In all this, we’ve collectively overlooked one of the most exciting aspects of the movie: the Joe Pesci of it all. Because Joe Pesci is back, baby!
Look, we pop culture writers love to declare that someone’s having some sort of renaissance, which we often celebrate by taking an actor’s name and adding -aissance to it. That’s how this very reporter came to write about the Keanussaince and the Goldblumaissance, even though Keanu Reeves and Jeff Goldblum never actually disappeared for a significant portion of time. Because, not to lift up the curtain too high, actors rarely actually go quiet for long, so every “comeback” tends to be a somewhat contrived way of saying that someone is suddenly receiving attention again.
It may seem, at first glance, like Pesci is one such case. He’s been a constant in many of our lives. Can you count how many times you’ve seen Pesci’s face on your television in those decades? If you’re anything like the rest of us lazy early-afternoon or late-night cable surfers, then just between “Goodfellas,” “My Cousin Vinny” and “Home Alone” that number probably flirts with triple digits.
But truth is, Joe Pesci is literally having a comeback. Since 1998, he’s appeared in three major projects: a small role in 2006′s “The Good Shepherd,” the second film directed by his friend Robert De Niro; 2010′s “Love Ranch,” about the couple who opened the first legal brothel in Nevada; and (his voice in) 2015′s animated “A Warrior’s Tail.” (For comparison, in 1992 alone, he appeared in four movies and a TV show).
In some ways, his entire life seems like a Sisyphean exercise in attempting to avoid working as an actor.
The New Jersey-born Italian American actor entered show business earlier than most of us enter school. As a 5-year-old, he acted in plays around New York City. By 10, he regularly appeared on TV’s “Startime Kids,” a variety show. Meanwhile, he continued focusing on music. As a teenager, he introduced his friends Tommy DeVito and Frankie Valli to Bob Gaudio. The three, of course, went on to found the Four Seasons.
The sad irony lies in the fact that he might have been happier if none of this occurred. With good intentions, his blue-collar father, Angelo, forced showbiz upon him, and he always sounded resentful of his path.
“My father would push me to do it, as everyone pushes their kids, which I don’t agree with. I grew up in the business. I had no choice,” he told the New York Times in 1992. “My father loved me so much that he did not want me to be a laborer or anything. I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do — push your kids into something and then stay on them until they do it. Let them pick what they want to do.”
In fact, after a brief stint in Hollywood, during which he appeared in the 1975 indie “The Death Collector,” Pesci packed up and moved to the Bronx to manage a restaurant named Amici’s. That little movie caught the eye of Scorsese and De Niro, however, and he was pulled back into show business with his role in “Raging Bull.”
At that point, he became a bona fide actor, nabbing parts in “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Man on Fire” and even “Home Alone” while continuing to work with Scorsese in such classics as “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”
When the man won an Oscar for his work in “Goodfellas,” he gave the most memorable speech in the award’s history — apologies to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. It’s five words long. Not one of them is wasted.
“It’s my privilege. Thank you.”
Sure, he later said the short speech derived from the fact that he didn’t expect to win, but it certainly seems like he might have been happier at Amici’s.
Then the typecasting began. He’d always played Mafia types, generally unhinged psychopaths who went from zero to murder in a second flat. That Italian Brooklyn accent. That kinetic energy packed into his short frame, ready to furiously explode. That near-manic voice. All of it combined beautifully and terribly in the hands of a skilled director. That’s what makes his “You think I’m funny? Funny how, like a clown” speech so powerful in “Goodfellas” and his lawyer such a hilarious fish-out-of-water in “My Cousin Vinny.”
Soon, though, every time any second-rate director needed a “Joe Pesci-type,” they simply typecast Joe Pesci. After “8 Heads in a Duffel Bag” and “Gone Fishin',” the man was done.
In his own quiet way Pesci showed a fortitude most don’t possess. He walked away. He walked away to play jazz and golf — which sounds fantastic, without a doubt — but he stepped away nonetheless. And he was serious about it. Famously, back when Louis C.K. was beloved, the comedian attempted to get Pesci to star in his Web series “Horace & Pete.” The semiretired actor not only turned down the offer but told the comedian that he should try a different line of work because he was terrible at stand-up. He made a surprising appearance in a Google commercial during 2019′s Super Bowl LII, but even that spot played with the idea of a Pesci drought. The ad found Pesci watching a modern-day version of “Home Alone,” though when his “big scene” arrives we never actually see him.
He didn’t return in a major project until he could do something he felt was important, or at least until he was pestered enough. He reportedly turned down a role in “The Irishman” a whopping 40 times before De Niro persuaded him to join. “We’re friends and he loves Marty and I said, ‘Come on, this is it, let’s do it, let’s try and do it,’" De Niro told the Hollywood Reporter. “He understood, he loves Marty and wanted the experience of working with him again and me and Al.”
“The Irishman” is about growing older, perhaps growing irrelevant, and looking back at the all the choices that make up a life. It’s about time and regret. Pesci gives a phenomenal performance as Russell Bufalino, a mobster who takes hit man Frank Sheeran (De Niro) under his wing. Unlike the characters of his past, Pesci’s Bufalino is a somewhat quiet, extraordinarily measured man. Business is business, but there’s no personal score settling, no nonsense. After nearly a decade, Pesci returned with the most thoughtful, restrained performance of his career.
So naturally, journalists would want to ask the actor about his time off-screen. But that certainly doesn’t mean he wants to reflect on those years publicly. Perhaps nothing sums up Pesci’s attitude toward Hollywood more than a recent Q&A session at the New York Film Festival, where a panel moderator said to him, “I’m wondering if you could talk about coming on board this project … It’s been a while since you appeared in a film.”
“No,” Pesci flatly replied. “I don’t know what to say.”
After a brief pause, he added, “Thank you for asking.”