Flashback: Smokin' Joe and the Rise of Joe Pesci
This article originally appeared in the April 3, 1992 issue of Entertainment Weekly.
During a break in shooting Home Alone 2 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Joe Pesci makes a grim discovery: He’s out of 8 x 10 glossies. As usual, a crowd has gathered behind the blue police barricades surrounding the trucks, trailers, lights, and snaking cables assembled to re-create the ultra-success of Home Alone, and next to a sighting of Macaulay Culkin himself, a glimpse of Pesci is all the onlookers need to justify waiting in the cold. Pesci, currently starring in the sleeper hit My Cousin Vinny, in turn is happy to make their day by handing out glossies of himself along with a few friendly words. But now the fans will go home empty-handed. ”Aw, no!” he groans, asking an assistant to make sure he gets a fresh supply.
Two years ago it would have been impossible to imagine Joe Pesci as a darling of celebrity hounds. Even now, dressed in his Home Alone knit cap and ratty overcoat, he could be mistaken for one of the lost souls of Manhattan’s streets. Dark, diminutive, and until recently a specialist in playing edgy, streetwise toughs — he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor as Robert De Niro’s manager/brother in 1980’s Raging Bull — Pesci seemed condemned to character-actor status. But then, in the fall of 1990, came the great one-two punch: GoodFellas and the $285 million phenomenon called Home Alone. GoodFellas brought him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a frighteningly off-center hit man, and Home Alone made him an instantly recognized bogeyman for 8-year-olds of all ages.
Since then, Pesci’s been on a tear, playing his first lead role in The Super (which wasn’t quite); giving another strong performance in JFK; and taking on the title role in My Cousin Vinny as a hilariously inept Brooklyn lawyer defending a young relative (Ralph Macchio) in the rural South. ”He’s an underdog in a way,” says Pesci of the bungling Vinny. ”You can’t help but pull for him.” Driven by good advance word of mouth, Vinny opened at No. 2 at the box office, giving Pesci, at age 49, his first taste of being the leading man in an all-out hit.
What’s behind the Pesci boom? ”Luck,” he says. ”There are great actors we’ll never see just because they haven’t had my luck.”
His luckiest break came in the late ’70s. Though he had been training to be a performer since childhood, he had by then given up on his dream. ”I was in the Bronx, managing a restaurant and once in a while singing at the tables with a guitar,” he recalls. But during casting of Raging Bull, De Niro and Martin Scorsese saw Pesci’s debut, in a 1975 cheapie called Death Collector. ”They tracked me down,” Pesci says. ”And De Niro refuses to take no for an answer.”
But Pesci’s Raging Bull acclaim didn’t bring job security. By the late ’80s, Pesci was happy to be cast in Michael Jackson’s ”Moonwalker” video. ”There was a time I couldn’t get a job,” he says, cracking open a bottle of mineral water. ”People forget quick in this business.” His part as the nattering witness Leo Getz in 1989’s Lethal Weapon 2 put him back on track, but he hasn’t forgotten the lean years. ”I’m a big fan of actors who don’t work,” he said backstage at last year’s Academy Awards, clutching his GoodFellas Oscar. ”This is for them.”
A life that has included three wives (his third marriage broke up last year), a daughter (now grown), and working as a singer and stand-up comic in some of the lesser nightclubs of the ’60s (encountering some real-life goodfellas along the way) may sound colorful, but Pesci waves his water bottle dismissively. ”I’m a bore,” he says. ”I save all my energy for my characters.”
Oliver Stone, who directed Pesci’s manic performance as David Ferrie in JFK, agrees that when Pesci is in character, ”He’s a Tasmanian devil. Ferrie was so many things, and very different things to different people — some knew him as a pilot, some as a mafioso, some people thought he was straight — who else but Joe Pesci could put all that across?”
With Vinny doing well at the box office, and Home Alone 2 due at Thanksgiving, Pesci doesn’t have to worry about his visibility this year. He has two more films in the can: The Public Eye, a character study of a crime photographer, and a reprise of Leo Getz (who’s become a ”Hollywood entrepreneur-raconteur- bon vivant,” Pesci says) in Lethal Weapon 3. And now a knock on the trailer door brings word that Macaulay Culkin needs to be chased down another dark street, so Pesci shrugs on his oversize coat, pulls on his hat, and heads into the night to do the one thing he never takes for granted: work.