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Killing Time with Frank Vincent

The Sopranos' actor has a knack for portraying wiseguys who clip—and get clipped.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Vegas, Mar/Apr 2006

Any Mob movie fan worth his salt has watched Frank Vincent die on screen. Often. • He's been shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, beaten and bloodied—once, all in the same scene—and is best known for playing the unfortunate Billy Batts, who pushes Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas just a bit too far. Batts badgers DeVito to get his shinebox and ends up a bleeding mess inside a car trunk. • The silver-haired regular on the HBO hit series "The Sopranos" looks surprisingly chipper for the amount of celluloid abuse hes taken. He walks into the Davidoff shop on Madison Avenue in New York City, wearing a black leather jacket. He comes off reserved and unassuming, quite different from his bombastic on-screen characters, but for the gravelly voice, layered with that trademark Jersey City accent. • His characters have endured unspeakable agony, taking bullets in the throat and leg (The Death Collector), a flurry of savage punches and a glass to the head (Raging Bull), endless kicks, repeated stabbings with a butchers knife and a few gunshots (Goodfellas), and a simple, old-fashioned bullet to the back of the head (Gotti). He's doled out many beatings as well, most famously as the mobster Frank Marino in Casino, beating a victim nearly to death with an aluminum baseball bat before dumping him, still alive, into a grave.

Lately, he's been the one dealing out most of the punishment. Vincent joined the cast of "The Sopranos" last season, playing the reptilian New York mobster Phil Leotardo, who led a war against Tony Sopranos New Jersey family. Vincent returns in season six (premiering March 12) in what promises to be a larger role, since his character's boss is doing time in jail. What is called the final season of "The Sopranos" comprises a dozen episodes to air this spring and a "bonus" eight scheduled to begin broadcasting in January.

Leotardo was a wrecking crew in season five, handling two major hits personally before seeking revenge for his brother, who died in his arms. The season ended with the character furious. Tony Soprano had denied him vengeance by whacking the intended victim—Tony's rogue cousin, played by Steve Buscemi—before Leotardo could find him.

"He's a pretty bad guy. Twenty-five notches on his gun. You saw him kill people," the 66-year-old Vincent says about his "Sopranos" alter ego. "He can be violent. [But] he's not a maniacal killer. He has quite a sense of humor, you know." When told the character seems to enjoy his unsavory work, an easy smile comes to the actors face. "Well, it's occupational. You like to write, he likes to kill. You should enjoy what you do, right?"

Born in North Adams, Massachusetts, Vincent moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, at the age of three. Music was a constant companion in the Vincent household, and young Frank was a natural ham. He built a stage for his performances, doing impressions of the singers he heard on the radio. He immersed himself in music, playing a variety of instruments but having a particular affinity for the drums. Half-Sicilian, half-Neapolitan, he stood out in the mostly Irish neighborhood, which had its share of gangs. "When I started marching in the drum bugle corps, I started hanging out more with the musicians and not getting into the neighborhood street shit," he says. "A lot of guys I know went to jail. Music saved my life."

He formed a band—Frank Vincent and the Aristocats—and in 1969 joined with a guitar player named Joe Pesci. The two hit it off, interspersed music with a bit of comedy, and had a show that made money.

The audiences often included wiseguys like the ones Vincent would later portray on-screen. Sometimes before a show, the club manager would point out a table of ladies, girlfriends of made men, warning that they were off-limits to jokes from the stage—for his own safety. And once, Vincent tried to cancel a gig he had booked at a wiseguys place to take advantage of a bigger gig that promised to take him and Pesci to the big time.

"It conflicted with the date I had with the Mob guy. I called him up, and said, "You know that date we got booked? He hung up on me." Pesci told him to call back. Vincent reached the mobster's brother, who had one question for the musician: "He said, "'Can you play the drums underwater?'" The team of Vincent and Pesci kept the original date. On dry ground.

In 1975, the act's good-natured ribbing among Vincent, Pesci and the audience attracted the attention of Ralph De Vito, a screenwriter/director who was casting for a small budget film. The performers each landed roles in The Death Collector (now called Family Enforcer), in which Vincent died his first on-screen death. (For the record, he is shot while on a toilet, once in the leg, once in the throat.) He continued with the music, but the movie caught the attention of the right person, Martin Scorsese, leading to the big time: Vincent won the role of Salvy in the 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull.

Raging Bull was the second film with both Vincent and Pesci in the cast, but it was the first time they interacted on-screen. The movie also contained the first of their three classic on-screen battles, each directed by Scorsese. Pesci had the upper hand in the first two, but Vincent got even in Casino, in which his character doles out multiple whacks of baseball-bat justice.

The oft-pummeled Vincent says violent scenes can be fun to film (it comes as no surprise that his son, Anthony, is a stuntman), but have elements of danger as well.

"To do what we did in Raging Bull, to do that scene, where he hits me with the glass, I probably couldnt have done it with a different actor," he says about Pesci. "We were very close, and I trust him a lot. It is a breakaway glass, but still, you have to take a shot."

Scenes with firearms worry him in particular. In the HBO movie Gotti, Vincent acted in a complex death scene where his character is shot in the back of the head while holding a cup of espresso. The cup was wired to explode as if the bullet had passed through his head and into the cup. The gun—a real pistol, loaded with blanks—would be placed right at the back of his head and fired by an extra. The idea made Vincent nervous. He insisted that the on-set technician known as the gun guy take extra precaution before the scene could be shot.

"Now the gun guy, I say to him, 'Get the pistol and shoot yourself in the head so I know the pistols not going to hurt me,'" he explains. "He says, 'I guarantee it.' I say, 'You fucking guarantee it? Shoot yourself in the head!'" The gun man acquiesced, reluctantly, and the weapon performed as expected. "You have to be very careful with firearms," says Vincent. "It's dangerous work—I always make sure that its right."

Sometimes, what happens off-camera on a movie set can be even more threatening. Real mobsters inspired the film Casino. Some acted as on-set consultants, including one who was in the witness protection program. He offered to drive Vincent back to the hotel after a day of shooting, but his pre-drive ritual spooked the actor. "He gets to his car, he looks under the car, under the hood…I said, 'I'll take the van,'" Vincent says.

If the three Scorsese films made Vincent a Mob movie icon, "The Sopranos" has brought him back to the forefront. Vincent recalls being asked to read alongside Dominic Chianese and Tony Sirico for the role of Corrado Soprano, Tony's "Uncle Junior," in the pilot episode. He arrived knowing only the title. "I thought it was a show about singers," he says.

Chianese landed the role and Sirico was cast as Paulie Walnuts, one of Tony's captains, but there was no home for Vincent. He came back for another reading three years later, and show creator David Chase eventually found him a role as Leotardo, a killer who gleefully mixes humor with violence.

Vincent enjoys the show. "It's fun to do," he says. When pressed for details about the upcoming season, he offers little. He allows that his character will be developed further, as we learn Leotardos history with Tony Soprano. "We grew up together, we knew each other from the beginning and we always clashed," he says.

His silence may not only represent reticence to spoil the plot, but also his ignorance of events to come. On this series the actors don't always know what's going on, says Vincent—not even after rehearsing the script for an upcoming show. The show is veiled in secrecy that would be the envy of most Mob families.

"Every episode, you sit down at the big table with the entire cast of that show and you read the script. They give you the script, you read it, then you have to give them the script back. You can have your pages. Now, if [David Chase] doesn't want something known, he omits it from the read-through," he says. One example from the previous season was the end for the character Adriana La Cerva, who is executed for communicating with the Feds. "When Drea de Matteo [who played La Cerva] got shot, that wasn't in the read-through. In the read-through, it said she got in the car and drove away to live with her girlfriend in California. Nobody knows."

Vincent does say that in one scene in the upcoming season, he's a bit drunk and smokes a cigar. "Great scene," he says, smiling. He refuses to say any more. "Wish I could tell you. I dont want to tell you. Itll spoil it."

Vincent began smoking cigars as a teenager. "I always smoked cigars," he says. "I [also] smoked cigarettes, but cigars were always something I could enjoy." He began with machine-made smokes, Garcia y Vegas, following in the footsteps of his father, Frank Vincent Gattuso (Vincents birth name). His father was a Camel smoker who puffed on cigars on special occasions and at family get-togethers.

Vincent was once the face behind a cigar brand called Public Enemy, which Nick Perdomo made for the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, cigar retailer Lou Silver. Alas, the timing was bad. It was launched near the end of the 1990s cigar boom, with a $10 price tag, and 20,000 cigars later, it was retired.

Nevertheless, the experience of having his name and face on a cigar brand "was terrific," says Vincent, who prefers his smokes big and mild. The Davidoff Double "R" is a particular favorite. After a lunch of thick steak, he puffs happily on an Avo 77, savoring the flavor. When hes not at Davidoff, he typically smokes with his sons-in-law, Tommy DeFranco and Jimmy Pomponio, in the backyard, and more often during the summer.

March is a big month for Vincent. Along with "The Sopranos" season premiere, his movie This Thing of Ours comes out on DVD. The month also marks his debut as an author, as his recently penned A Guys Guide to Being a Mans Man, with Steven Priggé, goes on sale. The tongue-in-cheek how-to book offers men advice on the finer things in life—how to dress for success, how to date, even a few pointers on cigars, etc.—all filtered through a wiseguy sensibility.

"Guys need help," Vincent says. "They don't know how to dress. You see a couple out—the girl's dressed up, the guy's got a shirt hanging out with ripped jeans."

Think of it as the anti-metrosexuals bible that eschews the "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" mentality, as Vincent puts it. Vincent also explains where to get and how to cook great Italian food, lists his favorite gangster films and singing heroes, and gives pointers on how to enjoy a fine cocktail.

Interspersed with the advice are a few anecdotes from Vincent's life. One of the most memorable recounts the time he brought a young lady home for Sunday dinner, a feast centered around meatballs, pasta and red sauce. The girl—who wasn't Italian—didn't want to eat, which perturbed Vincent's father. Finally, convinced to take a meatball, she looked innocently at her hosts and asked for a condiment. "Do you have any mayonnaise?" she said. Vincent's father flew into a rage, pointing at the girl, and at Vincent. "You and you—OUT!"

Vincent's close to his Italian roots and is aware that some of his paisans don't appreciate mobster stereotypes in many of his roles as do the fans who shout "Get Your Shinebox" to him when they see him in public. "I know some people say it makes Italians look bad," he says, but "every character you play is only a person. Mobsters are people. There's political mobsters, there's cops that are bad, there's priests that are bad—anybody can be a mobster."

He takes another puff on the Avo, blue smoke rising to the ceiling. "People come up to me and say, 'How does it feel to be a wiseguy?' I say, 'Im not a wiseguy. I'm an actor.' This is entertainment."

The moment of reflection over, he reverts to character, that bright white smile coming back to his face. "There's a lot of diehards who say it's not good. But…fuck'em!"

Photo by A. Perry Heller

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