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Pants On Fire

Acting is Joey "Pants" Pantoliano's first love, but as the VP of L.A.'s Grand Havana Room, cigars run a close second.
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

It didn't take Joe Pantoliano very long to figure why he wanted to be an actor.

"I know why I'm an actor. I hated being poor," he says, referring to his childhood in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Pantoliano's family had been on welfare a number of times, and with numerous examples available of how to get into trouble, he could easily have had a different future. He credits his stepfather, Florio Isabella, who spent a total of 21 years in prison, with saving him from a life of crime. "Florio hated being poor and became a criminal," he says, with a half-shrug. "I didn't have that option because he said he would kill me," Pantoliano recalls. "Someday I'll write about it--or I'll have somebody write about it. I'm not a writer."

The movie of his life, if one ever gets written, would go like this: The film starts in black and white. Pantoliano is the narrator. He is smoking a cigar as he talks, on a terrace overlooking Beverly Hills.

"I love to talk about myself," he says, as the picture dissolves to the streets of Hoboken; the year, 1967. In the opening scene, Dominic "Monk" Pantoliano, Joe's father, leaves the family behind and heads for Florida. Joe is 14.

"My mother [Mary] was an interesting woman," Pantoliano begins the story. "My mom and dad, they were married for 20 years. My stepfather--my mother's third cousin, Florio Isabella--was doing a 15-year stretch in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for drug trafficking. When he was released from Atlanta, he moved in with us and then my father moved to Florida." Drugs, Pantoliano says, were Florio's "family business," explaining that the man who would become his stepfather began his criminal career delivering heroin in lower Manhattan at the age of 10.

"The next thing I knew, my mom and Florio were lovers. And there were lots of fireworks." Pantoliano is speaking more slowly now, the emotion of the memories sinking in.

"There were fistfights in the streets of Hoboken between my father and my stepfather, and I was in the middle of it," he continues. "It was a mess. Ultimately, everybody made up and my father moved in with a woman in Jersey City. My mom died in 1982. My stepfather died in my father's arms, because they continued to be friends long after my mom was gone, and then my father died three months later, after my stepfather died."

Pantoliano had already escaped that life in Hoboken, but he came to appreciate certain aspects of it when he returned in 1987, already a successful actor, for his father's funeral.

"My father was a working stiff," Pantoliano says, wanting to make sure that Monk is properly remembered. "He was the only person in Hoboken ever to bowl a 300 game. He loved to bowl. He died at 75. The funeral parlor was packed. People who hadn't seen him in 50 years came just to pay their respects. They didn't know who I was."

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