wears a lot of hats. Literally, he wears a lot of hats. As he winds around his Connecticut town in a silver Lexus convertible, Joe Pantoliano has on a white cowboy variety. To my surprise, the breeze doesn’t flip the ol’ lid. Nor do our passengers in back—Bogie, his Wheaton terrier, and Papi, his Shih tzu-Lhasa apso mutt. The four of us are leaving a photoshoot at the local Ridgefield Playhouse for lunch at his house. Now, a writer is a fairly worthless creature at a shoot, if not an outright hindrance, and I am no exception. I daydreamed as I gazed up at the yellow-and-beige walls of the 500-seat theater. The Ghosts of Show Biz Past ran in stencil along the tops. Welles… Berlin… Cukor…
At some point the crew found a use for me: cigar wrangler. The art director asked me to pre-smoke an Alonso Menendez from Brazil so “Joey Pants” could have a burning stogie to pose with as soon as he came out of wardrobe. This, I could man up for. I went out into the blinding sunlight, sparked up, and puffed away. After a minute or two, I returned inside to hand over the cigar and cull more “color.” No such luck.
The house of Mr. Pants? That’s another story.
In his bedroom, for instance, Pantoliano points to four small wicker bungalows for Bogie, Papi, and his other pooches, Lily and Hercules. “They sleep in there, and they know whose is whose,” he says. “They fuckin’ better after all the money spent havin’ ‘em trained.”
In one corner is a recessed series of cubbyholes for his prized hats. He picks up a long yellow grabber pole and pokes around the homburgs, porkpies, and fedoras. He clamps down and retrieves one of the many caps he favors. I start counting the hats and give up before I get to 25.
It’s tempting to think of the hats as symbols of his over 100 stage and screen roles, but Pantoliano is hardly a chameleon. Although he is often branded a character actor, he’s kind of a persona that resurfaces like a Whack-A-Mole. (And takes as many lumps, too. See sidebar.) Dirtbag or detective, he always brings to bear the same menacing charm, Most Wanted mug and nasally eahhccent. Think Teddy the shifty cop in Memento, cyberrat Cypher in The Matrix, kneejerk nutcase Ralphie Cifaretto in “The Sopranos,“ sly U.S. Marshall Cosmo in The Fugitive, or his breakout role, suavely sadistic pimp Guido in Risky Business.
In person, he seems like another one of his characters. There’s the casual profanity and that voice. But he’s actually more relaxed, more thoughtful, and above all, more controlled.
“I consider myself an actor but also an entertainer. With me, any job I consider depends on the story and the team.” He pauses to grin. “And on what my bank account looks like at the time. I’m older now and I’m getting tired. I just want to do good stories with good people. That doesn’t mean I want to coast, either. With Canvas, I’ve never worked so hard on a picture.”
It shows. As construction worker John Marino in the upcoming film, which opens in New York and Chicago on Oct. 12 before coming to other cities, he offers his most unusual portrait yet—an average Joey.
And Canvas marks a new chapter for more than Pantoliano. “In most movies,” he says, “mental illness is either demonized or romanticized. I don’t think it’s ever really been portrayed realistically. Not until Canvas.” The film chronicles a boy’s upbringing in Florida with a schizophrenic mother and a father struggling to keep the family together. Written and directed by first-timer Joseph Greco, Canvas avoids afterschool-special pitfalls because it isn’t a message-movie but a charming coming-of-age tale infused with a very serious theme. Moreover, the characters are as flawed as they are likable. In one scene, the son screams at his father over the mother’s illness. When the father can’t take any more of his son’s tirade, he bursts, “I miss my wife!”
“There are a couple of wonderful lines that Joey and I worked out when we prepared that scene,” Greco says. “He always felt that scene wasn’t quite right. Originally, it was a scene for the son to explode about all that’s wrong with his mom, but Joey felt it was also an opportunity for the father to finally open up. The characters really had to let it all out to each other before they could ever go forward. It’s a catharsis scene that became the emotional turning point of the film.”
The critics have spoken, favorably. Viewers, writes John Anderson of Variety, “will experience the joy of discovery in Greco’s fact-based drama—not just in its perspective on schizophrenia and the effect of the disease on one Florida family, but in Joe Pantoliano’s cliché-demolishing performance.”
Pantoliano removes his hat and rubs his bald head. He lays down on his living room sofa, cowboy boots and all, and reveals that the part hits home. “Growing up, I always thought my mother’s behavior was one of choice and, being Italian-American, that she just had bad mood swings. Only after I did Canvas did I realize she was mentally ill.”
The family lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, in nine places before he was in high school. Eventually, he crossed the Hudson to wait tables and audition for theater roles. After a successful run as Billy Bibbit in a touring production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he headed west to try his luck in Hollywood. Initially, he scored bit parts on television series like “M*A*S*H” and “Hart to Hart,” then TV movies and finally the big screen.
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