An extra pair of Pants: Joe Pantoliano — a/k/a Joey Pants — is shown directing a scene from his documentary feature on mental illness, NO KIDDING, ME TOO! The movie and TV star comes to the Two River Theater on Tuesday evening for a screening and discussion of the film.
By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit, June 8, 2009)
Dig those excellent hats; the colorful suits and loud ties; the playful shades and in-yer-face facial hair. Joe Pantoliano is a man who commands your attention.
He has to be — as a consequence of his being one of the finest actors we’ve got working the screens these days and nights. The kind of actor who gets absorbed so completely into his roles, we’re sometimes taken aback when we check the credits and realize we’ve been seduced again by this ace character player who made his first film over 35 years ago.
So, when he’s away from the set, the man known as “Joey Pants” is a vivid personality with a winning smile, a sharp wit and a flashier wardrobe than any so-called “supporting” actor has ever dared to sport.
We all love Joe, even if a lot of the people he’s portrayed on screen have not been very nice. Even if you’d somehow managed to miss him in any number of standout movie roles — as the scheming Caesar in Bound, as the suspicious sidekick Teddy in the art-house puzzler Memento, as crackin’-wise chromedome Cypher in theMatrix franchise, or in Bad Boys or The Goonies or Risky Business or La Bamba or even Grand Theft Auto III.
For anyone who ever lived in New Jersey, of course, that all changed with his run as high-octane, coke-fueled Mob moneymaker Ralphie Cifaretto on The Sopranos — a story arc that kind of came to a head in season 4, winning Pantoliano an Emmy and all but obliterating the memory of his other short-lived TV series The Fanelli Boys, The Handler, the unaired Waterfront and Dr. Vegas.
Yeah, Joey Pants was in Dr. Vegas with Rob Lowe — also The Adventures of Pluto Nash and Daredevil and Larry the Cable Guy – Health Inspector and a number of other things that lesser actors would shrink from in shame. But shame is not part of the playing deck for Pantoliano these days, not since he became founder and president of a nonprofit organization known as No Kidding, Me Too!
A few years ago, Pantoliano was diagnosed with clinical depression, a condition he says he’s come to realize has colored his life and that of his family since childhood days. Rather than allow his hard-earned career to be derailed by the stigma of mental illness, the actor opted instead to use his public pulpit to advocate for a real dialogue about mental health in American society — as producer and co-star of the dramatic feature Canvas, and as someone who, in his own cheerfully intense way, wants us all to be open and honest about an issue that’s more pervasive than most people will admit. An issue that, even if it’s “not me,” is still something that’s a big me-too for family and friends whose lives are touched by it.
No Kidding, Me Too! is also the name of Pantoliano’s directorial debut; a documentary feature that follows Joe and a group of others who are contending with the effects of being depressed, bipolar or schizophrenic. The filmmaker is currently on tour with the doc, and it’s a tour that comes to Red Bank on Tuesday night for a screening and personal appearance event at Two River Theater that’s being sponsored by the Mental Health Association of Monmouth County, Inc. We’ll be there, because, well, no kidding…
Red Bank oRBit found an out-of-breath Joey Pants in the middle of a daily health regimen, ready to engage in conversation about this serious subject. This being oRBit, we also got in some talk about Abbie Hoffman and the Three Stooges. Read on.
No ordinary Joe: Pantoliano in his Emmy winning turn as Ralph in THE SOPRANOS.
RED BANK ORBIT: Before we get into it here, I have to convey a message from my daughter, who said she saw MEMENTO in her high school film class and liked, no, loved you in it…
JOE PANTOLIANO: Well, then I love her too! And I’m proud of her. It’s a great movie but a difficult thing for people to follow. My own 17 year old daughter hasn’t been able to watch it. I think the one thing everybody in my family has in common is that none of them can watch Memento.
I know you’ve been doing a little tour with this documentary, and this interview is going to run in advance of a screening you’ll be doing at a nice new theatre down in Red Bank, in Monmouth County…
I’ve been going there, to the Shore, for a long time. I wrote a book about growing up, about the first 17 years of my life, living in Hoboken and the summer vacations we took — we went to Cedarwood Park, then we wound up in Long Branch; we went to a lot of other Shore towns, like Seaside, Ortley Beach.
In Long Branch we used to stay at a place called Mrs. Brodkey’s Boarding House, back when there were all these old boarding houses there. Each one represented a different town — we’d be staying with other families from Hoboken, and right next door was Newark! We’d have our own fridge, but my mother and father would have to sleep on an army cot.
You’ve suggested in other interviews that when you were diagnosed you came to the realization that a lot of the things your mother did and said could be attributed now to mental illness, and that it put a lot of your past into a whole other perspective.
I come from a long line of degenerate gamblers. My mom worked as a bookie. You want to know what my grandfather’s nickname was? Dopey Gus! Think about that. So I’m a victim of my family’s past — mental illness is absolutely a genetic disease. I inherited it from my mother, and my 17 year old knows that my brain is defective. She’s afraid she’ll turn into me!
I first became depressed when I was eight years old, and I first cut myself when I was ten. This is not a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ kind of thing; it’s a disease, and there’s not a family in the United States whose lives haven’t been touched by this disease in some way.
I have to say this hits home for me as well. My wife and I have someone in our lives, someone close to us who’s been going through a very difficult time — it’s been tough on everyone in the family and, I dunno, we all could maybe use a little of what Joey Pants has to offer here.
Well, you can tell that person that I would love to see them there at the film screening. We’ll have a good time, we always have a great discussion with people who come to see it, we’ll talk and take pictures and you’ll be glad you came out to see it.
The point that we try to make with the film, the whole thing behind No Kidding, Me Too, is that you can fix it! You can get your life back — I got 80 percent of my life back from my depression. It can be treated, as long as we put aside the shame and talk about it. Insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, medical doctors have come to see the value of treatment.
You’ve also said, though, that after your diagnosis, after you were prescribed antidepressants, you would encounter some difficulties with the insurance companies for the film production companies; they wouldn’t want to cover you. So there’s got to still be a lot of resistance out there, a lot of self-propagating attitudes on everybody’s part.
It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just ignorance. A long time ago it was determined that mental illness was a thing that should be cloaked in shame. Is cancer a disease surrounded by shame? No. Alcoholism? No, not anymore; not since the early days of AA.
In a way, mental illness has taken the place of alcoholism. It’s the only disease where you can get yelled at just for being diagnosed with it. You could say it’s taken the place of being gay or lesbian, and in the closet. That’s why Harvey Milk is such an inspiration, even beyond just the gay community. Milk encouraged people to stand up for who they are, and what we’re trying to do here is kind of the same thing, to do away with the stigma. The only way to have a normal relationship with the world is for the brain to get the same kind of constructive PR that the other major organs get.
That’s why every kid should see this film; we’ve gotta be able to talk about this, and the younger the better. Every state should teach a public school curriculum of mental health education to first and second graders.
But really, just go to the site — it’s the hub of the educational arc of recovery. Go see the film, and there are books out there that I can recommend. One by Wendy Richardson, called When Too Much Isn’t Enough. It’s a book that touches upon every type of addiction — including shopping, internet, everything.
Who are some of the other celebs who’ve been lending their time and energies to your organization?
We’ve got Robert Downey Jr. on board; we’ve got Harrison Ford, Jamie Foxx, Jeff Bridges, Ang Lee — there’s a whole list of celebrities who lent their support to this cause; check out the website and you’ll see all of the names.
Looking at your bio, I was struck by the fact that your first big professional role, your first career milestone, was playing Billy in the national touring stage production of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. Billy, of course, is a character who’s living in a mental hospital, who’s got some serious problems — did you gravitate to this role out of some unstated affinity for Billy? And were there any special things you did to prep for this role?
I was nineteen when I did Cuckoo’s Nest — it’s no accident that’s how my career began. I had been seeing the play at the Mercer Arts Center, and it had a big effect on me. I went to a mental hospital to research it — I went to Creedmoor and stayed two days. I met a man named Henry, who was schizophrenic, and talked to him. Basically I was relieved, because I wasn’t as bad as them.
Then when I played Maggio (in the TV remake of From Here to Eternity), I went to a psychiatrist and asked how they would diagnose this guy — they said he had mental problems. Ralph, on The Sopranos, was certainly mentally ill. All the characters I’ve done have been mentally ill in some way.
It’s interesting that in CANVAS, you’re the husband of the woman who’s mentally ill; the guy who has to struggle with all the confusion and conflicting feelings.
Are you familiar with Canvas? It shows the life of a small Italian-American family and how mental illness erodes the whole family structure; how the shame and embarrassment eat away at everything.
Okay, we’re gonna go off on a tangent here for a little “lightning round” that I like to do with people who grew up in the New York/ New Jersey area their whole lives. Who’s your favorite New York radio personality of all time?
Bruce Morrow! The great Cousin Brucie.
Greatest New York kids’ TV show host?
Officer Joe Bolton. He showed the Three Stooges, and he brought the Three Stooges to town for live appearances. They were the first show business people I ever got to see in person.
Greatest of the old New York, New Jersey discount stores?
A store called Mickey Finn, which may have just been in Hoboken — you could get your suits there; if you bought a suit you got an extra pair of pants.
And what kind of music did you like when you were growing up? What hit you in a big way?
You know, I met every one of the Beatles — not all together at the same time, but I met Ringo at a roller rink! George Harrison I met at a Frank Sinatra recording session. Paul McCartney I met at a club on 23rd Street in Chelsea, with Sean Penn. And I met John Lennon walking down Bank Street — he was with Yoko, and Abbie Hoffman!
Wow. Even with everything else you’ve done in your career, all the people you’ve known, that’s gotta be worth the price of admission right there.
Well, I’m proud of the career I’ve had, and I’m proud of my gift — the gift of madness. It makes me who I am. It gives me my talent. And it’s given me this platform to communicate with people, to let them know they’re not alone and they can be proud of who they are.