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.
"Yeah, I'm starting to get into them," the driver says, as he negotiates the turn into the hotel.
"Here," Pantoliano says, reaching into his shoulder bag and pulling out a Fuente "Havana Blend" cigar. "This was made especially for my club. Only 500 boxes were made. It costs $12."
Pantoliano's appreciation and knowledge of cigars, and his use of them as props in his films, has helped him create a wonderful world. He is not only a recognized celebrity among cigar people; he is also the vice president and a partner of the Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills, one of L.A.'s hottest private cigar clubs. A friend of his in the restaurant business, who had just sold his place to L.A.-based United Restaurants, told Pantoliano that the company was opening a new restaurant in Beverly Hills and was considering reserving an upstairs banquet room for cigar smoking. Pantoliano hooked up with Harry Shuster and his son, Stan, owners of a Los Angeles restaurant company.
"Now, selfishly, all I wanted was a place where I could go and smoke a cigar," Pantoliano recalls, noting that most of Los Angeles is a strict no-smoking zone. As the business talks moved along in July 1994, Pantoliano became more taken with the notion of a cigar club. "Everything would be honoring the cigar. Great cigars. The best cigars that money can buy, legally," he says, while taking a puff on an Arturo Fuente Opus X. "And alcohol that complements that and food that complements that and atmosphere that complements that."
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  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!"
The agent who had advised Pantoliano to turn down the TV series now told him that the weird-waiter gig had to end and, to his credit, loaned him $10,000 to live on. Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner loaned him the money he needed to pay his taxes that year. Pantoliano has come a long way since those days.
"My responsibility is to my family first and my career second. Fortunately, God has been very good to me and I have a good career and a nice family." This is Pantoliano's second marriage; he and his wife, actress-model Nancy Sheppard, have 10-year-old Melody, Sheppard's daughter from her first marriage, and four-year-old Daniella, the couple's child together, living with them. Pantoliano likes to say that he is "the biggest baby of all" and that he still "needs to work at being responsible."
"I think everybody would agree," Sheppard says with a laugh. "He's a big kid. He is always fooling around and kidding with the kids. He's the first one to get into wrestling matches with the kids and tickle fights and things like that. Also, he has a short attention span. We'll be at a dinner party and he thinks nothing of going over to the couch and falling asleep if he's done. Very much like a child would do. But he's a lot of fun. He just loves to have fun. He loves to tell jokes. He's usually the center of attention at functions that we go to. He's just a big kid."
Sheppard adds that Pantoliano is a great family man who benefits from being away on acting jobs because "it definitely gives him a retreat if he needs it," although, she adds, "he loves the kids and he doesn't get tired of them then."
Pantoliano also has a teenage son, Marco, who lives with his first wife in Seattle and spends summers with his father in Los Angeles. It was an incident involving Marco that changed Pantoliano's drinking habits.
"I've always loved wine," he says, "and wine was my downfall. I went to a party a couple of years ago and I got drunk. My son was really upset with me. He called me a drunk. I realized how badly I was hurting him and I said, 'Fuck this. I'm not gonna do this to my kid.'" Pantoliano, who says he used to be a "happy drunk," now generally drinks mineral water when he goes out. "It got to a point where it was getting the best of me, so I stopped."
T he essence of the Joey Pants persona--life is fun--is seen in action in Chicago. There he is a big star. Blackhawks owner Peter Wertz leaves him hockey tickets at the hotel and invites him to brunch before a Sunday game. When in town, Pantoliano tries to make it to all of the Bulls' battles. He gets special prices at some of the city's jewelry dealers. So many of his movies have been set in Chicago that the city has basically adopted him, and one group, the Chicago Historical Film Society, made him an honorary member last year.
"They brought me to Chicago," Pantoliano says proudly. "Everybody thinks I'm from Chicago. It's funny."
After a Thursday night out at the Chicago clubs, Pantoliano has breakfast at a coffee shop near his hotel. The waitress asks if he wants "the usual." He nods and she brings a large bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon, bananas, skim milk and, uniquely, poached egg whites on the bottom. After breakfast, Pantoliano passes up a run along the lake because it is too cold; instead, he's off to visit his friend and cigar guru, Joe Howe, who runs Jack Schwartz Importers, a tobacco shop next door to the stress unit of a cardiac hospital and across the street from the Chicago Board of Trade. Pantoliano met Howe while filming the 1994 comedy Baby's Day Out. During their down time, Pantoliano and co-stars Brian Haley and Joe Mantegna would tour the city's tobacconists.
"Joey Pants!" the cry goes up from the staff. It's not that he is special here; everyone who is known at the shop is greeted as enthusiastically (as well as bade farewell with, "We love you!"). Pantoliano is comfortable here. He walks into the humidor and picks out a Davidoff for a morning smoke. Howe is explaining that today is "jacket day" at the store--meaning the staff wears jackets similar to those of the traders across the street--but that for some customers it's always "super high-pressure sales" day. This amuses Pantoliano. Howe proceeds to ask one of the traders how much money he has in his pocket.
"Which pocket?" the trader responds.
"I gotta go right pocket," Howe says, but points to the left one. "No, no. Left pocket."
The trader grins broadly and pulls out a money clip jammed full of bills. Howe grabs it and counts. "Two hundred fifty-one dollars. What do you want to buy?" he asks, apathetic to the answer. "I'm selling you a box of Davidoff No. 2s." The trader smiles and likens the episode to an assault. Laughter erupts when the trader reveals that in his right pocket, the one not picked, is a much larger wad of money.
Howe and Pantoliano like to do shtick together. Howe thinks Pantoliano likes being in Chicago because he is recognized there. "He's Guido the Killer Pimp here," Howe says, as he shows an invitation announcing Pantoliano as the guest of honor at a $100 cigar dinner. "Everybody in Chicago knows him. They like him. I think one of the things about Joey is he brings a lot of fun." There's a twinkle in Howe's Irish eyes as he takes a turn. "Now, I can't say how cheap he is. Jerry," he says to one of the traders, "you're going to have to say that for me."
"You mean, a cheap [vulgar word for someone who performs oral sex on men]? A cheap [the same unprintable word modified by an ethnic slur against Italians]," Jerry, who's having a bad day in T-bills, jokes.
"He's thrifty," Howe says.
"He cracks me up," Pantoliano says, enjoying his friend.
Here, in our movie, the camera would pull back one last time from Pantoliano to show everyone in the tobacco shop sharing a laugh. Life is just right. Pantoliano is smiling and puffing his morning cigar while sipping cappuccino from down the street, having brought enough coffee and biscotti for everyone. The script would say that the last shot would be full of meaning, showing that Pantoliano has never forgotten his history and the ambition it provided, but that he understands he is far from the welfare rolls and turmoil of growing up in Hoboken. Joey Pants has worked hard to create this world, full of riches, full of fantasy, full of more good things to come.
Time of your life, huh kid?
Alejandro Benes is a journalist in Washington, D.C.