I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to do a post on Joe Pesci (let alone Frank Vincent) if I hadn’t learned about their wonderful early years. After all, to date, I have not yet done dedicated posts on Martin Scorsese or Robert De Niro, or, say, The Sopranos, which I have been known on occasion to call “the best show in the history of television”. It’s far from a lack of appreciation, it’s more a question of priorities. The raison d’etre for this blog is show business and/or the connections between live theatre and its successor media of film, video, television, and the recording arts. For the most part. Fortunately, this bus is headed in that direction.
Before they were screen actors Pesci (b. 1943) and Vincent (1937-2017) were musicians, and then comedians. Both guys grew up in New Jersey, Like Perry Como, Pesci started out as a barber, a trade he learned from his mother. But from the age of five, he also acted and sang. He was only ten when he appeared on the talent show Star Time Kids, which also discovered Connie Francis and ventriloquist Angela Martin (whom we wrote about just a few days ago). As a teenager he was friends with the guys who became the hugely successful vocal group Frankie Valli and the The Four Seasons; he is said to have been key in introducing the members of the group to one another. As a guitarist he became a member of Joey Dee and the Starliters, house band of the Peppermint Lounge, which we wrote about here. He also released the 1968 album Little Joe Sure Can Sing! on Brunswick Records.
In 1969, Pesci answered an ad to join the band Frank Vincent and the Aristocrats. Vincent played drums, trumpet, and piano, and backed popular singers like Paul Anka and Del Shannon. But their style of music was passe by this time. These guys were not hippies by a long stretch. Instead, the pair of them organically morphed into a comedy two act, described as a kind of mash-up of Abbott and Costello and Don Rickles, which they booked into nightclubs from 1970 to 1976. In 1975 they were part of Roy Radin’s new vaudeville revue (thereby hangs a very juicy tale which we will be blogging about ere long). They released some music/comedy singles as Vincent and Pesci, including a funky instrumental tune called “Little People Blues”, and the comical “Can You Change the Way I Talk for Christmas?” in which Vincent plays Santa and Pesci is…wait for it…Porky Pig! And he nails it! I can’t tell you how much delight this knowledge fills me with. Both their musical background and their comedy background reminds me mightily of the Providence entertainment scene my brother was immersed in at the same time. This stuff is close to home.
Even closer to home! In 1976, Pesci and Vincent were featured in the movie The Death Collector a.k.a The Family Enforcer that also features in a prominent role actor Lou Criscuolo. Big Lou’s son Michael is a good friend of mine; I acted with him numerous times at the Brick years ago, somehow without ever knowing about this crucial movie! At any rate, it was this low-budget flick that put Pesci and Vincent onto the radar of De Niro and Scorsese, and got them both cast in Raging Bull (1980), which then led to huge careers for both of them, with Scorsese and without. After this we tend to think of De Niro and Pesci as the comical pairing. When Vincent and Pesci appear on screen together it’s usually so Pesci can beat Vincent to death. “Get ya fuckin’ shine box!” The two next appeared together in the German film Dear Mr. Wonderful (1982), though its the Scorsese films Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) that are best known.
Separately, Pesci had the much more significant career: for two decades he was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Outside the Scorsese-verse he is best known for the Home Alone movies, the Lethal Weapon films, and My Cousin Vinnie (1992), in addition to Easy Money (1983) with Rodney Dangerfield, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), the TV series Half Nelson (1985), Betsy’s Wedding (1990), The Super (1991), JFK (1992, in which he played David Ferrie, a role I also played a few years ago), A Bronx Tale (1993) and Jimmy Hollywood (1994). He retired after Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), saying he was tired of playing the same kinds of stereotyped “goombah” roles. Who could blame him? But he was persuaded to return to acting on a few occasions. He was in De Niro’s The Good Shepherd (2006), the whorehouse bio-pic Love Ranch (2010) with Helen Mirren, and Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019)
If he hadn’t passed away in 2017 at the age of 80, it’s likely Frank Vincent would have been in The Irishman as well, seeing as how it was a reunion of sorts for most of the principals. Vincent also enjoyed a stellar career over the decades, although he was more of a supporting player. Spike Lee gave him key roles in Do the Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991). Unlike Pesci, Vincent was more than happy to play mob parts, as he did in most of his movies. He’s in the early John Sayles’ movie Baby It’s You (1983) as well as The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), Wise Guys (1986), Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), Michael Corrente’s’ Providence-set Federal Hill (1994), Ten Benny (1995), Edward Burns’ She’s the One (1996), Gotti (1996), Sidney Lumet’s Night Falls in Manhattan (1996), Cop Land (1997), Witness to the Mob (1998), The Crew (2000), Smokin’ Stogies (2001), This Thing of Ours (2003), and 31 episodes of The Sopranos (2004-2007), among lots of other stuff. His last film was The Killer’s Kiss (2018), released posthumously.
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To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous