By Michael P. Geffner
Photographs by John-Francis Bourke
Joe Pantoliano, alias Joey Pants, alias Wacko Capo Ralph Cifaretto, the breakout character on “The Sopranos” last season, is a tad miffed right now. He’s twisting in his seat, straining forward, and all but in my face, the veins in his neck beginning to bubble up and sharpening the tone of that unmistakable nasal, Jersey-thick, Italian street kid voice into something along the lines of an ice pick.
I admit it’s got me uneasy. I’m feeling like I’m about to get whacked or something. About to sleep with the fishes like Big Pussy. All because I brought up the touchy subject of the critics blasting Pantoliano’s evil incarnate for producing the series’ darkest, most disturbing moment to date: where Ralphie pummeled his girlfriend-on-the-side, Tracee, pregnant with his child, with bare fists and left her dead in the parking lot behind the Bada Bing. It was the kind of over-the-top brutality, sheathed with misogyny, which repulsed not only the critics but also some loyal fans. Even Tony Soprano, not exactly unfamiliar with sudden fits of anger, thought it way out of line.
I mean, it’s one thing to put a bullet in the head of a rat; it’s another to just snap and off your goomah like that.
“Are [the critics] trying to say,” Pantoliano asks, “that one human being beating another human being to death is unacceptable, but Tony Soprano strangling a guy with a telephone wire while he’s in Upstate New York showing his daughter colleges is acceptable?” He takes a hard swig of his Perrier. “The critics should go…should go investigate what they’re saying. They should look deeper than the skin. What makes Ralphie tick? What makes him so diabolical? You think he enjoys being despicable? What has happened in his life to make him like that? What pain has he suffered? Who’s f-kin’ beating him up?”
Then, without warning, after another gulp, Pantoliano does something infinitely unsettling - and utterly bizarre: he starts talking in character, raising his voice another couple of decibels. Suddenly, Ralphie, with all his sick and twisted pathology, is right in front of me.
He moves slightly forward, I move slightly back.
“Listen,” he says, using his hands to punctuate points. “A, she was a whore, and B, she hit me. What the f-k would you do, Tony? What do you expect? This bitch smacks you in the mouth, you ain’t gonna put her down?”
As I stammer something inaudible, trying desperately to calm myself, Pantoliano looks at me squarely, without saying a word, before switching, just as instantly, back into the fun-loving Joey Pants. Thankfully. “Hey, I’m not defending this lowlife,” he says, flashing me an assuring smile. “I’m just saying he has his reasons for doing what he does. The way I read the scene, he didn’t go outside to beat that woman to death. That woman did something to him that drove up the sh-t. She pressed his buttons. And if he does nothing after everybody saw him get hit like that, he’s a dead man. If you’ll notice, Ralphie never instigates violence. He’d rather manipulate a situation than do violence.”
Pantoliano once described Ralphie as “New Jersey’s version of Hannibal Lecter”- charming, spontaneous, crazy, and lethal.
“Ralphie just wants to be loved, accepted, respected,” he’s saying now. “He doesn’t understand why he’s so misunderstood. Remember how hurt he was when Tony passed over him for captain? He wanted it so bad. He’s dedicated his whole life to this thing. It’s the life he’s chosen and he’s proud to be a part of it. The way I see it, he’s the kind of guy who watched The Godfather 45 times and sees himself as a young Michael Corleone. Look at the way he dresses. That’s no accident. He wears things like sweaters and ascots. He wants to blend in. He doesn’t want to look like a wiseguy. He has delusions of grandeur. He sees himself as, maybe, a governor or a senator. That’s how much in denial he is.”
But hasn’t Ralphie even offended you at times? “Offended?” he says, making a face as if he’s bitten into some bad sfogliatelle. “No, no. My career is the interpretation of life. That’s what I do.”
So is there any part of you in Ralphie? “There’s a part of me in all my characters,” he says. “I’m an actor, not a f-kin’ magician.”
It’s a Sunday afternoon and we’re sitting in the back corner of a elegant, brick-walled eatery called Bamboo, an Asian fusion restaurant Pantoliano just opened with a pair of partners, in Connecticut’s swanky SoNo (South Norwalk) District. At this moment, Pantoliano looks like anything but a wiseguy-unless, of course, that wiseguy were in the witness protection program. He’s dressed in khaki shorts, white-T, and sneakers, and, when he bounced into the room, was stylishly topped with a brown fedora. He’s wearing glasses, has a salt-and-pepper goatee, and is totally hyper. The most traceable link to his hardcore characters is the way he spices nearly every sentence, delivered in non-stop, rat-tat-tat fashion, with the colorful language of his dirt-poor childhood. “In my home growing up,” he explains, chuckling, “[those words were] as natural as ‘dinner’s ready.’”
A kid from the projects, Pantoliano indeed came from the tough-talking, dead end streets of Hoboken, born and raised in the same all-Italian neighborhood where director Elia Kazan filmed his classic On The Waterfront, in which Pantoliano’s uncles and cousins were extras. “Every time I see that movie,” he says, “I see my childhood, the Hoboken of the 50’s and 60’s. Hanging out on the fire escapes, the rooftops in the summer, which we called Tar Beach. Playing on the same houseboat where [Marlon] Brando got beaten up at the end. And that magnificent view of New York City from across the Hudson.”
But, most of all, Hoboken was and is Sinatra Country. In fact, Pantoliano’s mother, Mary, grew up on the same block as Frank, Monroe Street. “Sintatra’s influence on my life was much greater than any actor,” Pantoliano says. “He lived in Hoboken and got out. It gave me hope.” Several times, he even found himself in the same room as Sinatra, but never had the nerve to approach him. “It’s one of my big regrets,” he says. “I wish I had a conversation with him. I think we would’ve liked each other. I just didn’t feel entitled enough.” As it turns out, Sinatra knew of him. “My friend [actor] Chazz Palminteri sat next to him at a dinner party once, and when Chazz mentioned my name, Sinatra said, “Yeah, that kid played my part [Maggio] in From Here to Eternity [Pantoliano in the 1979 TV miniseries version; Sinatra in the 1953 film]. In fact, my father and his grandfather were firemen together.’ But the last thing Sinatra said was, ‘That poor sonuvabitch, he ain’t ever gonna be the most famous guy from Hoboken.’”
Pantoliano’s father, Dominic, nicknamed Monk, was an easy-going guy who worked both as a factory foreman and hearse driver; his mother was a hot-tempered, chain-smoking part-time seamstress/part-time bookie who swore a blue streak at the slightest provocation. “I’m a lot like my mother,” he says. “I’ll just say things that come to my mind and worry about the consequences later. I’m painfully honest, to the point of insulting people.” Both his parents were also compulsive gamblers, Monk on the ponies, Mary on almost anything, but mostly cards. “The thing is, though, my mother couldn’t play cards without cheating,” Pantoliano says. “She even taught me how to cheat, as her father taught her.” Gambling was the scourge of the neighborhood. “Everybody was into ‘what-if money.’ What if I hit the number? What if I hit that horse in the fifth race?”
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SMOKE - Fall, 2002
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