“Come on, let’s do this. Who knows if we’re ever going to have this chance again.” That’s how Robert De Niro tried many times to convince Joe Pesci to play the part of real-life mob boss Russell Bufalino in Martin Scorsese’s sprawling mob epic The Irishman. Spanning 30 years, the story centers on the events that led to the unsolved disappearance of labor leader and Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa (played by Al Pacino) through the reminiscences of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), his former bodyguard and a reticent hitman.
The result is a subdued and melancholic performance, in contrast with the volatile hot-headed, unhinged wise-cracking dirtbags he’s been known for. Initially, the actor had assumed he would be asked to portray that type of character once again. Something he was not interested in, having retired from the screen after appearing in the barely seen 2010 Taylor Hackford’s Love Ranch, followed by a memorable Snickers commercial a year later, and since then enjoying his time on the golf course and with racehorses.
Scorsese understood Joe Pesci’s initial reluctance and concerns but was not ready to give up. “There was a lot of persuasion,” the director admits. “If we were going to come together again, it’s got to be something that could be a change for him. And he wasn’t sure that was the case. Once he caught on that it was to be the opposite of what you normally see, he really enjoyed himself.”
Pesci did and recently expressed being very grateful to Scorsese and De Niro. “They took me out of the gutter basically and they brought me back. And as I get older, I can appreciate everybody a lot more. And I can see everything a lot differently.”
Flashback. It’s 1979, and 36-year-old Joe Pesci’s acting career is going nowhere. His first movie, The Death Collector, had been released three years before. Tired of unsuccessfully auditioning in California, he had returned to the Bronx and was now working at Amici’s, an Italian restaurant. But De Niro and Scorsese remembered him in that low-budget crime drama and tracked him down, offering him the part of Jack La Motta’s brother in Raging Bull.
It would be their first collaboration, for which he got a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Ten years later they were reunited for Goodfellas (earning him a second Globe nomination) and, in 1995, Casino would be their third film together. De Niro directed Pesci in two films, A Bronx Tale (1993) and The Good Shepherd (2006)
New Jersey-born Pesci has been in show business for as long as he can remember. His father enrolled him in a Newark Establishment: Marie Mosier School of Acting, Song, and Dance when he was only four. “I had no choice,” he told Empire Magazine a few years ago. “I was a stage brat. I had to dance in front of mirrors, I did TV Shows. I played little crippled kids in plays, making smart-alec remarks. If you learn how to do comedy at a young age, it creeps into everything you do. You find out you don’t have to lean on a line to make it funny.” He remembers growing up and being teased because of his last name. “Constantly,” he confessed to the Hollywood Foreign Press while promoting My Cousin Vinny in 1992. “I had pesty, pushy, pee-pee, even the teachers at school. If I did something wrong, I was pesky!” But he is glad his father refused to let him change his last name as some people had suggested then.
As a teenager, he introduced his childhood friends Tommy DeVito and Frankie Valli to Bob Gaudio, a trio who went on to form The Four Seasons. Movies were not really on his radar until much later. He never seemed to have a career plan. Roles came to him. He did not look for them. His Brooklyn Italian accent, the near-manic voice, and kinetic energy became his trademark, displayed at their best in Goodfellas or Casino. And in other cult classics like Home Alone and its sequel and three Lethal Weapon movies. He worked with many first-rate directors. Sergio Leone, Oliver Stone, Barry Levinson, Chris Columbus, and Richard Donner. He looks back and has no regrets about walking away from it all.
If Joe Pesci’s on-screen comeback in The Irishman is not enough for you, you can listen to him. At 76, he has just released Still Singing, a 13-song jazz album where he reinterprets crooning standards like I’ll Be Seeing You, Round Midnight, My Cherie Amour, including two duets with Adam Levine and with contribution from trumpet legend Arturo Sandoval. Perfect treats for a holiday soundtrack.