Star of the ‘The Sopranos’ rose through the showbiz ranks from club drummer to movie mobster with Joe Pesci
FRANK VINCENT, who died last Wednesday, aged 80, was an Italian-American actor best known for playing psychotic killers and mobsters.
He played many tough-guy roles for Martin Scorsese, starring alongside Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in Raging Bull (1980), Casino (1995) and Goodfellas (1990), in which his character, ex-jailbird Billy Batts, unwisely tells the diminutive but psychopathic Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) to “Go home and get your f ***** g [shoe] shine box” — and gets shoved into a car trunk.
To television viewers, however, he became familiar as Phil “The Hair Do” Leotardo, the silver-coiffed nemesis of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) in the hit HBO series The Sopranos. The character first appeared in 2004 and lasted more than 30 episodes before meeting a grisly end at a petrol station where, after being shot in the head by a member of a rival gang, his wife’s SUV idles forward and crushes his skull.
Vincent claimed to have got into character by drawing on his background as a musician and stand-up comic playing the bars and clubs of New Jersey, many of them owned and run by the sort of hoodlums he portrayed on screen.
“These guys had great tailored dress shirts with monograms on the sleeves,” he recalled. “This is what I was emulating at an early age. Plus, they had a lot of swagger and were unified. That was a big influence.”
He was born Frank Vincent Gattuso in North Adams, Massachusetts, on April 15, 1937. Later the family moved to Jersey City, where his father Frank ran a clothing factory and a petrol station. Frank Sr was also an amateur actor, and encouraged his son to take music lessons. Vincent began appearing in school plays and learnt the trumpet and drums.
After leaving school aged 16, he took a job at his father’s garage, before deciding to try his luck as a musician.
He picked up work as a drummer, playing in nightclubs and as a session musician. Finally he formed the Arist-o-cats, a trio with a bass player and a guitarist from Newark named Joe Pesci. In between songs, Vincent and Pesci would trade jokey insults; eventually they became a comedy team, playing tiny North Jersey clubs, “where people are drinking, and no one is listening, and you had to learn how to get their attention”.
Vincent recalled one particular night when one of the club members approached the stage and quietly told the pair they really, really should stop making fun of his girlfriend’s hat. The gun in his waistband convinced them to take his advice.
Vincent and Pesci made their film debut in 1976 in the low-budget gangster movie, Death Collector, which caught the eye of Martin Scorsese, who cast them in Raging Bull, Vincent as a henchman who gets beaten up by Pesci.
Some former associates were not impressed,
Vincent recalled: “They didn’t like it when Joe beat me up. ‘Why’d you let that little guy beat you up?’ And this one guy, Blackie something, I don’t remember his name, but I remember him saying, ‘What is it with the f ***** g language in that picture?’ And, I thought, this guy’s killed nine guys and he’s concerned about the language?”
Pesci also gave his friend a beating in Goodfellas, though Vincent managed to return the favour in Casino.
Vincent appeared in more than 50 films, also working with Brian De Palma, Spike Lee, John Sayles and Sidney Lumet. In 2006, he co-wrote A Guy’s Guide to Being a Man’s Man.
He is survived by his wife Kathleen and their three children.
MUSIC MAN: Frank Vincent become better known as an actor