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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

(continued from page 4)

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 [1979] 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!"

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