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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?

A: "The Sopranos" is a TV show you really need to earn the privilege of knowing. Most people don't. I get people who watch the show and they say, "Oh, it's the best show on television. I loved it when Tony strangled the guy when he was taking his daughter to college." Or they go, "Hey, what the fuck happened with you? Why'd you beat up that girl? What's a matter with you?" What they don't get is what the author was trying to say there. The show was about innocence. That at the same time Ralphie was sodomizing that girl while she was performing oral sex on a police officer, the counterpart is that Tony in the end is responsible for that element of behavior happening in the first place at his club, the Bada Bing! And at the same time, Tony's daughter is losing her sexual innocence to a young black boy in a dorm at Columbia. Nobody ever made the connection.

Another connection that people miss is how Ralphie is enamored with being a gladiator. He talks about Russell Crowe, he's swinging the chain, and he's identifying with the arc and the struggle of that man who has lost everything. He is a gladiator and he dies the death of a gladiator. It's a fight to the death between him and Tony over a horse that he had nothing to do with. Over a horse that Tony extorted away from him. Over a horse that was killed in a fire that Ralph virtually had nothing to do with. It was an accident. And when Tony leaves the Bada Bing! after washing Ralph's blood off of his hands, he walks by and sees a photograph of Tracy [the dancer Ralph viciously murdered last season].

All Ralph talks about in Episode 9 is how God is punishing me for the things I've done with my life. And he tells the priest, "Father, my parents were bastards. They did bad things to me." And he's not saying, "Forgive me father, because I'm a victim of abuse." He's just saying there's no help for me. I can't pray to God. God has closed His eyes to me. I've gone too far. I've crossed that line. And then Tony comes in and tells Ralph about this horse and Ralph says, "Geez, that's too bad. But wait a minute. You think I did it? You think I had the time to set up a fucking horse while my son is dying in a fucking hospital room, you fat fuck?" So Ralphie's mouth always got him in trouble. And in the end it got him killed.

Ralph was an equal to Tony. Ralph felt like an equal to Tony. Ralph loved his job. But he felt underloved. All he ever wanted was Tony's love and approval. And he was always like, "What the fuck? What do I gotta do for this guy?"

I worked on the most brilliant show ever. And what irks me is that I gotta walk down the street and have people go, "Hey Ralphie, they whacked your head off! What the fuck? Tony whacked ya!" Tony didn't whack him. And sometimes, people go, "Hey Richie!" Richie? They're thinking of David Proval who played Richie Aprile in the second season. I don't answer to those calls.

Q: Did you know ahead of time that Ralphie was a sexual deviant?

A: Well, no, actually. That's something that developed. In fact, I kind of mentioned it to David. I told him that, the way he treats women, I think there's more there than meets the eye. This whole deviant thing--it was more than this guy wanting to play with a dildo. It was about the idea that this guy could not experience pleasure without there being pain. The fact that he's in bed with Janice, pretending to be a prostitute--which is what Tracy was--and he was her pimp. And then Janice pretending to be his.

The other thing about Ralph was that he never initiated the violence. Tracy insulted him in front of his friends. He says, "That's the way you talk to a man in front of his friends?" And she goes, "What man?" and walks off. And then he goes outside and says, "What's a matter with you? How come you're like that?" And she says, "Fuck you, you don't call me, you don't this me, you don't that me." [The exchange escalates, ending with her scratching him in the face and Ralph brutally beating her to death.]

Ralphie's all reaction. That's the thing about him and Tony. They were cut from the same cloth. They have this insane temper. It was over from the minute she hit him. The other thing is if he doesn't hurt her, and he goes back in there and they see this girl can fucking smack him around? His life ain't worth a nickel.

Just like everybody says, "Oh, that Ralphie. He killed Jackie Junior." Tony Soprano warned him in his very subtle way, saying, "What do you care if people think you're a pussy? What do you care what people say behind your back?" He's telling Ralph he's gotta kill Jackie.

Q: Earlier you mentioned the scene where Janice violates Ralphie in bed. Was there any reluctance in you as an actor to do this?

A: As an actor? I would have preferred it to be Adriana . . . or Carmela . . . or Dr. Melfi. I called up David and said, "David, why Janice?! What are you doing to me?" And he's laughing. But that was the key with these characters. The writers love getting them in compromising situations. They love getting them up the tree and then figuring out how you get them down. The writers were cracking up. They sit around and say, "What do we do with Ralph this week?" And they invent these unbelievable situations.

David Chase is my hero. I adore him. And I've never chosen a job based on material ever. It's always the guy who's running the show. When I was hired by the Wachowski Brothers [for "Bound" and "The Matrix"], it was because I believed in their work. Same thing with Christopher Nolan ["Memento"], Steven Spielberg ["Empire of the Sun"], and David Chase.

Q: How far ahead of time did you know Ralphie was going to be killed?

A: I knew the day David hired me. He called me up and said, "Joey, you're on a very short list. We got a new character and it's a two-year job." I said, "Sounds great. Lovely. Call me back and give it to me." So he calls me back and asks if I want it. "Yeah, I want it." Chase says, "Okay, this is it: He's a new guy. He's coming in from Florida. He's a bad guy. But they're all bad guys. And he's going to go up against Tony through the next two seasons, and then he's going to lose out to Tony." And that's all he ever said. And I went to New York having not read anything. And he gave me one of the greatest parts in television I ever had.

[Joe hasn't seen the episodes after his demise, though he's read the scripts. And no, there's no telling what will happen next. But he does mention a scene from last Sunday's show that was apparently cut out: During the drug intervention of Tony's nephew Christopher, actor Elias Koteas, who is moderating the intervention, supposedly steals silverware when the fight erupts in the living room.]

Q: What about your head? [There's a grisly scene where Christopher places Ralph's severed head into a bowling-ball bag.]

A: (Laughs) My friend Pat O'Brien called me up the other day after Ralphie's demise, and he goes, "Joey, it's Pat O'Brien! What the hell is going on? I'm watching this damn thing and I'm having some wine, doze off, and the next thing you know, they're putting your head in a bowling-ball bag." The head is in a vault at Fort Knox. So far the bidding is up to $750,000. Everyone wants the head. I got a guy who offered me a two-bedroom apartment for it. Sooner or later, the head will come out. Hopefully later--I got kids."

Q: As much as people hated Ralphie, I think there was a certain sadness that he was gone.

A: Careful what you wish for. You know, in my lifetime, I've played a number of guys people say they love to hate. But Ralphie was a guy you hated to love.

He says he's a survivor, like his mother, but these days Joe isn't just surviving. He's thriving. (The man hasn't had to audition for a role in nine years.) He's got a terrific job, a successful book, and even his own website, joeypants.com.

"A big part of my wanting to be an actor was a deep-seated insecurity about the fact that when I die, there would never be any evidence I ever existed," he says. "I would watch 'Million Dollar Movie' and I would think, 'Well, look at those people up there in black and white. Some of them are dead. And they live on the movies that they played.' And I thought maybe I could do that. But then I realized that that's really irrelevant. That the memories you leave behind are the memories you leave in the hearts of the people that you love and who love you."

And you thought he was a tough guy.

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.