When former Saturday Night Live cast member Tony Rosato (b. 1954) died in early January 2017, I recall observing it on social media, but not here. A split second of reflection jogged my memory as to why. Our minds were otherwise occupied back then — Voldemort was to take the oath of office ten days later. Show biz news felt trivial by comparison; in this way do “rabble-rousers” who are meant to “shake things up” have millions of unexpected negative ripples through culture and society, not that what decisions are made on some frivolous blog are of any consequence in the larger scheme.
But I post about Rosato today (he was a Boxing Day baby) because I am one of the few (the few Americans, anyway) who are precisely the right age to have a vivid memory of him. Rosato was one of Dick Ebersol’s first hires in his bid to pull SNL out of its disastrous season six tailspin. He was in the cast for the last episode of season six, and for all of season seven. His hiring, like that of fellow Second City alums Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky, Mary Gross, and the returning Brian Doyle-Murray, was patently an effort to get SNL “back on track”. And though the writing on the show did not snap back into place for a long time, the improved cast (which also featured season six holdovers Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo) did start to lure audiences back.
Though only on the show for a year, Rosato had a niche that worked to his advantage. Just as Charles Rocket had been promoted as “the new Chevy Chase“, Rosato was clearly Belushi-esque. A long-haired, stout Mediterranean guy with a charming smile, a little gruff and working class. He was in fact, the first SNL cast member not to have been born in North America; his family moved from Naples to Canada when he was four. He’d gotten pulled into Second City Toronto while studying to be a chiropractor, and, along with Robin Duke, had been an SCTV cast member briefly before being scouted for SNL. As I recall, if there was a plumber or a cop or a cab driver in a sketch, Rosato would be the natural guy to play him. I recall him playing Ed Asner as Lou Grant, and Danny Thomas. Shaggy locks notwithstanding, Rosato didn’t come across as a hippie like the original SNL cast members, though. There was something about him that was of a piece with the show’s reactionary, timid new tone. When you thought of Belushi, you didn’t think “he’s the Albanian guy”. I mean, sometimes that occurred to you, but only as a qualifier, for above all he was an “Albanian WILD MAN”. Rosato, however, was something far more conventional: an Italian-American comedian. By the early ’80s, after a decade of Fonzarelli, Barbarino, Tuscadero etc etc etc not to mention age old, retro examples like Lou Costello (whom Rosato portrayed in sketches) this was hardly cutting edge. In fact, after making the career destroying mistake of leaving SNL in 1982, Rosato’s best known credit is voicing Luigi in various Super Mario Brothers projects. This is Chico Marx stuff: a real gas in 1910, 1920, and 1930, getting old by 1940, and “okay, whatever” in 1990.
The backsliding of Rosato’s career was gradual. In 1983 he was a regular on Beatrice Arthur’s short-lived sitcom Amanda’s on ABC. By 1985 he had returned to Canada, where he had a recurring role on the cop show Night Heat (which also aired in America on CBS) through 1989. After that, it was mostly voice-over work.
In 2005 Rosato began to make the news again, in a less fortunate way. He started to imagine that his new wife and infant daughter were imposters, and started to become a danger to them and to himself. This seems to have been the result of mental illness, not drugs. He had trouble with the law, spent some time in lock-up, and then was sent to a mental hospital for a while. After about a decade he began to get roles again. His last part was in the 2017 film Born Dead. A heart attack at the beginning of that year proved fatal. He was 62.
To learn more about the variety arts, including TV variety shows like SCTV and Saturday Night Live which gave us Tony Rosato, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,