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The disappearing Goodfella: whatever happened to 'funny guy' Joe Pesci?

Jo Pesci arriving at the New York premiere of The Irishman, his first film in 21 years
Jo Pesci arriving at the New York premiere of The Irishman, his first film in 21 years Credit: reuters

Joe Pesci is now 76, has a house in New Jersey, and – until his present comeback in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman – you probably haven’t seen him in a film since 1998, when he appeared as motormouthed stool pigeon Leo Getz in the fourth Lethal Weapon film. 

You’ve barely had the chance. Since announcing his retirement in 1999, the Oscar-winning actor has had only three, very minor film credits and a self-parodying Snickers commercial to keep him occupied.

Now his long-awaited return to acting has arrived, and Pesci’s been rewarded with some of the best reviews of his career as Sicilian-born Mob boss Russell Bufalino – a commanding, softly-softly performance of serious substance. 

With its leading role for Robert De Niro as the hitman in his employ, the film qualifies as a Goodfellas reunion; though with his role stretching across three-and-a-half hours this time, Pesci feels like more of an equal and valued collaborator than ever before. Persuading him still wasn't easy; he reportedly said no 50 times.

Pesci’s withdrawal from stardom or acting ambition has been almost as complete as they come, and has an air of premeditation about it. After all, even when he won Best Supporting Actor in March 1991 for his defining role, as the vicious hoodlum Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, he delivered one of the briefest acceptance speeches in Oscar history. “It’s my privilege, thank you,” he announced at the podium, before walking off with the trophy.

If it weren’t for the decade’s worth of roles still to come, this could almost have been a hang-the-hat-up moment in itself. Those five words, though as startlingly abrupt as Pesci's fame, are some way off his most notorious. Without doubt, the immortal ones came in character, in Goodfellas’s legendarily excruciating restaurant scene, with Ray Liotta breaking a cold sweat as Tommy’s face contorts with menace. “Funny how?”

How Joe Pesci is funny, and whether, is an interesting question throughout his strange, truncated career. He didn’t start out as a comedian, or as an actor. In the early days, he always wanted to be a musician, playing guitar in a role that Jimi Hendrix would inherit, with Joey Dee and the Starliters, and releasing his own album of cover versions, Little Joe Sure Can Sing!, in 1968. (He hasn’t given up the mic: his first album in 21 years, the aptly named Still Singing, is coming out with smooth timing shortly after The Irishman airs on Netflix.)

Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Catherine Scorsese (the director's mother), Ray Liota and Joe Pesci on the set of Goodfellas Credit: Rex

He started performing as a vaudevillian with his fellow Scorsese veteran Frank Vincent, and they made their debut together in a low-budget Mafia drama called The Death Collector (1976), which impressed Robert De Niro enough to recommend them both for roles in Raging Bull (1980).

Pesci’s part, as Jake LaMotta’s brother and manager Joey, was quite a breakthrough for the then-37-year-old. He got a supporting actor nomination, and could surely have parlayed this more quickly, given the energy or inclination, into a substantial career. You get the feeling that the impetus or luck weren’t there, or not yet.

By and large, the 1980s were a wilderness, marked by forgotten films like the 1983 Rodney Dangerfield comedy Easy Money, and small roles for Nic Roeg in Eureka (1983), and Sergio Leone, opposite his pal De Niro, in Once Upon A Time in America (1984). He could even be spotted squaring off with Michael Jackson, as the mob boss Mr Big in the Smooth Criminal section of Moonwalker (1988).

Joe Pesci with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, at the 2006 Tony Awards Credit: Gary Hershorn/Reuters/Corbis

But none of these were advances on what Pesci had already done: ditto his intentionally annoying sidekick duties as Leo Getz, even if those box office windfalls surely helped the bank balance.

It took Scorsese and De Niro to give Pesci another showcase – two, actually, since he’d rejoin the dream team for Casino (1995), their last collaboration until this year. In a sudden burst of openness to mainstream projects, he was everywhere in the early 1990s.

The same day he took an Oscar home, he was globally ubiquitous as one of the hapless burglars in Home Alone, which cemented his grumpy comic persona and sent his productivity into overdrive. He was a key part of the homosexual underworld in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), and then had a brief string of lead roles in this post-Oscar afterglow – The Public Eye (1992), With Honors (1994), the inexpensive sleeper hit My Cousin Vinny (1992) and the costly flop Jimmy Hollywood (1994).

Joe Pesci in Home Alone Credit: Rex

Remarkably soon after this, he was done. The impression you get is of reluctance, borderline indifference, and having close friends in Hollywood pulling him into projects. It took De Niro to drag him out of retirement for a tiny cameo in The Good Shepherd (2006), and he’s since made an ill-fated, little-seen drama called Love Ranch (2010), about a married couple running a Nevada brothel, with Helen Mirren and her husband, Taylor Hackford.

In 2015, the cast of Goodfellas reunited for a 25th anniversary screening at the Tribeca Film Festival – all except one. As Robert De Niro explained: "Joe Pesci couldn't be here, but he sent this email: 'F—, f—, f—, f—ity f—, f—'".

“He’s a private guy,” explained the comedian Louis CK on a late-night talk show, after being rebuffed with another comeback chance. For 2016’s web series Horace and Pete, Louis had written Pesci a recurring role, which eventually went to Alan Alda, when Pesci, approached by phone, point-blank refused to do it. He claimed to see no merit in Louis’s stand-up, either. “Quit that!” he suggested in their first ever conversation.

Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny Credit: Rex

Maybe you don’t get Pesci these days without getting some variation on Tommy DeVito, with his backbiting and inchoate fury. Trying to work with him doesn’t sound easy. The story goes that De Niro had to hound his old associate for years to join The Irishman.

When the pair made a rare public appearance before production went ahead, De Niro was pressed on the possible reunion, and had only this comment: “So far, all he keeps saying is ‘Go f___ yourself.”

It’s exactly what you’d expect Joe Pesci to say to almost any proposal: the Oscar audience, in retrospect, got off lightly.

The Irishman is in cinemas now