A group of mobsters crowd around Tommy DeVito as he tells a crude joke. They’re sitting around a table at a dimly lit restaurant, a hot spot where Tommy has accumulated a $7,000 tab. As he spits out line after line, his buddies laugh, together, on cue. They’re being careful, of course. Tommy owns them.
Joe Pesci’s performance in Goodfellas offers one of the greatest depictions of psychopathy in film history. He’s charming, a magnetic presence, but a real monster. His one-liners sting, his actions (the bottle-over-the-head, for example) have become inimitable staples of cinema, and he’s a figure who could take possession of your dad at the dinner table: “What do you mean I’m funny?”
In his review of the classic Scorsese film, Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman says of Pesci, “[He] gives a masterful performance as a crudely fearless, paranoid runt who’s constantly in need of demonstrating his own power.” His is a sentiment echoed by many critics and fans of the film, whose praises have collectively immortalized the character of Tommy DeVito. But what about Joe Pesci who, 25 years after Goodfellas release, has disappeared from the public eye?
He’s still referenced, of course, beloved by many, including Julie Delpy, who spoke of her love in a New York Times feature back in 2013. “I love psychotic people. I’ve always dreamed of being Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.”
Since announcing his retirement from acting back in 1999, a decision he has pretty much stuck to other than starring in a few select projects, Pesci has become an elusive figure. He rarely gives interviews and doesn’t make many public appearances, but this seems purposeful—it would be sacrilegious to call him a “has been” or “washed up”—still, it’s hard to believe that one of the most acclaimed and sought after actors of the late '80s and '90s now has a Snickers advertisement to boast as one of his more recent credits.
There are countless of celebrities who have topped “Where are they now?” lists. Many had falls from grace, others were one hit wonders, but Pesci’s trajectory is tricky to pinpoint. He was being given strong roles right and left, had a network of powerful and successful friends, and other than a few divorces, seemed to be relatively uncontroversial. On the contrary, a 1994 interview with David Letterman reveals a Pesci that’s pretty freaking loveable. In the interview he lights a cigar, talks about his love of golf, and even provides an anecdote about living with Robert De Niro.
Despite giving no real reason for falling off the face of the Earth, Pesci allegedly retired from acting to pursue a career in music, a venture that wasn’t exactly foreign to him. Back in the ‘60s he played guitar for the band Joey Dee and the Starliters, a position that a young Jimi Hendrix briefly inhabited soon after. He then released Little Joe Sure Can Sing!, an album of pop hits, under the name Joe Ritchie. The album is difficult to find online, but his iteration of The Beatles’ “Got to Get You into My Life,” a track off Little Joe, is out there (and is pretty decent). In the song, which Paul McCartney has called “an ode to pot,” Pesci’s voice is powerful and velvety. If he didn’t make it big in the acting world, he really could have been a vocalist.
In a recent interview on the Bravo series Watch What Happens: Live, Marisa Tomei, who starred alongside Pesci in My Cousin Vinny, raved about his musicianship as well: “He actually has a really beautiful voice. And one of the things that we did a lot is that he would play the guitar and we would sing standards on the set."
In late October 1998 Pesci released Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You, a hip-hop record named after his character in My Cousin Vinny. The bizarre album, which randomly features a “What a Wonderful World” cover, arrived right around the time Pesci decided to leave Hollywood. Considering his background in music and his sudden departure, it’s a natural leap to wonder if he left one world for the other. But it also begs the question if he ever wanted to be an actor in the first place. With an Oscar win and another nomination under his belt, it would be silly to think otherwise. But if one considers the foundations of his career, the short time he was actually working, and the way he mostly lingered as a supporting player throughout his time in front of the camera, disinterest becomes a plausible hypothesis for his absence.
Like many of the actors who inhabit Scorsese’s films, Pesci was born around the Italian-American mob scene in Newark, N.J. in February 1943. A natural performer from a young age, he starred in a television variety special called Startime Kids where he sang and danced. He was also a childhood friend of Frankie Valli and Tommy DeVito (a name coincidence), of Four Seasons fame, and inspired the character of the same name in Jersey Boys. Before achieving notoriety as an actor, he recorded Little Joe.
“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 a profile tied to the release of Vinny in 1992. “I would have done something else in life. Something more calming, in a different area where I did not have to use my emotions.”
Regardless of the pressure put upon him, Pesci teamed up with fellow actor Frank Vincent, now best known for playing antagonist Phil Leotardo in The Sopranos, and began working as a stand-up comic. The duo went under the name “Vincent and Pesci,” a clear nod to Abbott and Costello, no doubt. In the mid-1970s they both appeared in the short-lived Broadway show The New Vaudevillians. Both actors would go on to get the same big break together.
In 1976, Pesci made his film debut in The Death Collector, a crime drama that also starred Vincent. In the film Pesci plays an enforcer, marking his time working in the genre that would define the rest of his career. Although it wasn’t a wildly successful film, Pesci decided to make the move to Hollywood. He didn’t have much luck though, and soon went back East to manage Amici’s, a popular restaurant in the Bronx.
Then things really started to move: Robert De Niro, who had already won an Oscar for his role in The Godfather II and had secured a nomination for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, saw The Death Collector. He was impressed with Pesci’s performance and told his pal Scorsese about the actor. Together they whisked him out of the restaurant business and, along with Vincent, he appeared in Raging Bull. “We had another actor in mind who was much younger who should have played the younger brother, because that is the way the story actually was with Jake La Motta and his brother Joe," De Niro told the Times. "As we went on, we began to see that Joe was so special we figured it would be more important to use him than to go with the script.”
The casting choice paid off and Pesci received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for playing the brother and manager of boxing champion Jake La Motta. His next few roles were pretty unimpressive, but in 1984 he starred in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, once again reuniting him with De Niro. The role was followed by another lull.
Looking at Pesci’s filmography one becomes aware of a trend that marks his time working as an actor. Every few years he appears in an impressive project, one that usually features a friend or someone in his network, and that’s followed by quiet, little-seen pictures. You can imagine him avoiding acting all together, passively waiting for De Niro or Scorsese or Ray Liotta or anyone really to call up and say, “Hey, you should probably get involved with this.” And then he does. Still, in the same profile where he talked about his father pressuring him into show business, Pesci does assert his love for the craft. “I love to star in movies, but I want to have good roles. It doesn't help to get starring roles in something that's no good. I mean, that will just kill you.”
Although his reputation as a serious actor was well established by the ‘80s, it wasn’t until Lethal Weapon 2, the cop action flick starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, that Pesci really achieved mainstream success. He played the unbearable federal witness Leo Getz, a role he reprised in the 1992 and 1998 sequels (the latter earning him a Razzie nomination).
Then came Goodfellas, which garnered Pesci an Oscar win and provided us with one of the most famous Oscar speeches—if you can call it that—in the history of the awards ceremony. “It’s my privilege. Thank you,” Pesci said and then walked off the stage. It’s his most revealing statement, in part because he shares his sincere gratitude for all the opportunities that have come his way—and you believe it—but his brevity also hints at something bordering apathy. His five-word speech doesn’t come off as arrogant or falsely modest, but it does suggest a bit of disinterest. Or maybe it’s anxiety.
Pesci was as busy as he would ever be following his Oscar win. He created an iconic villain for his role in Home Alone and its sequel, had a part in Oliver Stone’s provocative JFK, and was given his first chance to lead a picture with My Cousin Vinny. As he did with Tommy DeVito, Joe Pesci conjured something special to create the character of Vinny Gambini, a rookie New York lawyer who heads down to Alabama to defend his cousin who was wrongly accused of murder.
In the midst of all the craziness, Pesci opened up about his career to the Baltimore Times. He was playing his beloved sport of golf with a friend when he suddenly stepped back from the tee. His friend inquired what was up and Pesci replied, “I didn't know who the hell was about to hit that golf ball,” he said. “Was it Leo Getz or David Ferry or Tommy or Harry or Joe? I've spent so much time as somebody else, and so little time as myself, I lost sight of who I was for an instant.”
While the success of Vinny was the ideal opportunity for Pesci to assert his status as a leading man, he once again fell into his patterns and reunited one last time with Scorsese for Casino—where he doubled down on Tommy DeVito’s sociopathic violence in Goodfellas to play mob boss Nicky Santoro—before retiring in 1999.
Since then he has only appeared in a handful of roles, very odd ones at that. He had a small cameo in De Niro’s directorial effort The Good Shepherd, randomly emerged in 2010 for the lackluster Love Ranch with Helen Mirren, and, in 2011, made a memorable appearance in that commercial for Snickers. Besides a few other spots, the only other major buzz surrounding Pesci came last year when it was announced that he might reunite with Scorsese for an in-the-works project The Irishman, another crime drama about teamster Frank Sheeran.
Retrospectively, Pesci’s career is confounding. He only really has a handful of meaty roles under his belt and if he were anyone else, any less of an actor, he may have been completely forgotten. But it’s something about the way he’s navigated his career that keeps him interesting. Despite his absence, despite the aforementioned cold streaks, his legacy hasn’t been tarnished. He’s a figure, for whatever reason, that has seamlessly come and gone from the scene.
Maybe it’s this safe distance from the acting world that has kept Pesci afloat, his ability to take on passion projects with those he cherishes, and then disappear indefinitely. He gets involved with something familiar, with familiar people, turns out yet another memorable performance, and then recedes from the spotlight once more. Actually, it sounds pretty ideal.