NEW YORK — Tony Sirico loves his neighborhood. "I'd take this place over Beverly Hills any day," says the 45-year-old actor, driving his Chevy Malibu past the storefront pizzerias and candy stores in the sleepy district of Bensonhurst. "It's a good Italian neighborhood. You're part of something here."
Just what you're part of isn't exactly clear, especially when a Times photographer asks Sirico to stop the car so she can take his picture by a charming neighborhood bistro.
"Oooh, I don't know about that!" says Sirico, looking aghast. "Very important people hang out there. The most important people. You have to ask permission to take pictures."
He laughs, a little nervously. "If you don't--they'll eat your cameras."
Sirico navigates a few blocks further and double parks his Malibu in front of Cafe Italia, another local eatery. "It's very Sicilian here," he explains mysteriously. " Very Sicilian. But I know the owner. Maybe he'll let us take pictures outside. Let me ask first. You gotta show respect. It means a lot around here."
Even if the New York press has exaggerated the amount of underworld figures who reside here, Bensonhurst remains a tough, insular community. It gained more notoriety for the events surrounding the death of black teen-ager Yusuf Hawkins, who was killed in August by an angry white mob.
Having lived here most of his life, after a childhood in nearby East Flatbush, Sirico knows the rugged nature of these isolated, clannish neighborhoods. "Where I grew up, every guy was trying to prove himself. You either had to have a tattoo or a bullet hole."
Sirico grinned. "I had both."
A handsome, olive-skinned man who has made a living for the past dozen years playing thugs and wise guys in small movie roles, Sirico had the perfect resume for a Hollywood gangster.
He was a hoodlum.
Arrested 28 times, first at the age of 7 for stealing nickels from the newsstand, Sirico built a formidable neighborhood reputation as a stick-up artist. He spent two stretches in prison, once on an illegal-weapon charge, once for armed robbery--and was nabbed on innumerable occasions for disorderly conduct, robbery and other criminal offenses.
"After all the times I was pinched, I knew every judge in town," says Sirico, immaculately dressed in a gray, pinstriped suit with a black silk shirt, black handkerchief and a pinkie ring the size of a walnut. "I was a tough kid. I always had that itch in my britches to find out who I was. I tested my (courage) every night.
"I was a pistol-packing guy. The first time I went away to prison, they searched me to see if I had a gun--and I had three of 'em on me. They'd ask why I was carrying and I'd say I live in a bad neighborhood. It was true. In our neighborhood, if you weren't carrying a gun, it was like you were the rabbit during rabbit-hunting season."
During his last prison stay in the early 1970s, Sirico saw a performance by a group of ex-con actors. Having already honed his thespian skills standing in police lineups and chatting up precinct captains ("I got 28 arrests and only two convictions, so you gotta admit I have a pretty good acting record"), the event inspired him.
"I watched 'em and I thought, 'I can do that.' I knew I wasn't bad looking. And I knew I had the (guts) to stand up and (bull) people. You get a lot of practice in prison. I used to stand up in front of these cold-blooded murderers and kidnapers--and make 'em laugh."
He wagged his finger. "It wasn't easy. The only way you could make most of these guys laugh was to stick a gun in their ribs and tell 'em, 'Laugh or I'll kill you.' "
With the help of a photographer pal at the New York Daily News, Sirico got work as a model and quickly graduated to small-time acting gigs. His first speaking role was in "Godfather II," where he and then-unknown Danny Aiello played the Rosato Brothers ("The first words I said on screen were, 'There's a cop!' "). Since then, Sirico has acted in 27 movies (including "Cookie" and "Love and Money"), assorted TV episodes, a Coke commercial and appeared as a model in such magazines as Cosmopolitan, Oui and True Detective.
In Martin Scorsese's upcoming "Good Fellas," he plays Frankie (The Wop) Basil, a stylish enforcer who punishes rival mobsters by sticking their heads in ovens. In James Toback's "The Pick-Up Artist," he was partners with Harvey Keitel in an Atlantic City casino. And in the Coen Brothers' forthcoming "Miller's Crossing," he's Patsy Ketti, a demolition man who takes special pleasure in blowing up saloons.
"Tony is really one of a kind," says writer-director James Toback, who has made him part of his stock company. "I look at him as being George Raft--but with a little more menace. He has that great combination of real-life authenticity and acting craft. And a very mischievous smile. Everything I write seems real when he speaks the lines. Now when I start a new movie I automatically think, 'What do I have for Tony?' "