Acting is Joey "Pants" Pantoliano's first love, but as the VP of L.A.'s Grand Havana Room, cigars run a close second.
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"Yeah, I'm starting to get into them," the driver says, as he negotiates the turn into the hotel.
"Here," Pantoliano says, reaching into his shoulder bag and pulling out a Fuente "Havana Blend" cigar. "This was made especially for my club. Only 500 boxes were made. It costs $12."
Pantoliano's appreciation and knowledge of cigars, and his use of them as props in his films, has helped him create a wonderful world. He is not only a recognized celebrity among cigar people; he is also the vice president and a partner of the Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills, one of L.A.'s hottest private cigar clubs. A friend of his in the restaurant business, who had just sold his place to L.A.-based United Restaurants, told Pantoliano that the company was opening a new restaurant in Beverly Hills and was considering reserving an upstairs banquet room for cigar smoking. Pantoliano hooked up with Harry Shuster and his son, Stan, owners of a Los Angeles restaurant company.
"Now, selfishly, all I wanted was a place where I could go and smoke a cigar," Pantoliano recalls, noting that most of Los Angeles is a strict no-smoking zone. As the business talks moved along in July 1994, Pantoliano became more taken with the notion of a cigar club. "Everything would be honoring the cigar. Great cigars. The best cigars that money can buy, legally," he says, while taking a puff on an Arturo Fuente Opus X. "And alcohol that complements that and food that complements that and atmosphere that complements that."
Stan Shuster says that as he and Pantoliano talked about the club, they grew very close. "When you smoke a cigar, things change," Shuster says of the early meetings with Pantoliano. "I had this idea when I met with Joey and we took it to where it is. He's a phenomenal guy and a phenomenal actor."
Pantoliano doesn't want to talk a lot about the equity position he holds in the Grand Havana Room or its expansion to other cities, but he is not shy about describing his role with the private club. "I'm the rainmaker," he says. "I'm the guy that brings the people there. I'm the guy that brought the celebrities there. I'm the guy that continues to get the cigars on the shelves."
The club is well stocked with cigars that many of the older and larger cigar stores cannot get. Stan Shuster credits Pantoliano. "This guy knows the cigar world. These guys are his friends. It's not just a business. They do it because Joey is a friend. Everybody embraced him. He took us to a different level. Without that you get stifled, the demand is so high," he says. "Joey's the ambassador."
Weeknights and weekends, Hollywood actors such as Mel Gibson, Kevin Pollack, Tia Carrere, Jason Priestly, Joe Mantegna and others arrive at Grand Havana. Mantegna and Pantoliano recently shot a commercial at the club promoting the radio stations of some Chicago friends.
Pantoliano is quick to point out that he is not looking at his involvement in the Grand Havana Room as a fallback to acting. Acting is his first love, he says, and he has invested a lot of sweat in pursuing his career ever since he began doing regional theater in and around New York City.
"I was in New York, but I couldn't break out. So I turn on the TV one night and I see a guy that I went to acting school with who's on television doing a 'Police Story' and I think, 'This guy sucks! How the fuck did he get that job in Hollywood? I'll bet I can.' So I told my girlfriend, 'Listen, we gotta move to Hollywood cuz I just saw so-and-so on television and I think there's gold in them thar hills.'"
The first part the then-22-year-old Pantoliano got was on a one-hour television series called "McNamara's Band," starring the comedian John Byner, followed by a role in a show called "Free Country," in 1978, with Rob Reiner, in which Pantoliano played a cigar roller. Later that year, he made a TV movie with Reiner and Penny Marshall called More Than Friends. Pantoliano was quickly typecast.
"So, I was done for: 'Oh, he's a comedian. He plays, like, best friends and that's all he does," Pantoliano says, mimicking the stereotyping done by producers and casting directors. "So now they're casting 'From Here to Eternity.' It's a  miniseries and they're casting for the Maggio character, the role that Frank Sinatra created [in the 1953 film]. They wouldn't see me because I'm a comedian, I'm not a serious actor," he says disdainfully.
Nonetheless, persistence paid off and Pantoliano eventually got the role. "So I do 'From Here to Eternity' and then they say, 'Oh, he's a wonderful actor. He's the next Robert De Niro. He's the next this, he's the next that.' And then I'm outta work for 18 months." Pantoliano's former agent, Harry Uffland, had dissuaded him from taking an offer of $350,000 to do a television series based on the miniseries. Instead of being an employed actor he went back to waiting tables.
"Going from starring in a miniseries with Natalie Wood, William Devane, Kim Basinger and Steve Railsback, to saying 'Do you want anchovies on the pizza?' was a little disconcerting," Pantoliano admits. "Matty Jordon, who owns Mateo's [an L.A. restaurant], is from Hoboken, which is where I'm from, which is where Frank Sinatra's from. When I came out here, my father called Matty to make sure he kept an eye on me. So when I was strapped for money, Matty gave me a job. I became the celebrity waiter at Mateo's. I mean, it was just too weird. Frank Sinatra's eating there all the time, I played his part and we're all from Hoboken!"
The agent who had advised Pantoliano to turn down the TV series now told him that the weird-waiter gig had to end and, to his credit, loaned him $10,000 to live on. Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner loaned him the money he needed to pay his taxes that year. Pantoliano has come a long way since those days.
"My responsibility is to my family first and my career second. Fortunately, God has been very good to me and I have a good career and a nice family." This is Pantoliano's second marriage; he and his wife, actress-model Nancy Sheppard, have 10-year-old Melody, Sheppard's daughter from her first marriage, and four-year-old Daniella, the couple's child together, living with them. Pantoliano likes to say that he is "the biggest baby of all" and that he still "needs to work at being responsible."
"I think everybody would agree," Sheppard says with a laugh. "He's a big kid. He is always fooling around and kidding with the kids. He's the first one to get into wrestling matches with the kids and tickle fights and things like that. Also, he has a short attention span. We'll be at a dinner party and he thinks nothing of going over to the couch and falling asleep if he's done. Very much like a child would do. But he's a lot of fun. He just loves to have fun. He loves to tell jokes. He's usually the center of attention at functions that we go to. He's just a big kid."
Sheppard adds that Pantoliano is a great family man who benefits from being away on acting jobs because "it definitely gives him a retreat if he needs it," although, she adds, "he loves the kids and he doesn't get tired of them then."
Pantoliano also has a teenage son, Marco, who lives with his first wife in Seattle and spends summers with his father in Los Angeles. It was an incident involving Marco that changed Pantoliano's drinking habits.
"I've always loved wine," he says, "and wine was my downfall. I went to a party a couple of years ago and I got drunk. My son was really upset with me. He called me a drunk. I realized how badly I was hurting him and I said, 'Fuck this. I'm not gonna do this to my kid.'" Pantoliano, who says he used to be a "happy drunk," now generally drinks mineral water when he goes out. "It got to a point where it was getting the best of me, so I stopped."
T he essence of the Joey Pants persona--life is fun--is seen in action in Chicago. There he is a big star. Blackhawks owner Peter Wertz leaves him hockey tickets at the hotel and invites him to brunch before a Sunday game. When in town, Pantoliano tries to make it to all of the Bulls' battles. He gets special prices at some of the city's jewelry dealers. So many of his movies have been set in Chicago that the city has basically adopted him, and one group, the Chicago Historical Film Society, made him an honorary member last year.
"They brought me to Chicago," Pantoliano says proudly. "Everybody thinks I'm from Chicago. It's funny."
After a Thursday night out at the Chicago clubs, Pantoliano has breakfast at a coffee shop near his hotel. The waitress asks if he wants "the usual." He nods and she brings a large bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon, bananas, skim milk and, uniquely, poached egg whites on the bottom. After breakfast, Pantoliano passes up a run along the lake because it is too cold; instead, he's off to visit his friend and cigar guru, Joe Howe, who runs Jack Schwartz Importers, a tobacco shop next door to the stress unit of a cardiac hospital and across the street from the Chicago Board of Trade. Pantoliano met Howe while filming the 1994 comedy Baby's Day Out. During their down time, Pantoliano and co-stars Brian Haley and Joe Mantegna would tour the city's tobacconists.
"Joey Pants!" the cry goes up from the staff. It's not that he is special here; everyone who is known at the shop is greeted as enthusiastically (as well as bade farewell with, "We love you!"). Pantoliano is comfortable here. He walks into the humidor and picks out a Davidoff for a morning smoke. Howe is explaining that today is "jacket day" at the store--meaning the staff wears jackets similar to those of the traders across the street--but that for some customers it's always "super high-pressure sales" day. This amuses Pantoliano. Howe proceeds to ask one of the traders how much money he has in his pocket.
"Which pocket?" the trader responds.
"I gotta go right pocket," Howe says, but points to the left one. "No, no. Left pocket."
The trader grins broadly and pulls out a money clip jammed full of bills. Howe grabs it and counts. "Two hundred fifty-one dollars. What do you want to buy?" he asks, apathetic to the answer. "I'm selling you a box of Davidoff No. 2s." The trader smiles and likens the episode to an assault. Laughter erupts when the trader reveals that in his right pocket, the one not picked, is a much larger wad of money.
Howe and Pantoliano like to do shtick together. Howe thinks Pantoliano likes being in Chicago because he is recognized there. "He's Guido the Killer Pimp here," Howe says, as he shows an invitation announcing Pantoliano as the guest of honor at a $100 cigar dinner. "Everybody in Chicago knows him. They like him. I think one of the things about Joey is he brings a lot of fun." There's a twinkle in Howe's Irish eyes as he takes a turn. "Now, I can't say how cheap he is. Jerry," he says to one of the traders, "you're going to have to say that for me."
"You mean, a cheap [vulgar word for someone who performs oral sex on men]? A cheap [the same unprintable word modified by an ethnic slur against Italians]," Jerry, who's having a bad day in T-bills, jokes.
"He's thrifty," Howe says.
"He cracks me up," Pantoliano says, enjoying his friend.
Here, in our movie, the camera would pull back one last time from Pantoliano to show everyone in the tobacco shop sharing a laugh. Life is just right. Pantoliano is smiling and puffing his morning cigar while sipping cappuccino from down the street, having brought enough coffee and biscotti for everyone. The script would say that the last shot would be full of meaning, showing that Pantoliano has never forgotten his history and the ambition it provided, but that he understands he is far from the welfare rolls and turmoil of growing up in Hoboken. Joey Pants has worked hard to create this world, full of riches, full of fantasy, full of more good things to come.
Time of your life, huh kid?
Alejandro Benes is a journalist in Washington, D.C.