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Actor Joe Pantoliano

Actor Joe Pantoliano plays Ralph Cifaretto on the HBO series The Sopranos. He has appeared in more than 60 films, including Memento, The Matrix and The Fugitive. He has a new memoir called Who's Sorry Now: The True Story of a Stand-Up Guy (E. P. Dutton). Pantoliano talks about growing up in Hoboken, N.J., and his acting career.

44:15

Other segments from the episode on October 1, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 1, 2002: Interview with Joe Pantoliano; Commentary on language.

Transcript

DATE October 1, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

00 Mr. JOE PANTOLIANO: (As Ralph Cifaretto) I ever tell you about the time I
had a Harley.

Mr. ROBERT ILER: (As Anthony) Oh, cool.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: (As Ralph Cifaretto) '74 Shovel Head. I could blow off
Porsches on that thing.

"MATT": Not my dad's Boxster.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: (As Ralph Cifaretto) What's your name?

"MATT": Matt.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: (As Ralph Cifaretto) Matt, no offense, but your dad's
Boxster is a Porsche with panties.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PANTOLIANO: (As Ralph Cifaretto) Yeah, he knows what I'm saying. I mean,
that's for the Hamptons, the Boxster. I'm talking Turbo Carrera. One time,
I'm alongside this Turbo with doctored plates. We come off the line. He's
got the big Jew grin. You're not Jewish are you, Matt?

"MATT": Half.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: (As Ralph Cifaretto) Anyway, he knows it's all in fun. We
hit the intersection, Passaic Avenue and New Dutch Lane, we're doing
110--Boom!--right through the light. He wasn't grinning then, boys. I looked
back, he's white as false teeth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ILER: (As Anthony) Jason Menjolie's(ph) parents let him get a YZ 250.

Ms. EDIE FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) You get on that bike, I will cut your
legs before the bike does.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: (As Ralph Cifaretto) I had the high handle bars, you know.

Mr. JAMES GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Hey, Stern(ph), don't you got
somewhere to be?

GROSS: Joe Pantoliano, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Thank you.

GROSS: Right now on "The Sopranos," nearly everyone has a reason they want
you dead. What are the odds you're going to survive this season?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Well, I can't be an oddsmaker because I would tip my hand,
but I feel quite confident that things are going to turn out just the way
they're supposed to.

GROSS: Oh, well, that's a cagey way of putting it. I'm thinking maybe you're
a little too popular now to be knocked off.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Well, wouldn't that be nice?

GROSS: So when...

Mr. PANTOLIANO: I think--I tend to agree with you.

GROSS: Now in this week's episode of "The Sopranos," you're kicked down the
stairs by Janice, played by Aida (pronounced Ida) Turturro. Did you have a
stunt dou...

Mr. PANTOLIANO: It's Aida (pronounced eye-E-da).

GROSS: Aida (pronounced eye-E-da)?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: It's Aida (pronounced eye-E-da).

GROSS: Did you have stunt double for that, or did that hurt like heck?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: I had a stunt double. And that was one of my favorite scenes
this season. It was very comical, I thought.

GROSS: Well, speaking of comical, there's a pretty kinky sex scene with you
and Aida Turturro before that.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: I call it the love scene. What I like about these scenes,
it's revealing something about the dy...

GROSS: The dynamics between the characters?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: ...the dynamics of these characters and what...

GROSS: He gives abuse and he likes taking it in bed.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah. But not only does he like it, I think that he needs to
be abused in order to achieve a climax.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Ralphie, your character, is not a good man. You have to see
things from his--through his eyes.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Uh-huh.

GROSS: Let's go back to the scene in which you beat your pregnant girlfriend
to death. Talk about that scene from Ralphie's eyes.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Well, I would first tell you that I don't think there's
anybody on this show who's a good man. I wouldn't say that Tony Soprano is a
good man. I think Ralphie is the rottenest apple in the barrel. And what I
discovered in playing this part, Ralphie has only performed violence in the
show twice. In season three, he beat up the waste management guy, but he
taunted him until the guy actually physically tried to beat him up with a
baseball bat and then Ralphie beats him up. With Tracy, his
girlfriend-hooker-junkie-lover, he actually taunted her to the point where she
threw the first blow, which then gave him permission to do violence on her.

And I just think that nobody is brought onto this Earth bad. Something has to
happen along the way; psychosis, abuse, what have you. I mean, I would
imagine that Adolf Hitler was probably a nice little kid at five years old,
but something drove him to the point of becoming a dictator and murderer in
the same fashion that that would affect a guy like Ralphie. And I think that
"The Sopranos" maybe is going to investigate what drove a person like this
to--How does Ralphie turn out to be Ralphie?

GROSS: So you think, like in this scene where he beats his girlfriend, he's
thinking, `She's making me do this because of her behavior'?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Well, I think--his defense was, `What's the big deal?" I
mean, with Johnny Sack and you know, he said, like, `What's the big deal? A,
she was a whore (pronounced who-or). B, she hit me. What was I supposed to
do? I was going to let her hit me, go back--if I let her hit me and it gets
out'--I'm talking as Ralphie now.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: `And I go back into the Bing and these guys know that this
hooker just smacked me in the mouth, how long would I last on the streets?'
How long would a guy like Ralphie last before somebody clipped him? That's
the life.

GROSS: Now do you think of Ralphie as having a conscience? Like after the
fact, does he feel bad about it?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: I think he felt bad about--I mean, whereas Tony Soprano was
angry that he disrespected the Bing, that he did it on his property, you know,
he was upset, but they didn't do much. They put the girl in a plastic bag and
dumped her in the river somewhere. You know, it was a pretty heart-wrenching
violent situation, but I've said this before in interviews; that I think that
the most violent thing I've ever seen on "The Sopranos" was season two, when
Tony and the boys extort the guy who has the sporting goods store and
basically rape him over a series of months and months and months until there's
nothing left.

GROSS: Right. Can you talk a little bit about the difference between your
voice when you're speaking as Joe Pantoliano and your voice when you're
speaking as Ralphie?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: You know, when I start working on a character, usually by the
third, fourth, fifth week, I feel like I wish I could start all over again,
because I'm just starting to find him and getting to know him. And I don't
know how Ralph evolved. When David Chase called me up and asked me to do
Ralphie, basically, it was kind of a genius moment for me in a career that
I've really grown to be proud of. But he called me up and he said, `Listen,
we have a new character. He's going to be a really bad guy, but they're all
bad guys. And he's going to be funny and charming and eventually become a
stone in Tony's shoe.' I hadn't read a word of dialogue, and I agreed to be
committed to this thing without ever reading anything. And then David started
sending the scripts, you know, on a weekly basis, and he's never disappointed
me.

And the character--I think that the writers get a kick out of putting Ralph in
situations, but I certainly get a great kick out of playing him. I mean, if
Chase was Shakespeare, you know, he's up there with some of the great villains
that Shakespeare's created, Ralph is, I think.

GROSS: But can you talk literally about your voice, about the accent that you
use, the placement of your voice, the whole sound of it when you're talking as
Ralph as opposed to when you're talking as yourself?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: You know, I don't really--that's not something I've ever
worked on. I just--I'm around those guys. It's funny. We stopped shooting
this thing two months ago, and I've already lost, like, 15 pounds because
there's so much food being consumed on "The Sopranos." It's almost like...

GROSS: On the set.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah. On the set, off the set, craft service. It's food,
food, food, food, food. One time, somebody said, `Do you think that "The
Sopranos" typecasts Italian-Americans as villains?' I said, `I think it
stereotypes Italian-Americans as overeaters.'

But when I put on the Ralphie clothes, it just kind of--it's like an old pair
of shoes. And the clothes kind of take over, and the next thing you know, he
has a whole different sound. But it's not something I ever consciously worked
on.

GROSS: Now your new memoir, "Who's Sorry Now," is about your coming of age.
And although you're not from a Mafia family and your family is nothing like
"The Sopranos," you weren't unfamiliar with crime when you were growing up,
and neither was the rest of your family.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did they know about that, the people at "The Sopranos"? Did they know
about that when they asked you to be in the cast?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: No, not at all. David Chase knew me from 1979 when I did
"From Here to Eternity," the remake of the novel, and I played Maggio. And he
had seen me in that, and was interested in putting me in a pilot that was kind
of a spinoff when he was working on "The Rockford Files." I didn't get the
job, and I saw him infrequently over the years through a mutual friend. And
then he called me and I was available to come, and that's how it happened.
But there was never any kind of flushing out or interviews or `Tell me about
where you came from,' background. I don't think, to my knowledge, that he had
even an idea that I was from New Jersey.

GROSS: Well, in fact, you're from Hoboken, New Jersey.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah.

GROSS: And you write about Hoboken a lot in your new memoir. Describe a
little bit about what Hoboken was like when you were growing up. You grew up
in the '50s and early '60s.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: I think Hoboken has a mystique about it. When I write about
Hoboken, I tried very much to make it its own character, like some of my aunts
and uncles and cousins. And there was a tremendous pride being from there.
And if you go to Hoboken now, it's all gentrified and upwardly mobile, and you
really need to have some money to be able to afford--to own any property
there.

But I remember all the bars and all the social clubs. And the social clubs
stemmed from the ability to save money. Most of the people--I'd say 85
percent of the people that live in Hoboken--were blue-collar and longshoremen,
truck drivers, factory workers. But I remember that the social clubs were a
way to get around the liquor license laws. Because if you had a social club,
you could open up the storefront, you didn't need to have a liquor license,
you could sell the alcohol at its cost. So you paid, like, an $8 monthly dues
fee. The bartenders would, you know, rotate around the membership, and it was
a way for a guy to get a nickel beer instead of paying 10 cents.

GROSS: Thank you. I never really quite understood the social clubs before.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah.

GROSS: Thank you. Now tell us what your mother and father did for a living.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Well, Daddy worked at Standard Brands up until 1962 when he
had a heart attack. Mommy...

GROSS: At Standard Brands?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: At Standard Brands in Hoboken, New Jersey, which is now
called the Lipton Tea Building. It's actually high-rise apartments.

And Mom--she worked at her father's seamstress shop. She was a sewer and
she--I remember we would do patches--she would do piecework. They would cut
the sergeant patches and corporal patches off of a whole sheet of material,
and then she'd get X amount of cents for each piece that she cut. When we
went down to the shore, for a time she acted as a bookie, working for a local
bookie in the area, and that way she could make $4 or $5 a week and enable us
to stay down the shore for the summer. I worked for her. I was a runner.
She would give me the receipts and the money, and I'd go down to the bakery on
the way to the swimming pool and give them their money.

And one of the reasons why I wanted to tell this story is in my culture, that
is the culture of a New Jersey kid growing up--and I've started to see movies
like "The Godfather," or I read books like "The Fortunate Pilgrim"--the women
for me were always in the background of these assertive strong men. And my
feeling was was that the women in my life were much more assertive than the
men. And it's the idea that, you know, "Who's Sorry Now" is taken from the
song that my mother would sing, the Connie Francis song that my mother would
sing, when she would get the men in her life to blow their stack. She would
needle them to the point where they would blow their stack.

And I wrote a screenplay, first, based on my life called "Just Like Mona."
And the point that I was making in that--and I hope that that's the
point--that it took me 45 years to realize that I am just like my mother, that
the strengths that I have and the tenacity that I was born with or inherited
was from her, not from the men in my life.

GROSS: My guest is actor Joe Pantoliano. His new memoir is called "Who's
Sorry Now." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Woke Up This Morning")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Woke up this morning, got yourself a gun. Mamma
always said you'd be the chosen one. She said, `You're one in a million and
you've got to burn to shine, but you were born under a bad sign with a blue
moon in your eyes.'

Woke up this morning...

GROSS: My guest is actor Joe Pantoliano. He plays Ralphie on "The Sopranos."
He has a new memoir called "Who's Sorry Now," about growing up in Hoboken.
When we left off, he was telling us about his mother.

Well, let's talk about her some more. You say you, you know, were a numbers
runner for her. She loved to gamble. What are some of the things she gambled
on, and what's the most she ever won or lost?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Oh, my mother loved bingo. My mother could play 16 cards. I
had my Aunt Tilly who played 18 cards. That's a lot. My mother would walk to
bingo with a bag filled with pennies, probably weighed about eight pounds, and
she would bet on the numbers, you know, the handle, the mutual handle, the
money that was handled every day at the racetrack. She didn't play the--she
played the daily double, but she would pick horses by the colors that they
wore.

In the culture that I came up in--it was a immigrant culture, and people
thought that if they could hit the number or if they could hit a horse, that
was they way for them to get out of the rat race. You see that today where
people are playing the lotto day in and day out.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. Now when she recruited you when you were a kid to run
numbers for her, did you ever think to yourself, `How could she do this to me?
This is illegal. This is the kind of thing we could get busted for'?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: No. I mean, it was so simple. `Take this down to the
store.' It was done ever so lightly. You know, with cousin Floriee--before he
died several years--he was older now, 75, 76, and starting to become frail
from emphysema. You know, tobacco killed my entire family; my father from
lung cancer, my mother from several strokes and a heart attack and Floriee from
emphysema. But Florie, one time, was telling me that when he was a kid at,
like, 11 years old, he was delivering heroin, that his grandmother and father
and uncle would cut heroin on their dining room table and they would stick
cotton swabs in their nose as to not get the fumes from the heroin. And then
Florie put it in little brown vials, glass vials, with a cork. And he would go
down Maude Street(ph) and Hester Street and deliver it. And at that point,
that wasn't illegal. In 1922, heroin and cocaine was still legal sale.

GROSS: Well, you mentioned your cousin Florie. He was your mother's third
cousin, and then later in life, became your mother's lover and your
stepfather, or perhaps father. When you were--I don't know--about 12 maybe,
your mother said to you...

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...`Your father. He's not really your father. Cousin Florie's your
father.'

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah.

GROSS: Was cousin Florie really your father? Did you ever...

Mr. PANTOLIANO: I don't think so. I think although he was a father figure
to me--somebody asked me this question recently and said, `Why haven't you
ever done DNA to find out for sure?' And the truth is is that I was blessed
with two fathers, and that this man, Florio, came into my life just at the
right time when I was just about to fall off the edge of the table, and he was
there to catch me. And he saw in me innocence and a future that was robbed
from him. He was born into a lifestyle that he never had a chance,
especially...

GROSS: Well, he did a lot of time in a federal penitentiary.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: He spent, combined time, over 21 years of his life he spent
inside federal penitentiaries. So, you know, he got out of the life at 51
years old, and so he spent the last 20--What?--seven years of his life outside
prison working as a working stiff, driving a truck, whatever it took to
provide for the family that he chose.

GROSS: What did he do to land him in the pen?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Well, the last one was heroin trafficking, but he did a
variety of things, counterfeiting, hijacking. You know, in doing the research
for doing the book, I tried to find his papers. I called the FBI and tried to
get his rap sheet, but it's gone too far back. It's too old.

GROSS: So here's this guy who was, you know, selling heroin and hijacking
trucks, etc., etc., and he's the guy who prevented you from falling off the
edge. What did he do for you? What was going wrong in your life, and how did
he help you?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Well, you know, when Mommy said that Florie--cousin Florie was
my real dad, I think she did that to protect herself, because she was riddled
with guilt about taking Florie over Daddy. And she was afraid--and, you know,
looking back now, that she was afraid that I was going to take Daddy's side,
and it was really important for her to be the victim of this. When I talk to
my cousin Antoinette(ph)--and I reflect on that in the end of the book--when
Antoinette said several days before Mommy died, or weeks, she said that she
was wrong for doing what she did to Monk. And...

GROSS: Monk's the name of your father.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah, my father was Monk. Dominic "Monk" Pantoliano.

But Florie really loved me. And he really wanted the best for me to the point
where he threatened me if I did something wrong, that there would be serious,
serious repercussions, and I believed him.

GROSS: And you hadn't had that before. You hadn't anybody who cared
enough...

Mr. PANTOLIANO: I never had--by that point, teachers had written me off, my
parents were afraid. You see, my Mommy and Daddy were afraid to go out and
reach out and grab at the gold coin. They wanted the best for me, but they
didn't want me to be so ambitious, because they felt that I'd be hurt. Who
was I to think that I was entitled to be an actor? You know, that wasn't
there for us or our kind. And I think a lot of my family members felt that
way and frightened. Mommy didn't want me--you know, what were people going to
say that I was going to move to New York as a single male at 19 years old? I
mean--and they were also really superstitious about all of that stuff.

So Florie kept saying, `Don't worry about it. Do this. You got to do this.
Go.' He found an actor and he introduced me to him, and they took me down to
HB Studios and I met Herbert Bergoff. And I was still in high school when I
started studying acting.

GROSS: Joe Pantoliano. He plays Ralphie on "The Sopranos." His new memoir
is called "Who's Sorry Now." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Who's Sorry Now")

Ms. CONNIE FRANCIS: (Singing) Who's sorry now? Who's sorry now? Who's heart
is aching for breaking each...

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with actor Joe Pantoliano.
And linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the mispronunciation of `nuclear'
(pronounced as nuke-lee-ur) `nuclear' (pronounced new-Q-lur).

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with actor Joe Pantoliano.
He plays Ralphie on "The Sopranos." He's appeared in over 60 films, including
"Risky Business," "The Matrix" and "Memento." He has a new memoir about
growing up in Hoboken with his mother, who was a part-time bookie, his father,
who was a gambler, and his stepfather, Florie, who was also his mother's third
cousin. Florie spent 21 years in federal penitentiaries.

How connected was your cousin Florie--or your stepfather Florie?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Well, Florie was never made. He was never indoctrinated into
the organization known as Cosa Nostra. But he was--Bilidino Morano(ph), who I
talk about in the book, was my great-uncle. He was a descendant of the
Genovese family. Mommy and Uncle Pete used to run the Italian lottery.
That's what Grandpa Gus, Dopey Gus, my grandfather--he organized that, and
that was Vito sanctioned. So Uncle Pete and Mommy would have to take the
money from the Italian lottery to Vito when Vito was a young man. So they all
loved Vito and Vito was a part of their lives. He would go down the shore
with them. And Florie was being groomed to be in that.

Joe King was a mentor of Florio's, and I remember meeting Joe King when Florie
came home from prison. And Florie loved him like a father. Florie also had a
father that--Joe Isabella, Joseph Isabella, who had become a user of the same
poison that he was selling on the street, heroin, and he died a junkie. So
Florie had really strong issues about the use of it. And, you know, I
didn't--as a young adult, I was totally conflicted by what he had done, but I
would never have the courage to confront him on it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Because your stepfather Florie was pretty connected, although
he wasn't a made man, and you knew that he'd spent time in the pen, you knew
he did a lot of crimes, were you in awe of his status in the crime world, or
was that an embarrassment for you? I mean, how did you feel about that?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: No, it had serious cachet in the neighborhood to have a guy
who was a known wise guy from New York. I mean, New York City? It was a big
deal. People would whisper, and the kids in the neighborhood treated you with
respect. It was like having an athlete, you know, or a movie star staying
over your house.

GROSS: How much did you want to know about what he'd really done?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Nothing. He never brought it home. We didn't know. He was
in it very shortly. You know, in the book, I describe when they got
arrested--Mommy, my sister Mary Ann and Florie--that Sunday afternoon. And it
was at that point where we had moved out of the projects, we had moved off of
welfare, we were living in Ft. Lee. He had spent $10,000 in cash on
furnishing this new apartment, and he was waiting to work a deal with his
cousins, who were in the gas station business, that he wanted to get that
money. He had 40,000 in cash. In '60--What?--'4 or '5, that was a lot of
money. And while he was waiting to start a life with that money, he lost it
all at the track. He'd go to the Big A every day, and within four or five
months, we were broke again. We were back in the same situation, this time
with a lot of fancy furniture.

GROSS: Now what was your involvement with crime?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Mine was on the sidelines. You know, I talk about the guys
robbing the trains, but I was always the aftermath. You know, I was on the
other side of the fence, you know, 'cause I was a kid. You know, then, I was
about 11 or 12, so the teen-ager guys were doing it, and then we would help
sell it door-to-door, like Girl Scout cookies. You know, we'd have--whether
it was soap or coffee, whatever, or socks, whatever they were getting. And it
was a way of doing commerce in my town. I didn't know what it was like to go
to a supermarket. Everything was small in Hoboken, little storefronts. And
we never went to a clothing store to buy clothing. Everything was bought out
of the trunk of a car.

GROSS: Now in your memoir, you describe how your mother fought with your
father all the time, lots of four-letter words when they were fighting. No
one was going to think about protecting you from that language. And then when
your mother lived with your stepfather, again, lots of big fights. Did you
have any sense that two people could live together and actually get along
without fighting all the time?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: No. In fact--I mean, after 15 years of therapy, I didn't
want to be attached to a girl. I mean, during high school, I never had a
girlfriend, and I didn't go to the prom when I graduated. And the only reason
why I graduated high school was I thought that I'd be around my mother less
that way. At least I didn't have to deal with her until 3:30 or 4 in the
afternoon. And, in fact, by then, I started working when I was 12 years old.
I worked at my uncle's stations, gas station, and then I worked at the A&P.
And then when I moved to New York, I was a waiter. And I always had a job.

But I thought that all women were like my mother, and I would expect them to
turn into that. I'm still waiting for my wife to turn into my mother. I've
got one of the sweetest, kindest wives, my wife, Nancy. We've been together
13 years. When I married her, I thought, `Well, now that we're married, she's
going to turn into my mother.' You know, I'm still waiting for the other shoe
to fall.

GROSS: This is...

Mr. PANTOLIANO: And she hasn't yet.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: And I'm surrounded by women, Terry. Everyone. I have three
daughters, a nanny. I have my wife Nancy. The cats are female. And the only
male is Abbott, my dog, and me, and we've both been neutered. My wife had me
fixed two years ago, and Abbott was fixed eight years ago.

GROSS: Well, you know, you say in your book that because you were a fat kid
and on the short side, you were a real target for abuse from the other kids.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So sometimes you would, like, entertain them, and that would prevent
them from beating you up. And sometimes when you got beaten up, your mother
would insist on you telling her who was responsible for it, and she'd go after
them, which was really embarrassing for you.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah. I mean, she just took over. You know, it's kind of
hard to come home when your shirt's all torn up and your nose is bleeding and
you've got a big black eye, and she's going, `What happened?' `Nothing.'
`Don't tell me nothing, you son of a bitch! Get over here!' And she'd grab
one of my friends and put them up against the wall like, you know, James
Cagney. `Tell me who did this!' Right? And then she'd go down with a stick,
you know, the broomstick, and just whack the hell out of the kid. And then,
you know...

GROSS: Was it embarrassing or what?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: It was horrifying. It was humiliating. And, you know, she
was like a battle-ax. I mean, she was this big steam engine. She wasn't
afraid of anybody.

GROSS: Joe Pantoliano is my guest, and he's now starring in "The Sopranos."
He has a new memoir called "Who's Sorry Now."

Now when you were growing up, school was really hard. You didn't do very well
in school, and you had an undiagnosed case of dyslexia, which was diagnosed
later, so that explains why reading was so difficult. When did you end up
getting it diagnosed?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Well, I never got it diagnosed. It was just assumed that it
was dyslexia because of the way I was spelling things and the fact that--I
mean--presently, when I was 18 years old--see, I'd been left back three times.
When I was a kid in the Hoboken school system, there was six-month graduating
terms, like 1A, 1B; 2A, 2B. When I was in the third grade, I was in 3A, and
then they said, `Well, we're just going to combine it to yearly graduations
going on to the next class.' So then I got skipped six months. So by then I
was really screwed up. I was already behind in the 3A part, right? I should
have been in 2B. But it got to be such--I was so riddled with anxiety, I
started getting boils.

And then I--and so by the time I reached high school, I was almost 19, 'cause
I'm born in September. So when I graduated my senior year, it was in June; I
was gonna be 19 in September. And it was in the middle of the year, in
February, I think it was, is when I did the high school play and never had a
need for reading. You know, I watched television all the time, so I didn't
really have a need for reading. I watched the nightly news and I got my
information from that. And it got to a point where I realized that this
reading thing was something--my teacher, Ms. Damiano(ph), Mr.
Fredericks(ph)--they said, `Look, you have an aptitude for this acting thing.
This is something that you could work at and maybe successful at. But if
that's the case, you're going to need to learn how to read.'

So I read my first book my senior year in high school, and he gave me--I was
at gym class, and Mr. Fredericks came and gave me "Soul on Ice" by Eldridge
Cleaver.

GROSS: That was your first book?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah, he thought I'd--and it took me three weeks, four weeks
to read it.

GROSS: Did you like it?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah. I mean, after that, the next book I read was "The
Valachi Papers," then it was "The Godfather," you know, things that I could
relate to, relatable things. And then I...

GROSS: Uh-huh. So was reading a problem for you when you started acting
seriously, or were you good enough by then that you could...

Mr. PANTOLIANO: No, it was--I mean, it took seven years. It took a long time
to--I would have to prepare for an audition--I'd have to put two or three
hours into each audition. And then I would go in--it was like double acting.
I would go in and pretend that I was reading off the page when, in fact, I had
memorized it. So it took...

GROSS: Were you ever caught?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: No. No. Well, I--no. I mean, that's the other skill that I
learned from Mommy was the ability to be advantageous in getting the job. I
had no resume, I had no experience, I had no education, I had no training.
And I figured that I could find theaters that had gone out of business and I
would put plays that I'd worked on in acting class and say that I did them at
these theaters, 'cause there was no way for them to check up on me; they were
out of business. And, you know, it took me seven, eight, nine--it took me 10
years to become--make a living at this thing, you know.

GROSS: My guest is Joe Pantoliano. He plays Ralphie on "The Sopranos." He
has a new memoir called "Who's Sorry Now." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Peter Gunn" theme)

GROSS: Joe Pantoliano is my guest. He's now one of the stars of "The
Sopranos." He's written a new memoir, which is called "Who's Sorry Now."

You know, I think your real breakthrough film part was in "Risky Business,"
which was also the movie that launched Tom Cruise's career. And in this
movie, Tom Cruise plays a high school kid whose parents are leaving him alone
in their big suburban home for a few days while they're out of town, and then
he befriends a woman who he doesn't realize is a prostitute who's had a fight
with her pimp. She and her girlfriend, who's also a prostitute, are staying
at Tom Cruise's house when you, Guido the pimp, shows up to take these two
girls home. Let me play a clip form that scene.

(Soundbite of "Risky Business")

Mr. TOM CRUISE: (As Joel) I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: (As Guido) Joel, the door is locked. You're starting to give
me a stomachache.

Unidentified Woman #1: Good. I hope it hurts.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: You gonna open the door or what?

Unidentified Woman #2: Guido, go home. We don't need you anymore.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Look, shut your mouth.

Unidentified Woman #1: No. Listen. Maybe we don't work for you anymore.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Oh, yeah?

Unidentified Women #1 and #2: (In unison) Yeah.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: OK, fine.

Unidentified Woman #1: Right.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Then who do you work for, huh? Who? You don't work for me.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Imitating Guido) `Who? You don't work for me.'

Unidentified Woman #1: Maybe we work for Joel now.

Mr. CRUISE: She's only kidding.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: I hope so. Look, Joel, you look like a smart kid, so I'm
going to tell you something which I'm sure you'll understand. Now you're
having fun here, right? Right, Joel? Time of your life? In a sluggish
economy, never, ever (censored) with another man's livelihood. Now if you're
smart, like I hope you are, you're not going to make me come back here.

(Soundbite of dog barking; birds chirping)

GROSS: Joe Pantoliano and Tom Cruise in a scene from "Risky Business."

What's the biggest leap that you took in changing your look for a film, your
look or your manner?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Oh, gosh, I did a Western called "El Diablo," and I played a
Truman Capote-type writer of Western novellas. And that was really fun. I
mean, I was imitating Katharine Hepburn, and--(imitating Katharine Hepburn)
and I talked like this. And I was with Anthony Edwards and Lou Gossett Jr.,
and I had a really wonderful time working on it.

GROSS: That's great. So what's it like now when you're given a new script?
Can you read it pretty well?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah. Yeah. I would say that I'm probably--it takes me a
couple hours. I would say it takes me a minute--no, it takes me about a half
a minute a page, depending on how much dialogue. But, you know, I read a lot
now. I enjoy reading. And that was the greatest thing is the world of books.
I collect first editions now. I have a modest collection. But...

GROSS: Really? Uh-huh. Of what?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Modern-day, 20th-century authors.

GROSS: Huh, interesting. You know how you were saying when you were young,
you picked up from your mother, basically, how to BS and how to say what
needed to be said to get you by in a situation?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Does that help as an actor? You know, 'cause you had a lot of
experience, you know...

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah.

GROSS: ...playing yourself, basically.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: You know, I would say that the last five years that 90
percent of the work--100 percent, really, in the last couple of years--is
offered to me, is maybe I gotta go in and talk to the director. I've earned
the privilege of being offered a job, and that's really nice.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: But I distinctly remember when I was going into rooms that I
realized that good acting was a dime a dozen, that there's a lot of good
actors out there. And how was I going to be different? What was I going to
do in that room for those five minutes that was going to make that director
want to hire me? And I thought that if I could show them that I was going to
be easy to work with and be charming and fun to be around, that that would
give me an opportunity to get closer to that job. And I've always done that.
You know, I've been puckering up my whole life.

GROSS: But in a good way, not a bad way, right?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah. I mean that in the nicest way.

GROSS: In the nicest way. So how has being a movie star changed your
standing in the old neighborhood? Do you know anybody else there, or have
they all been driven out by gentrification?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: See, I don't look at myself as a movie star. I always
thought that a movie star is somebody that makes, you know, $5 million, $2
million, $1 million a movie. People see me and because I'm a personality and
I'm someone that's recognized, they think that I've lived this gorgeous life
and I'm driving Maseratis and I'm living in a palace. And I'm here to tell
you, Joey Pants doesn't own a palace. I'm just a working actor, and my
friends and my family are proud of me.

One of the nicest things that was said to me yesterday is my friend Joey
Fiano, who I talk about in the book, who's lost his father and a week later he
lost his mother and, at 18 years old, raised his siblings. And he called me
up yesterday, and I hadn't talked to him in 10 years. And he said to me, `I'm
gonna go get the book.' And he said, `Joey, you got to live all of your
dreams. All of your dreams came true.' And they have, you know. And now I
get to tell this story. So whether nobody reads the book, this is something
my kids could read someday and it's a document of where they came from, and I
think that's great.

GROSS: It sounds like your book really was like therapy for you. Have you
actually been in therapy?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah, I was in therapy for 15 years. Oh, God!

GROSS: Did that--I mean, did you understand the role that, for instance, your
mother had played in your life and how overbearing she was in your life and
what impact that had on you?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: Well, I'll tell you how I got into therapy.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, go ahead.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: We were working at O'Neal's(ph) Blue, and I was a waiter and
Florie was the manager.

GROSS: That's a restaurant right near Lincoln Center in Manhattan.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: That's right. It's not there anymore. But it's owned by
Patrick O'Neal, an actor. And here I am now, an actor who owns a restaurant.
I have a restaurant in South Norwalk called Bamboo--Connecticut.

But Mommy took--my sister Mary Ann quit school at 15, and she was beside
herself, my mother. And I was going to acting school with John Lan, and one
of the kids was taking this group therapy thing. So I said, `Ma, there's this
guy, he's a group therapy thing. Maybe you should take Mary Ann and talk to
him. Maybe he can help her out.' So she did, and they were going to come and
meet us at O'Neal's Blue.

Well, my mother was fit to be tied. And I said, `What's the matter?' She
goes, `This no-good SOB said that your sister's problems are my fault.' And I
just went, like, `Somebody said this to her?' And the next day, I called the
guy up and I go, `I gotta meet you, because if you're telling my mother that
she's the reason we're so screwed up, I have to meet you.' And that's how I
started in group therapy.

GROSS: So one last thing: When did you first start being called Joey Pants?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: The kids called me Joey Pants, and it was always because
people couldn't say the name. In Hoboken...

GROSS: Even in an Italian neighborhood?

Mr. PANTOLIANO: They'd call you Pantliana...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: ...Pantlione...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: ...Pumpliana. I mean, they murdered the English language in
that town. And so they would call me Pants. They'd say Pants--'cause, you
know, pantaloni means `pants' in Italian.

GROSS: Right. Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. PANTOLIANO: I had a ball.

GROSS: Joe Pantoliano plays Ralphie on "The Sopranos." His new memoir about
growing up in Hoboken is called "Who's Sorry Now."

Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg on politicians who say `nuclear' (pronounced
noo-kyuh-ler) instead of `nuclear.'

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Mispronunciation of the word `nuclear' by politicians
and others
TERRY GROSS, host:

Of all the speech errors that politicians make, none seems to draw more
criticism than saying `nuclear' as `nuclear.' (pronounced noo-kyuh-ler)
George W. Bush is the most recent in the line of presidents who say
`nuclear' (pronounced noo-kyuh-ler)--excuse me--a mispronunciation that dates
back to President Eisenhower. Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the many
reasons why some politicians just don't get it right.

GEOFF NUNBERG:

There are two kinds of missteps that people make with language, the typos and
the thinkos.??? Typos are those little processing glitches that sometimes
intercede between a thought and its expression. They can make you look
foolish, but they aren't really the signs of an intellectual or ethical
deficiency the way thinkos are. It's the difference between a sentence that
expresses an idea badly and a sentence that expresses a bad idea.

People don't pay much attention to that distinction when they take after the
errors and malaprops of presidents and other political figures. I've always
felt that Dan Quayle got a bum rap over his inability to spell `potatoes.' I
mean, there are people who can spell and people who can't, and God doesn't
seem to have paid much attention to other cognitive capacities in spreading
that gift around.

And while critics were always making fun of Eisenhower's woolly language, it
wasn't really a sign of woolly thinking. Most people realized that he was an
astute politician, and he could write lucid prose when he felt like it. Ditto
former President Bush. He may have had difficulty speaking in complete
sentences, but that doesn't mean he wasn't thinking in complete thoughts.

No president has taken more flak over his language than George W. Bush, not
Eisenhower, not even Harding. That's understandable; Bush's malaprops can
make him sound like somebody who learned the language over a bad cell phone
connection. `My education message will resignate among all parents.' `A tax
cut is really one of the anecdotes to coming out of an economic illness.'

The columnists and talk show hosts have tended to treat those errors as the
occasions for mirth rather than concern, the linguistic equivalents of Gerald
Ford's pratfalls. Bush himself encouraged that interpretation with those
Letterman and "Saturday Night Live" appearances during the campaign, when he
made fun of his inability to pronounce `subliminal' and said he was
`ambilavent' about appearing on the show. It was a shrewd maneuver, as Mark
Crispin Miller??? points out in his recent book "The Bush Dyslexicon,"??? a
very penetrating look at Bush and his language. The self-mockery took the
edge off the criticisms by painting Bush as just another irrepressible word
mangler, sort of a Yalie??? Casey Stengel.

But it isn't always easy to tell whether an error is a typo or a thinko. Take
the pronunciation of `nuclear' as `nuclear.' (pronounced noo-kyuh-ler) That
one has been getting on people's nerves since Eisenhower made the
mispronunciation famous in the 1950s. In Woody Allen's 1989 film "Crimes and
Misdemeanors,"??? the Mia Farrow character says she could never fall for any
man who says `nuclear.' (pronounced noo-kyuh-ler) That would have ruled out
not just Dubya, but Bill Clinton, who said the word right only about half the
time. President Carter had his own way of saying the word as `nuclear,'
(pronounced noo-kyah) but that probably had more to do with his Georgia accent
than his ignorance of English spelling.

On the face of things, `nuclear' (pronounced noo-kyuh-ler) is a typo par
excellence. People sometimes talk about Bush stumbling over the word, as if
this were the same kind of articulatory problem that turns `February' into
`February.' (pronounced feb-yoo-air-ee) But `nuclear' isn't a hard word to
pronounce the way `February' is. Just try saying each of them three times
fast. Phonetically, in fact, `nuclear' is pretty much the same as `sicklier'
or `wrinklier,' and nobody ever gets them wrong.

That `nuclear' (pronounced noo-kyuh-ler) pronunciation is really what
linguists call a folk etymology, where the unfamiliar word `nuclear' is
reconfigured as if it had the same suffix as words like `molecular' or
`particular.' It's the same process that turns `chaise longue' into `chaise
lounge.'

That accounts for Eisenhower's mispronunciation of `nuclear' back at a time
when the word was a new addition to ordinary people's vocabularies, and it's
why Homer Simpson says it as `nuclear' (pronounced noo-kyuh-ler) even today.
But it doesn't explain why you still hear nuclear (pronounced noo-kyuh-ler)
from people like politicians, military people and weapons specialists, most of
whom obviously know better and have been reminded repeatedly what the correct
pronunciation is. The interesting thing is that those people are perfectly
capable of saying `nuclear families' or `nuclear medicine.'

I once asked a weapons specialist at a federal agency about this and he told
me, `Oh, I only say "nuclear" (pronounced noo-kyuh-ler) when I'm talking about
nukes.' In the mouths of those people, `nuclear' (pronounced noo-kyuh-ler) is
a choice, a thinko, not a typo. I'm not sure exactly what they have in mind
by it. Maybe there's an appeal in referring to bombs in such a folksy and
familiar way, or maybe it's a question of asserting their authority as if to
say, `We're the ones with our fingers on the button and we'll pronounce the
word however we damn well please.'

But where does Bush's `nuclear' (pronounced noo-kyuh-ler) come from? A lot of
people seem to assume that he's just one of those Bubbas who don't know
better. But that's hard to credit. After all, Bush didn't have to learn the
word `nuclear' in middle age the way Eisenhower did. He must have heard it
said correctly thousands of times when he was growing up, not just at Andover,
Yale and Harvard, but from his own father, who never seems to have had any
trouble with the word.

But if Bush's `nuclear' (pronounced noo-kyuh-ler) is a deliberate choice, is
it something he picked up from the Pentagon wise guys? Or is it a faux-Bubba
pronunciation, the sort of thing he might have started doing at Yale by way of
playing the Texas yahoo to all those earnest Eastern dweebs? Actually,
there'd be an easy way to tell: Just look to see how Bush pronounces
`nuclear' in phrases like `nuclear family' and `nuclear medicine.' If he says
`nuclear' (pronounced noo-kyuh-ler) all the time, then it's most likely a
faux-Bubba thing. But if he only says `nuclear' (pronounced noo-kyuh-ler) for
weapons, it's probably a bit of borrowed Pentagon swagger. Anyway, I'll be
keeping my ears peeled.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is currently a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center,
and he's the author of the book "The Way We Talk Now."

(Soundbite of music; credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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