Monday, March 05, 2012

From gangster to funny man to selling Snickers: The colourful career of one Joe Pesci

After writing a post on Eddie Murphy last month, I started thinking about other actors whose careers have ebbed and flowed with great success followed by not so great success with long absences from moviemaking and the biz. Then I saw Joe Pesci in a Snickers commercial and I thought, where the heck has he been and when was the last time he made a good movie?

There was a time when Joe Pesci was synonymous with a loud mouth gangster. He endeared himself to film audiences through violence and bloodshed by playing the baddest mother-fucker in organized crime. He established himself as one of the greatest gangsters in cinema beginning with Once Upon A Time in America and solidifying that embodiment with Goodfellas and Casino. Partnered with legendary director Martin Scorsese for both films, the two seemed to truly understand the art of the gangster film and about what it felt like to be in the Mafia. Pesci is a master at showing the unhinged, ruthless, madly driven and sociopathic tendencies of a gangster living in the world of organized crime through the good times and the bad.

As Tommy Devito in Goodfellas, Pesci brilliantly portrayed a likeable guy with a fearsome temper that could explode in a second. Tommy bashed in heads and kicked a “made” Mafioso almost to death. As Nicky Santoro in Casino, Pesci played a similarly homicidal killer who throws his weight around; squeeze’s a guy’s head in a vise and mistakenly earns a reputation as the mob’s enforcer. Santoro taught audiences that a ballpoint pen can be as lethal as a bullet to the brain.

Though playing a gangster has become Pesci’s signature, he’s demonstrated over the course of his career that he has great chops as a comedian too. In the Lethal Weapon series, he became as indelible to fans as Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. His role as the fast-talking and spastic Leo Getz became a fan favourite. Who could forget his incessant, “Okay, okay, okay” refrain. In 1990’s Home Alone, he nearly stole the show from a young Macaulay Culkin when he played a bumbling, inept burglar who gets outsmarted by an 8-year-old boy who is left home alone. The scene where the blowtorch sets his head on fire is one of the most memorable in film.

One of my favourite Pesci films is the underrated comedy My Cousin Vinny. Pesci is great as the fish-out-of-water lawyer who takes the bar exam six times before passing it and fumbles his way through his first ever murder trial. The plot isn’t terribly complex or interesting, but the movie is fun and so is watching Pesci’s character go from an inexperienced, incompetent novice to a clever and intelligent lawyer who saves the day.

After Casino, Pesci made two comedies which tanked – 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag and Gone Fishin’. When Pesci appeared in the hugely successful fourth installment of Lethal Weapon in 1998, he seemed poised to bounce back from those earlier commercial failures, but that would be the last we’d see of Pesci for several years. After a successful string of films in the 90s including an Oscar win for Goodfellas, Pesci seemed to somehow fade away and vanish from the spotlight.

In 2006, Pesci reemerged in his good pal Robert DeNiro’s directorial effort, The Good Sheppard. This was the first time in almost a decade that Pesci appeared in a movie. However, this reemergence was short-lived. Pesci didn’t appear in a theatrically released movie again until 2010’s Love Ranch. Where did he disappear to and what was he doing during his absence from moviemaking and Hollywood? Well, we know he endorsed a chocolate bar.

Pesci was slated to star in a new mobster movie about the infamous Gotti family called Gotti: In the Shadow of My Father; a role that had created serious buzz for Pesci in what promised to be his glorious return to gangster cinema. Instead, Pesci’s involvement in the project has been mired in controversy and legal drama, as Pesci has filed suit against the producers of the film for allegedly cutting his salary and asking him to take a smaller part. Pesci has argued that the producers used his name to generate publicity and support for the film and to draw marquee actors to the project, and then reneged on the agreement.

It’s a real shame the pairing of Pesci and Gotti hit a rough patch, for I can think of no better way for Pesci to reestablish himself as a premiere force in Hollywood in a role tailor-made for him. Fear not, however, because Pesci is connected to a project involving none other than Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino called The Irishman based on the real-life story of a Mafia hitman. Can you say a dream come true? It will mark the first time since 1995’s Casino that the dream team of Scorsese, DeNiro and Pesci will be reunited and in a Mafia movie no less. With only two films in the last decade, it will be great to see Pesci on the big screen again led by a director with whom he makes magic and co-starring actors who will undoubtedly be a tour-de-force combination. If all goes well, this could be one of the most anticipated films of 2012 and Joe Pesci’s return to the big time.


  1. "Where did he disappear to and what was he doing during his absence from moviemaking and Hollywood?"

    He was co-producing the Broadway musical 'Jersey Boys.',2933,174755,00.html

  2. Most casual filmgoers will always remember Pesci for My Cousin Vinny. That's the film where he made the biggest impact. It's the film lovers, and gangster film lovers, that look to his mafia roles.

  3. Nice post. Pesci was on such a roll for a while there. I didn't even realize he had such a long gap in roles until 2006. The Irishman sounds promising, so hopefully it gets him back on track.

  4. One of the best death scenes in cinema, the baseball bats in Casino belongs to this man. Brutal stuff! Also loved him in the Hime Alones and Goodfellas. Migh to have to see My Cousoin Vinny again now I'm a bit older. Shame to hear about the Snickers advertising. Kinda hope I miss that!

  5. @Rich - interesting. Thanks for the article. Jersey Boys and Snickers - definitely an unexpected chapter in Pesci's career.

    @Chip Lary - good point. Though 'Goodfellas' and 'Casino' were big enough commercial successes to be seen by even the casual crowd, weren't they?

    @Eric - thanks! Until I looked at his filmography, I didn't realize how long it had been since his last move either.

    'The Irishman' does sound promising - hopefully it delivers.

    @Pete - the way he offs people in both 'Goodfellas' and 'Casino' is simply unreal and it's part of what makes his mafia roles so powerful and unforgettable.

    'Home Alone' and 'My Cousin Vinny' are great comedies - they show that Pesci can play more than just a Mafioso.

    I just saw the Snickers commercial again tonight. The Snickers people have nabbed quite a few big names for their commercials - Betty White, Aretha Franklin, Joan Collins.

  6. Detailed write up JBT.

    First, did anyone actually see "Love Ranch?"

    Yeah, me either.

    Pesci does seem like the type who would file a law suit on a filmmaker - not that I blame him.

    He's great in Goodfellas and Casino, I haven't seen My Cousin Vinny though.

    Not sure he's a "great actor" ... but he's certainly iconic and worthy of acclaim.

    Lets hope this new project works out.

  7. @JBT - I can't speak to their box office impact; I can only speak to the relative level of awareness the non-film lovers I know have of them now, which is essentially nothing. Mention Pesci to them and My Cousin Vinny will always come up, with his parts in the later Lethal Weapon movies the next most mentioned.

  8. @Sam Fragoso – Thanks, Sam.
    I hadn’t even heard of ‘Love Ranch’ until I looked up Pesci’s filmography to see when he made his last movie. I think it only got a limited release.

    I think he’s been great in the films he’s made, with some stand-out performances, but I could see how he might get edged out of a great actors’ contest if you consider how many great actors are working today. Pesci just hasn’t been making enough movies to keep him on the mind's of film fans.

    I hope the new project works out too. with the people involved, it definitely sounds promising.

    @Chip Lary – I can see how non-film lovers may have a better awareness of his comedic performances than of his Mafia roles since comedies generally appeal to wider audiences. Though in my experience, whenever Pesci’s name comes up, the non-film lovers I know tend to say, isn’t that the guy who always plays a gangster in the Mafia? So, yes, they may not know the films, but somehow they know the roles he played in them.

    Agreed - they always remember Leo Getz in 'Lethal Weapon.'


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