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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: 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.