, especially on documentaries. We didn’t pay for one licensing fee. Everybody donated their time. Warner Bros. 20th Century Fox. Jack Nicholson. Bob De Niro. Everybody. And Amy gave us the song “Rehab.”
Midnight Run (1988)—“Eddie Moscone”
JP: I’ll tell you what happened is, Marty Brest, we knew each other from New York, when he was at NYU, because I’d auditioned for him a couple of times and I got to know him, we got the same agent. And he’d done two amazing films. One was Hot Dogs For Gauguin at NYU, it was his freshman film. Then he did Hot Tomorrows, with Ray Sharkey and Kenny Lerner. That was a 45-minute calling card that got him his first feature film. He called me up and he said, “Look, I want to offer you one of these two gangster parts in Midnight Run.” And I read the script and I called him back and I said, “I don’t like those parts, Marty. It’s not something I want to do.” He says, “Well I guess I’ll see you later, next time.” I said, “Well wait a minute. I like the part of the bail bondsman.” He said, “Well I don’t see you in that, buddy. You want that job, you’re going to have to earn it.” So I set up the reading and I read with Bob De Niro. And I remember the exact moment when I got that job, because Bob was reading with me and he said, “You’ve got my money,” and he stuck out his hand like where’s the money? And I took my hand and I turned it into a handshake. And I wouldn’t let his hand go and I was holding his hand with both my hands, and I was saying, “What’s the matter with you, you don’t trust me? Come on, you’re gonna get your money.” And I could see Bob’s eyes light up and I could hear Marty laughing, and I knew I’d sunk it. It was like three points.
The next thing, and I think I talk about this in the book, now I’m cast and they are bringing in the guys that are going to play my assistant. Jerry, right? And same thing. When Jack Kehoe came in, I knew it was going to be Jack. It’s just the kind of magic that happens in those rooms. So a lot of really fine actors were coming in and they were tripping over their own tongues because they were so enamored with Bob De Niro. And instead of doing what they were there to do, they’d be sitting there telling him how much they loved him, and what an inspiration he was, and it made him and everybody else in the room uncomfortable. So I learned an incredibly important lesson. At one point we broke up, and Michael Chinich—Don Phillips and Michael Chinich used to cast extras in New York, and I used to work for them when I did extra work—well, we took a break and everybody went one way or another and I stayed in the room with Michael. And he said the most important thing that I ever heard. He said, “Joey, it’s a rich world when you get the job. That five minutes that’s either going to change your life, or isn’t. Once you get the job, it’s gravy. That’s when you’re going to have all the fun. But it’s what you do in that room in five minutes that matters.” And I never forgot it.
JP: Yeah [female lead] Erika [Anderson]. I loved Erika. I think everybody in the movie loved and wanted to sleep with Erika. [Laughs.] It’s a wonder the movie got made! I was playing Gerri, I got to play a transvestite, and it was a wonderful opportunity. When they put me in makeup, I looked just like my mother. [Laughs.] I haven’t seen that movie in years. But yeah, that’s the kind of thing, it was a great script that just didn’t come together.
The A.V. Club: What kind of preparation did you do to play a transvestite?
JP: Oh, I went there early and I met somebody that was very involved, and she took me around, and I spent much time at the bars at night, and met a lot of girls.
JP: Bound was an extraordinary film, and also a great lesson in tenacity, because Marcia Gay Harden—we were all a lot younger back in those days—she was living in New York, and when she came out, she would live with us because she liked the kids, and we loved each other, everybody. She’d spend from a week to a month. She had gone up for one of the parts, and she said, “Joey, I just read for this movie, I think it’s terrific. And you’re perfect for the part of Caesar.” And I called my agent at the time and he said, “Forget it. I couldn’t get you in. Nine guys are going to have to turn this thing down for you to have a shot at it.” And I said, “All right.” I was doing Steal Big Steal Little in Santa Barbara with Andy Davis and Andy Garcia. And so, I don’t know, a week later I’m in Santa Barbara, I’ve got a day off, and he called and he said, “Where are you?” I said, “Santa Barbara.” He said, “Well get in a car because these guys are leaving for San Francisco at 4:30 and you’ve got to go in. They made an offer out to this guy, and this guy, his agent’s asking for more money and I told them if they hire you today, you’ll do it for $25,000 less.” And I went there, and I got to meet Andy and Larry [now Lana] Wachowski, and I really wanted this part. And I had worked on it because I just liked it so much, never thinking that I would get an opportunity to get it. But six guys turned it down. Nobody wanted to wind up having to answer for getting showed up by two girls, right? And I told them, I said, “The one thing is that this guy needs to be a worthy adversary. If he’s such a pushover, you know, it’s not going to be suspenseful. They should think that he’s a bum until the shit happens.” I loved working on that film.
Another interesting element was that Larry and Andy had already written and sold The Matrix and they knew that the budget came in at about $65 million, and that nobody was going to let them direct that as their first feature film. So they actually wrote and set up Bound in order to prove that they could direct, and it all worked out great. The one thing that really blows my mind is how fortunate I’ve been in working with first-time directors that turned out to be monumental directors. Starting with Andy Davis, I did a horror movie with him [The Final Terror] that Joe Roth produced for a million bucks. And Rachel Ward and Daryl Hannah, me, Mark Metcalf, yeah, that movie had a lot of young stars in it. And then Taylor Hackford’s first movie [The Idolmaker]. The Wachowskis, Michael Bay, Chris Nolan, I’ve worked with all of them, including Steven, more than once, which is a rarity today. In the old days, directors would buy their players. Directors still do that with crews, but they don’t do that with actors.
The Matrix (1999)—“Cypher”
AVC: Reading the script for the first time, how...
JP: Oh, it’s impossible. I still can’t figure out the fuckin’ logic of that one. They had given me the script and I had made the deal and I had not read the script yet. I made the deal and we weren’t going to shoot for another five months, because they had to teach all these guys the wirework. So I didn’t want to read the script until we got closer to it. And this story is actually in the book, one of the stories I’m going to tell you. When they told me about the scene—they had offices, I think their offices were on Olympic Boulevard in Santa Monica, and they had storyboarded the entire movie, frame by frame, with an artist, a comic-book artist, because their background was in comic books. An American comic-book artist who lived in France. He drew the entire storyboard, and Bob Daly was one of the executives assigned to the thing. And he really fought for those boys, stuck his neck out. But it would’ve been chopped off, too, had they not delivered. But they did deliver.
AVC: When you made the film, did you get the sense that this was a film that was going to revolutionize the technology of filmmaking?
JP: I didn’t understand the technology of it, but I knew that the storyline was groundbreaking, and also that it couldn’t be marginal. You look at the great movies that came out, and because they were marginal, it took 30 years before they could become Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and Jeff Bridges’ Tron, even George Lucas’ THX 1138. What I learned from the Wachowskis is how they use the modern-day mythology, or ancient mythology, and they collaborate the storyline through it. My character was Judas and [Carrie Ann-Moss’ character] Trinity was Mary Magdalene. [Keanu Reeves’] Neo was The One. So what was brilliant was that they provided so much action for the bloodthirsty filmgoer that just by the action alone, they were going to be entertained in an amazing way, but if you were a little more sensitive, you could pull a layer back and see more, or even more, or even more.
Black And White (1999)—“Bill King”
JP: Yes, yes, I forgot about that one. I was always a fan of James Toback, and I liked his filmmaking. I had done U.S. Marshals with [Robert] Downey [Jr.], and we had become friends, so I called him up and said, “Robert, I really want to be in Black And White. I haven’t read it, so I don’t even know if there’s anything I’d be right for. But if you could put a word…” He said, “Put a word? Absolutely. You got it.” And I got offered to play this district attorney. When I got there, Toback said, “You know, Downey loves you. You know what he did, he called me up.” And I said, “Yeah, I knew he was going to call you.” “Yeah, but you know what he said?” I said, “No, I don’t know what he said.” He said, “He called me up and said, ‘If you don’t hire Joe Pantoliano for this movie, you should die of cancer.’” [Laughs.] I need to call him up again, I think. He’s doing bigger pictures now.
Memento (2000)—“Teddy Gammell”
JP: When I met the Wachowskis and Taylor [Hackford] and Chris Nolan, it was less about the project and more about the filmmaker and the sense I had about these guys. If they know what they’re talking about, that they’re on the ball. And I’m very lucky that way. I don’t know where I get that sensibility, but I met Chris and Carrie-Anne [Moss]… you know, a lot of the women in my life have been able to get me these jobs. Gina Gershon worked on the boys, unbeknownst to me. I didn’t know that she was rooting for me, and she was working them, man. And then Carrie-Anne called me up about this movie, Memento. I think Chris Nolan initially saw me just to appease Carrie-Anne, because he didn’t think I was the guy. I could tell from the moment I met him that he didn’t. And I knew I wasn’t going to get the offer. I called my agent and I told him exactly how it went. I summed it up, and he said, “You’re good, Pants. Yeah, they went to another client.” I said, “Oh, that’s too bad,” he said, “Well if they can’t make this deal, you’re going to be the next call they make.” And that’s what happened, that’s how I got it. I’ve never been anybody’s first choice, I don’t think. Which doesn’t bother me, but one would think that the industry should really know what they’ve got in me. It pisses me off. Unless I’m just not as good as I think I am.
AVC: You’re a known commodity at this point.
JP: Yeah, but you don’t think I’m that good, right?
AVC: No, no, I do. I do think you’re good.
JP: Yeah, why does Paul Giamatti, why does he get my jobs? I’m way better than him, aren’t I? Yeah, so what the fuck are they thinking?
AVC: That is a damn good question. I cannot answer that.
JP: Okay, well if you can’t anybody that can...
The Adventures Of Pluto Nash (2002)—“Mogan”
JP: You usually can’t tell when a movie is going to be shit, but on that one you could. And I think Ron Underwood, the director, got victimized by that, because that guy is good. But because of the material and the style in which some players came to work, we were off the mark, you know? A lot of hanky-panky going on there. So, I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised it turned out to be better than I thought it was going to be. [Laughs.]
The Sopranos (2000-2004)—“Ralph Cifaretto”
JP: I was actually working on Pluto, and driving down from Montreal with my 8-year-old daughter to visit friends in Connecticut. I had several of my friends I knew in Hoboken who were moving into that area, because the public schools were really good, and I was on the freeway. By now we had cell phones. And my agent called and said, “Look, you’re on the short list for this TV show, The Sopranos, David Chase wants to talk to you.” And actually, I admit, I have a relationship with David, I knew him when he was on Rockford Files with Meta Rosenberg. They actually had created a character that they wanted me to do in a spin-off series, a “backdoor pilot” as they called it. But the network wouldn’t approve me because they wanted blue eyes at this point. And so I remembered that they were interested, or maybe my agent wanted to get me up on The Sopranos when it started, but I had just finished a show that I thought was really brilliant called EZ Streets on CBS, and I played an Irish-American gangster called Jimmy Murtha. And network television wasn’t ready for it. Network television wasn’t ready for The Sopranos, you know, that was developed over at Fox TV, and they passed on it.
So I met David season one, and he introduced me to all the writers, they were writing in California. And he said that he wanted to work with me, and I said, “I want to work with you. But I want it to be as meaningful to me as it would be to you. I don’t want to do a two-episode arc. I want it to be something that’s going to be lasting if something comes up.” So when he developed this Ralph guy, he called me up and the agent said, “Hey, can you talk to David? He wants to talk to you about this.” And I said, “Sure.” “Call him at this number.” And I did. So now I’m driving on the freeway, you know? And we’re talking, and it’s cool, and he tells me that this guy, it’s going to be a two-year job and he’s going to wind up going up against Tony, and there’s a lot of back and forth, but he’s around for a while. So we want him to be funny and charming, but really he’s a scumbag. He says, “Have you seen the show?” And I said, “No, I don’t have HBO. I’ve seen parts at a friend’s house.” He says, “Well I’m going to send you a preview of five or six episodes from the first season.” And I said, “Well, yeah I want to do it. HBO is very cheap, if they’re going to fool around, I don’t want to waste your time. Knock me off the board if they’re not going to pay me.” And he said, “Okay, we’ll make this work,” and I didn’t hear from him for a while. And then apparently they did cast somebody else. But then they just didn’t think it was working and they came back.
By then I had bought a house and I was moving to Connecticut in like, five days. And all he ever said to me about this character was what he said on that first phone call. It was a complete leap of faith. For me, The Sopranos is bittersweet because I feel that David Chase created a magnificent character, essentially Iago, so diverse, and the storyline is amazing because it begins with this special obsession with gladiators, from that movie with Russell Crowe, where he identifies with Russell Crowe. Then in his demise, nothing happens to him because he kills a woman, but then he’s accused of killing a horse and… He’s not whacked. I mean, Tony is about to kill the boss to protect Ralph, but because he’s such an important player, they couldn’t. And then the next week they get into a fight, which is a fight to the death between these two guys. There was no rhyme or reason, there was no protection, nobody has to kill anybody, it was a battle by hand. And I just feel that they wrote me the best episode ever, and because of the culture of the mind of Americans, because of their limited ability to see beyond the doughnut, you know? The artist sees the hole in the doughnut and the others just see the doughnut. My character is reduced to somebody that has his head shoved in a bowling bag. That’s all they’ll ever remember.