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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.


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