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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.

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."

Pantoliano would escape the poverty of Hoboken and go on to become recognized as an actor. He would marry young, get divorced, marry a second time and have a strong family life and a wonderful, beautiful wife. He would buy an apartment in Hoboken and spend two months there every year. He would make dozens of friends around the country and acquire enough money to do whatever he wanted, to have fun. And he would be able to pursue his latest passion, cigars, in his personal life and as an investor in the Grand Havana Room, one of Los Angeles' top cigar venues.

Joe Pantoliano--Joey Pants to his friends, it's a nickname from childhood--loves everything about smoking cigars. He loves the cutters, the lighters, the humidors, all the accessories.

"It was the whole package that really got me excited," he says of the time in 1989 when he began smoking cigars and visiting tobacco stores, then drops in the profanity that peppers the Joey Pants persona. "Even the little fucking canes. You know, the silver-tipped [walking] canes when you walk into these stores." Pantoliano now owns many of those accessories, and on a sunny day in Southern California, after an offer of cappuccino, he is giving a tour of all that is cigar-related in his L.A. home. It is not a quick trip.


"My wife had this made for me," he says of the custom-built cabinet humidor that takes up most of a living room wall. "I have the greatest wife in the world. I can smoke anywhere in the house and even in the bedroom." The shelves reveal the requisite I-really-adore-cigars books and the coffee tables hold at least a dozen humidors (and counting), most of them gifts from people who know he loves cigars. He admits he's obsessed.

"I think I'm a compulsive type of person," he says. "You know, I'm an alcoholic," he adds, waiting for a reaction. "I guess I'm what they would call a 'periodic alcoholic.' I go for eight months and I don't have a drink and then I have a couple of glasses of wine and before I know it I'm having five glasses of wine a day and I put on 15 pounds and then I stop. And it's like if I like a shirt, I buy three. But the thing with cigars is I don't abuse the privilege. This is my first cigar in two days," he says of the Cuban Bolivar Gigante he holds in his right hand. "I try to smoke one to two a day, no more than that. Sometimes I'll binge and I'll have three in the course of the day or two in the night if I'm doing a party or something. Then I try to cleanse myself the next two days. I feel like if you abuse 'em and smoke too many of 'em, they all start to taste the same."

Pantoliano is proud of his ability to moderate habits that once would have controlled him. He also takes childlike delight in pointing out all the signed photos on his office wall from movie stars expressing their friendship.

These days, Pantoliano is on fire. In fiamme. Hot. Smokin' even. After roles in 60 movies, he is starring in a feature film, has just finished a television pilot and is so much in demand as an actor that he worries about not being able to work on a sequel. He's even recognized on the street. That is, well, a dramatic change.

"For a time, people thought I went to high school with them or something," he says with a laugh. "But what I hear most of all is, 'You sound familiar.' I get spotted for my voice more than anything." It is the voice of Guido the Killer Pimp in Risky Business. In this 1983 coming-of-age movie, Tom Cruise plays high schooler Joel, who has ostensibly stolen Guido's hookers. In Pantoliano's big scene, Guido goes to Joel's suburban Chicago home to get the hookers back and explains reality to him.

"Time of your life, huh kid?" Guido dismissively asks Joel. Pantoliano-as-Guido then offers Cruise's character a fairly concise, classic piece of advice: "In a sluggish economy, never, ever fuck with another man's livelihood."

Pantoliano, 43, is more muscular and taller than he seems on-screen. He has made a livelihood out of playing the "psycho," or the "buddy," as he did in The Fugitive, the 1993 film starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in which Pantoliano delivered most of the humor. He is now starring in the just-released Bound, with Jennifer Tilly, who played the aspiring-but-incompetent actress in Bullets Over Broadway, and Gina Gershon, the brunette in Showgirls. Pantoliano is excited about this movie; it's his first leading role. "At least in a movie that's any good and done by a major studio," he says.

"It's a film noir with a twist," he says earnestly. "Jennifer plays my lover of five years. I'm a money launderer for the mob, the Chicago Mafia, and Gina is a small-time felon who's just been released from prison who gets a job as a janitor in our building. Jennifer and Gina become immediately attracted to each other and the next thing you know they're banging each other. Instead of a guy and a girl, it's the two girls against the guy."

Pantoliano's character in Bound does not smoke cigars, and in The Fugitive, Jones does the honors. But in many of his movies, Pantoliano has taken special delight in combining work with pleasure.

"You know, I'd do a movie, I'd call Davidoff and say, 'Listen, I'm doing a movie, I wanna smoke your cigars in the movie.' Like when I did Steal Big, Steal Little [a 1995 film with Andy Garcia that did not do boffo box office], I smoked all of the Fuente cigars." Pantoliano loves the Fuente family and their Dominican cigars--the Fuentes and a friend sent him six boxes of Don Carlos cigars as a wedding present in 1994--but he is diverse enough in his tastes to spread around the exposure on the big screen. And he's not reluctant to get free cigars.

"It just so happened I smoked cigars in Bad Boys because I was smoking between the shots," Pantoliano says of the 1995 movie set in Miami. "We were rehearsing the scene and the director said, 'Gee, it'd be great if you'd smoke that cigar. I'd love to see Captain Howard smoke cigars in this.' I said, 'Well, I only got two of these and we got three weeks of shooting.' So I called Ernie." Ernie is Ernesto Perez-Carillo of Miami's El Credito Cigars, the makers of La Gloria Cubana and El Rico Habano. "I say, 'Ernie, I'm smoking a robusto Rico Habano. You got a coupla boxes we can put in the movie?' He says, 'Hell yeah!'" Pantoliano's funniest scene in the film (in which he plays the typical cop in charge who screams a lot) is when he is shooting free throws over the backboard while chewing out two police officers. All the while the robusto is in his hand or mouth.

For "EZ Streets," a pilot he shot earlier this year in Chicago for CBS, he chose Don Carlos No. IIIs. "It's very gritty," Pantoliano says of the pilot, which has been picked up and will debut this fall on Wednesday nights. "For television, this is a very tough show."

It's a warm spring day in Chicago and Pantoliano is walking to a men's shop on Michigan Avenue to pick up a tuxedo Donna Karan sent him for the Oscars. Pantoliano is what is commonly known as a "character actor," a term he does not dispute, but one he chooses to define for himself.

"In Hollywood, most young actors and movie stars construct the character to them, violating the cardinal rule of acting," he says. "In Hollywood, a character actor is the guy who supports the leading man. My definition of a character actor is a guy who creates a role. I think any good actor, man or woman, is a character actor. I mean, obviously Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro and Gene Hackman and, you know, Paul Muni and Luther Adler and Spencer Tracy, these were all great actors. I think Harrison Ford is one of the great character actors of our time, even though he's a leading man. I think Jeff Bridges is a great character actor. These guys are real actors!" Pantoliano's voice rises. "These are the guys that I emulate. These are the guys that I wanna grow up to be. These are the roles that I want to play," Pantoliano says, adding that Montgomery Clift is his favorite actor of all time.

"People label me a 'character actor' because I'm the third guy through the door. I'm the guy supporting the movie stars," he continues. "So, in my mind, I'm just a fuckin' actor. In the buyer's mind, I'm a character actor."

Pantoliano plays an Irish gangster in "EZ Streets," and for the pilot, he prepares in the makeup trailer by shaving his head with an electric razor, then gluing and taping on a red wig while waiting for the dye on his eyebrows to dry. His banter with the women doing makeup and hair is constant. The transformation is finished after he changes out of jeans and T-shirt into a dark-blue ensemble covered with a black trenchcoat, ever so stylishly accented by the biggest Versace blue paisley scarf likely ever seen by the residents of the poor South Chicago neighborhood where the scene is about to be shot. The two-tone blue-and-white shoes on his feet complete the look.

He justifies his character's apparel, saying that he's a "sharpie, he's just starting to make money." Before the camera rolls, however, he stuffs as much of the scarf as he can under the trenchcoat.

At work, Pantoliano is focused, quiet, at times almost brooding. He becomes a bit edgier in talking to people if he is distracted before he is about to do a scene, as if he is collecting the right amount of tension needed for the shoot.

"Action!" yells director Paul Haggis, and actor Jason Gedrick, whose character has made it out of the Irish gang, is sitting on the front stoop of a house. He gets up, walks to the street and starts to cross when he is intercepted by a black Lincoln Town Car. Pantoliano is the driver.

The camera cranes down as Pantoliano begins the process of luring Gedrick back into the fold. "Feel like breakfast?" he asks. Gedrick gets in and they drive off while the camera zooms back to a street sign that should read "Elm Street," but has been altered by graffiti to read "EZ Street." It's the show's closing shot.

"Cut! Print! Perfect!" yells Haggis. Seemingly oblivious to what he just said, the director shouts, "One more." The scene takes all of 90 seconds, and six takes later Joey Pants steps out of the car and self-mockingly shouts, "Makeup!" to no one in particular. It's like letting out a big breath. In a matter of minutes he is back in the makeup trailer, then in the van to the hotel. Pantoliano asks the driver if he smokes cigars.

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