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Pal Joey

Joe Pantoliano talks about his first book, acting, and yes, Ralph Cifaretto.

11:00 PM, Nov 19, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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YOU REMEMBER HIM for a sleazy character he played on screen. Or the street tough with the wise-ass attitude. Or the weasel you never trusted. He's always "that guy."

None of which does any justice to Joe Pantoliano. He wasn't a part of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He didn't train under Olivier. And James Lipton has yet to ask him what his favorite smell is. Yet "Joey Pants" is the archetype of the Great American Actor. He works extremely hard and takes the craft seriously--but he's nothing fancy. To date, he's been in over 40 films, including "Risky Business," "Empire of the Sun," "The Fugitive," "The Matrix," "Memento," and the upcoming "Daredevil." He's been on numerous TV shows including "L.A. Law," "NYPD Blue," and, until recently, "The Sopranos." With co-author David Evanier, he recently released his autobiography, Who's Sorry Now?.

The book is in some ways about a great escape--from the projects, near imprisonment, domestic violence, and organized crime. It is an escape from being classified as illiterate (he is, in fact, dyslexic). Just how far did this great escape take Joe Pantoliano? From Hoboken to Manhattan--a 15 minute bus ride away.

"I had a lot to escape," he writes. "As I got off the bus at Port Authority and smelled the sweet air of diesel exhaust and week-old urine, it was clear as day. The present had officially become the past. I had broken free, and I was alive."

And yet he never quite left.

Joe grew up in the Hoboken of the 1950s--long before the yuppies and upscale bars came to town. It was a Hoboken where mothers yelled out the windows to kids playing stick ball in the street. Where neighborhood bullies had names like "Jamesie" and "Rabies." And where, as a kid, if you couldn't fend for yourself, you got pounded on day in and day out. Joe had a colorful family, with names like "the Monk" (his father), "Florie" (stepfather), "Dopey Gus" (grandfather), and "Uncle Popeye"--a dogcatcher and "the unwitting Gestapo for Hoboken's stray animal population."

But the dominating and most fearsome character is his mother, Mary. Not only did she beat up on her first husband, Monk, but the language she used wasn't the prettiest. (Joe points out that the words rhyming with "trucking" and "runt" were used far more often in his house than "dinner's ready.") Through her toughness, however, you could see that "Mommy" (as he refers to her) had enormous love for her children. So much so that she didn't want them to ever leave her grip.

Florie, on the other hand, was a real charmer, even after spending eight years in a federal penitentiary. And more than anyone, he pushed for Joey's pursuit of an acting career. His mother was a bit more skeptical. "I might as well have been telling her I was gay and coming out of the closet and going to follow Liza Minnelli around on her European tour," he writes.

"For me," says Joe, "I wanted the book to be a story about the resiliency of the human spirit. That an ignorant young boy, but for the grace of God, met a career criminal who comes home and sees a future that he never had, and was going to give this kid at least the opportunity to know that there was something better out there, across the Hudson river, that mile and a half that separated my future from me. That I could go into that city and be entitled to go and get what I wanted."

And years later, what more could you want than a role on the HBO hit series, "The Sopranos"?

(DISCLAIMER: The following is a discussion of the "The Sopranos," which includes some explicit language. Those who don't watch the series might want to skip to the end. For the rest of you, enjoy.)

Q: There are probably few roles as challenging as the dreaded Ralph Cifaretto. What is it about him that drew you to his character? Was there anything you could relate to?

A: I never knew a Ralph Cifaretto. He'd be hard to find. But what I loved about playing him was that he was an artistic inspiration to us all even though he was evil. And I believe the writers got an enormous kick out of creating him. Look, how many times have you been insulted in your life or embarrassed by someone, where you fantasized on the way home how you could bash that person's brain in for doing that to you? Ralph was a conduit. He enabled us to do that. There's a through-line to that character that a large portion of the "Sopranos" audience is not getting. They don't understand the arc of that character, they don't understand why David Chase invented him.

Q: What do you think about the show's huge following?