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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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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?