Straight-Talking Facts About Joe Pesci, The Wiseguy of Hollywood
On the surface, it may not seem like there’s much more to Joe Pesci’s career besides Home Alone and the slick mobster roles that he’s so famous for.
His portrayal of Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas saw him nab his first Oscar and, to some degree, everything else has been overshadowed by his sparkling performance as the brash, Brooklynite gangster.
But there’s much more to Pesci than meets the eye. Here are some lesser-known facts about him.
1. A natural star
Pesci’s career really took off in the 80s after he met Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, but, by then, he’d been acting professionally for years.
From the mid-50s, Pesci made regular television appearances on a popular variety show called Startime Kids.
2. He appeared alongside another famous face
Pesci appeared on the show alongside Connie Francis, who went on to become a successful actress and singer herself.
As an adolescent in the 60s, Pesci’s attention turned to furthering his musical ambitions and he stepped back from his nascent acting career.
3. Humble beginnings
Before Pesci committed himself to acting, he followed in his mother’s footsteps and worked in a barbershop.
Pesci reportedly enjoyed the camaraderie of working in a hairdresser’s, as well as the low-stress lifestyle.
4. And he was good at it, too
Pesci had huge success as a barber and by the early 70s had opened his own salon with a friend in Nutley, New Jersey.
The salon’s co-owner, the late Sal Mangiavillano, said that the shop even attracted a clientele of gangsters and made men.
5. Destined for greater things
According to one of Pesci’s former clients, it was always clear that his ultimate dream was to be an actor.
“Joe would always interrupt the cutting of hair to act out a story or tell a joke or practice his routines,” they told Entertainment Weekly.
6. He was also the catalyst for the formation of The Four Seasons
Pesci was childhood friends with singers Frankie Valli, Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito, and in 1959 introduced them to singer-songwriter Bob Gaudio.
The four men went on to become The Four Seasons, with Gaudio writing almost all of their most successful songs.
7. And he’s still friends with them to this day
Pesci remained fierce friends with the group and his Goodfellas character was playfully named ‘Tommy DeVito’ as a result, although the character’s persona was not based on the real Four Seasons band member.
The real Tommy DeVito tragically passed away in September 2020 after contracting COVID-19. Pesci paid tribute to his lifelong friend, saying “I will always remember him for his great voice and for the character that he was.”
8. His own character in Jersey Boys
Pesci’s instrumental role in the band’s formation has never been forgotten.
He has his own character played by Joseph Russo in the 2005 musical Jersey Boys (which documents the group’s inception and rise to success), and even joined the rest of the band on-stage during the curtain call on the show’s opening night in New York.
9. A true all-rounder
In the early 1960s, Pesci was part of a popular band called Joey Dee and the Starliters, who were the in-house act at a Manhattan venue called The Peppermint Lounge.
Though not exactly a household name, the group had a fair measure of success, and their song Peppermint Twist hit the top of the charts in 1962.
10. Replaced by a musical legend
When Pesci drifted out of the band in the mid-60s to pursue his acting career, a young man called ‘Jimmy James’ stepped in to take his place.
He toured with the band briefly before changing his stage name and starting a new band of his own: The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
11. A brief musical career
Pesci briefly entertained a solo music career of his own, releasing an album titled Little Joe Sure Can Sing under the stage name ‘Joe Ritchie’.
Suffice to say, Hendrix might have had a touch more success than Pesci when it came to breaking into the music industry.
12. A breakthrough and a broken rib with Raging Bull
Pesci was injured while filming Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull when, in character, co-star Robert De Niro flung him through a glass door and stamped on him with a little too much gusto, breaking his rib.
Scorsese kept the scene in the final cut because of Pesci’s realistic, pained reaction.
13. Second time’s the charm
Coincidentally, De Niro ended up breaking the exact same rib 15 years later when he and Pesci were shooting for 1995’s Casino.
Pesci took it all in his stride, quipping that “great movies mean cracked ribs.” You can’t fault his dedication!
14. He found inspiration in unlikely places
In Lethal Weapon 4, Pesci’s character Leo Getz has a grating habit of repeating the word “okay.”
Interestingly, the schtick was based on an irritating Disneyland employee whom Pesci had met when visiting the theme park with Mickey Rourke. When the actors approached the employee for help, the young man allegedly kept saying “okay” between giving the two actors directions.
15. And the director loved it!
Pesci borrowed this quirk from the Disneyland employee when figuring out how best to portray Leo, and director Richard Donner loved it. Pesci recalled the incident when speaking to Empire in 2012: “Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons were singing at Frontierland, so [Mickey and I] stopped to ask for directions from these blond-headed, blue-eyed kids,” he said.
“And the first word out of this kid’s mouth was, ‘Okay!’ Then he hit me with about 12 more: ‘No, no! Okay, okay, okay!’ We thought it was really funny.”
16. It wasn’t the only time he drew on his real-life experience
During rehearsals for Goodfellas, Pesci shared a memorable story of his time working as a waiter before he made it as an actor.
He recalled how he had once served a made man and praised his sense of humour, which, unsurprisingly, didn’t go down well.
17. He got a serious grilling
The real-life mobster reportedly started grilling Pesci, repeatedly asking him “how am I funny?” – exactly as Tommy DeVito does to Henry Hill in Goodfellas.
After Scorsese heard this anecdote, he was determined to somehow recreate it in the film.
18. Scorsese came up with a plan
Scorsese was keen to include lots of improvisation in the film, and so called on Pesci to help craft the iconic “you think I’m funny?” scene.
Scorsese purposely kept the frame wide and didn’t do any close-ups when shooting the scene so as to better capture the reactions of the other actors. Only Scorsese, Pesci, and Ray Liotta were in on the plan, so everyone else’s reaction to Pesci’s manic outburst is wholly authentic.
19. An Oscar-worthy performance
When Pesci’s name was announced as the winner of the Best Supporting Actor award at the 1991 Oscars (for Goodfellas), he looked surprised, but elated.
He turned to kiss then-parter Claudia Haro and made his way to the stage to accept the award.
20. A man of few words
Hardly an unusual way to react – but then he opened his mouth to begin the customary acceptance speech, said “it’s my privilege, thank you,” and promptly walked off.
It was one of the shortest acceptance speeches in Oscar history. When asked why he said so little, he confessed that “I really didn’t think I was going to win.”
21. A big night for Goodfellas
Goodfellas was nominated for a total of six awards that night, including Best Picture and Best Director. However, Pesci’s award ended up being the only win for the film.
Goodfellas went on to win 5 BAFTAs the following year, and in 2000 was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry due to its cultural impact.
22. A brief break from filming
Pesci won his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Goodfellas while he was working on a new film, My Cousin Vinny.
Pesci was back on set shooting for the upcoming movie just one day after the Academy Awards ceremony.
23. He didn’t let go of his Oscar
Director Jonathan Lynn had a funny story to tell about that day’s filming on the movie’s DVD commentary.
That day, the crew were shooting the scene where Vinny sleeps through a prison riot. “When we panned to [Pesci], he was clutching the Oscar in his arms,” Lynn recalled.
24. Almost made the final cut
Lynn says they went ahead and included the clip in footage sent to the studio.
Unfortunately, the shot didn’t make the final cut and Pesci’s Oscar makes no appearance in the film.
25. Keeping it PG
Given the numerous children on set, director Chris Columbus had ‘swear jars’ for the older actors while filming Home Alone.
Columbus had instructed adult cast members to use the word “fridge” whenever they felt the urge to swear, but whenever bad language accidentally slipped out, offenders were required to deposit change into their personal swear jar.
26. Colourful language
Pesci, hardly one to mince his words, reportedly filled up his jar in a single day.
He wasn’t the only one who struggled – apparently co-star Daniel Stern also had a hard time keeping his language PG.
27. He found a way around it
As swearing was off the cards, Pesci’s Harry Lyme instead mutters gibberish under his breath whenever his plans are thwarted.
Pesci drew inspiration from Bugs Bunny’s notorious adversary, Yosemite Sam, when it came to perfecting this ‘cartoon cursing.
28. A keen golfer
Pesci is a huge fan of golf and was delighted that there was a course near the Home Alone set.
He was less delighted when producers assigned him 7am call times – not because he was averse to an early start, but because he’d been looking forward to playing golf before starting work on set.
29. Priorities in order
Pesci pleaded with producers to let him have a few hours to play golf in the mornings.
He managed to persuade them to push his early call times back to 9am.
30. A dab hand
Pesci has a handicap of just 15.9, and came in at #62 on Golf Digest’s list of Hollywood’s Top 100 Golfers.
He regularly plays with fellow actor Andy Garcia, who came in at #17 on the same list.
31. A famous scene
One of the most famous scenes from My Cousin Vinny is the courtroom scene, where Vinny and Judge Chamberlain Haller get their wires crossed.
In the memorable scene, Vinny mentions “two yutes,” causing Haller to interrupt and ask “two what?”
32. Inspired by a language barrier
The two go back and forth before Vinny, exasperated, explains he means “two youths.”
The iconic interaction was inspired by a conversation that Lynn and Pesci had off-set.
33. A last minute addition
In the film’s DVD commentary, Lynn recalls Pesci telling him a story about “two yutes”, prompting the director to ask what a “yute” was.
Lynn realised “that ought to happen between Vinny and the judge,” and wrote it into the script at the last minute.
34. A real mummy’s boy
It’s hard to imagine the actor behind the chilling “You think I’m funny?” scene expressing any form of tenderness, but Pesci is a devoted son.
He always makes time to call his mother – even when he’s working on a film.
35. Different schedules
Speaking to the New York Times in 1992, Pesci said: “I try to call her and get her to do things with me. But our lives are so spread out.”
Hilariously, when Pesci’s mother saw Goodfellas, she reportedly told her son she thought it was “good” but asked if he really had to swear that much.
36. Another mother
Pesci’s mother has never appeared onscreen alongside her son, although Goodfellas does feature a scene with character Tommy DeVito’s mother.
The actress who plays DeVito’s mother is actually Catherine Scorsese – Martin Scorsese’s mother.
37. His very own talk show
In 1995 Saturday Night Live launched The Joe Pesci Show – a sketch which featured Jim Breuer as Joe Pesci reimagined as a talk show host.
Breuer’s character was modelled after Nicky Santoro and Tommy DeVito, Pesci’s roles from the films Casino and Goodfellas respectively.
38. A volatile caricature
Whenever a ‘guest’ came on to the show, Breuer (in character as Pesci) would inevitably take offence at something they said, and proceed to beat them up.
Notably, Breuer’s character would usually refrain from attacking guests of Italian descent.
39. A cameo from the man himself
In 1997 Pesci appeared as himself on the show, asserting that he was nothing like Breuer’s portrayal of him before proceeding to beat Breuer with a baseball bat.
Robert De Niro appeared in the same episode alongside Pesci and assisted him in attacking Breuer and his co-host, Colin Quinn, who occasionally appeared on the show as De Niro.
40. The role that never was
Pesci is renowned for his ‘tough guy’ persona – which is why it’s surprising that he was in the running for the role of Mushu the dragon in the 1998 Disney film Mulan.
Mushu was initially envisioned as having a split personality and producers suggested that two actors could voice him. Pesci was meant to voice Mushu’s dark side, while Richard Dreyfuss was to play Mushu’s more lighthearted side.
41. It wasn’t meant to be
Ultimately, Eddie Murphy landed the part, while Mark Moseley voiced Mushu in the sequel, Mulan II.
It’s hard to imagine tough, stony Pesci voicing plucky, excitable Mushu, so perhaps the directors made the right call there.
42. A brush with the law
After her split from Pesci, actress Claudia Haro married Hollywood stuntman Garrett Warren. The two were married for two years before splitting in 2000.
Then on 20 May 2000, Warren was shot by a stranger at the front door of his home in Westlake Village, California.
43. Not guilty
The police stumbled across vital evidence during a drug bust years later, and found that Haro had hired a hitman to kill her ex-husband. A witness implied that Pesci had actually paid the hitman himself. Police then interviewed Pesci and even searched his property, but found that he was innocent.
Haro, however, was sentenced to 12 years and four months in prison in 2012. She has since been released.
44. Coaxed out of retirement
Pesci was famously tempted out of retirement to star in The Irishman in 2019, but he’d actually been working on a film called Gotti back in 2011.
Pesci was meant to feature in the film, a biopic of gangster John Gotta – also known as ‘The Teflon Don’ – alongside John Travolta.
45. Piled on the pounds
Travolta was cast in the leading role as Gotti, and Pesci was set to play Gotti’s friend, Angelo Ruggiero.
The real-life Ruggiero was a lot bigger than Pesci, so the dedicated actor gained 30 pounds for the role.
46. A lawsuit was filed
Pesci’s part in the film was then stripped back a lot, and the actor was placed on a reduced salary. Pesci was not happy: the actor quit and ended up filing a $3 million lawsuit against the producers.
The case was settled out of court. The film was eventually released in 2018, but flopped tremendously. It grossed just $6 million against a production budget of $10 million, and is one of the few films to hold a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
47. He did a Snickers advert in 2011 instead
Given the standard format of most modern Snickers adverts – angry person morphs into calm person upon taking a bite out of a Snickers bar – Pesci was a great choice for their 2011 campaign.
The clip sees him deride two girls at a party, unprovoked, before a friend offers him a Snickers bar to help him calm down. The ad campaign was a success: the cameos from two of Hollywood’s leading lights was a brilliant touch.
48. Communication issues
The Irishman saw Pesci reunited with De Niro and Scorsese, but the film also featured some new faces for the seasoned actor.
One actor Pesci struggled to gel with was Stephen Graham – not because of any animosity between the two, but because Pesci couldn’t understand his Liverpudlian accent.
49. A simple solution
Speaking on The Graham Norton Show, Scouser Graham recalled Pesci asking him to continue speaking in his character’s accent off-set.
Graham said that Pesci graciously invited him out for dinner one night, but reportedly quipped: “Why are you talking like that? Why don’t you talk as your character so I can understand you?”
50. A tough nut to crack
Given The Irishman’s star-studded cast and its unique position as Scorsese’s swan song, it’s hardly surprising that the film was a resounding success. Initially, however, Pesci was reluctant to get involved, having announced his retirement from acting in 1999.
It was De Niro who ultimately persuaded his friend to sign up for the film. Pesci was reportedly approached 40 times before he finally conceded and agreed to take part. The Irishman is set to be the last time Pesci, De Niro, and Scorsese ever work together.