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Q&A WITH JOE PESCI : Hollywood's Little Big Man

March 30, 1994|BRONWEN HRUSKA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK A cloud of aftershave and cigar smoke announces Joe Pesci is about to enter his suite at the Regency Hotel. He wears a black shirt, black slacks and, around his neck, a hint of gold. At 51, Pesci looks more like a "GoodFellas" mobster than a Hollywood star.

And while he's played opposite Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull," won an Oscar as Tommy DeVito in "GoodFellas," and broke the bank in both "Home Alone" movies, he says his favorite character may be his latest--Jimmy Alto--a never-has-been actor trying, and failing, to make his mark.

"Jimmy Hollywood," which opens today, marks his 18th movie, but Pesci says he's avoided the trappings of a celebrity lifestyle. He lives in New Jersey, and has a few choice words for the studio system that made him a star. "The casting system sucks," says Pesci, who will appear as a homeless person living below Harvard's Widener Library in "With Honors" next month. His voice is a softened version of that throaty New York streetspeak his fans usually associate with the four-letter words his characters spew.

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Question: What is it about "Jimmy Hollywood" that touched a nerve in you?

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Answer: It shows what's really going on in Hollywood. People still think it's a magical place where dreams are made. Actually, it makes for broken dreams. It's almost impossible for a young actor today to make it.

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Q: When did you come to Hollywood?

A: In the early '70s. I'd been acting since I was 5. My father drove a forklift truck for GM/Chevrolet, then he worked in the Budweiser brewery at night. He felt I had some kind of talent because I was brazen and had nerve. He started schlepping me back and forth for auditions and lessons between New York and Newark, N.J., where we lived.

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Q: What happened in Hollywood?

A: Everybody who goes out there has this dream about becoming a movie star, getting their picture on the cover of a magazine, driving a Rolls Royce--myself included. It wasn't until I came back (East)--till I quit--that I realized I just wanted to be a working actor, and I wound up being successful.

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Q: You've got the roles flooding in these days. What was it like for you back then trying to get parts in Hollywood?

A: There were so many rejections. I remember one time I went in for a part, it was just like that scene in "Jimmy Hollywood." I went in and the girl was handing me these applications without even looking up. They never look at you.

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Q: How'd you react when she wouldn't pay attention to you?

A: I was trying to find out if the reading was on schedule. The casting woman only said, "Sign your name, sit down." She gave very rude, snappy answers. I finally told her to pick up her fat ugly head and look at me. She looked up, horrified. I said, "There, that's better." Then I looked at her and said, "Oh, maybe it's not." I was really, really angry. Then I told her to get up off her fat ass and find out if I could read when I was scheduled. The director and producer came out and said, "You'd better leave." I kicked the table and walked out.

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Q: Needless to say, you left Hollywood shortly after that?

A: You let everybody (expletive) on you and you lose any drive and self-confidence you have. That's the worst thing you can do to an actor. So yeah, I quit, I walked away from it.

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Q: What did you do after you left?

A: I went to Las Vegas, lived with a friend and worked for a mason, mixing cement and carrying blocks. From there I went to the Bronx, where I was managing an Italian restaurant and singing at tables. Then I got a call from Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese asking me to read for "Raging Bull." They'd seen me in (the B-movie) "Death Collector" and liked me.

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Q: Do you feel like you've been typecast by Hollywood ever since you played Jake La Motta's brother in that movie?

A: Sure, Hollywood tries to typecast you right away. Whatever was successful for them, whatever films make money for them, that's what they want you to do. But I try to jump around a lot.

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Q: What have you liked more, drama or comedy?

A: I like drama, because in drama there's everything anyway. Light comedy isn't bad. But I don't think I'll be doing any more slapstick. De Niro and I may do something again with Scorsese. Then probably another "Cousin Vinny."

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Q: Tommy DeVito is one of your most famous characters--he's ruthless, paranoid and completely on the edge. Do you have any of Tommy's explosiveness in real life?

A: I think everyone has that thing where they can explode. Why do you think the vigilante movies Charles Bronson made were so popular? I try not to let it happen in my real life. But when it comes I will say what's on my mind immediately.

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Q: You've convinced a lot of people with your mobster characters. In fact an article in the current (and final) issue of Spy magazine accuses you of being "business partners" with Joe Denti, whom the author, John Connolly, calls a member of New York's Lucchese crime family.

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