In the pantheon of "character actors," Joe Pantoliano ranks high. OK, maybe not as high as Richard Jenkins, Stephen Lang, or John Hawkes, to name but three. But the man known affectionately as "Joey Pants" is nothing if not recognizable, by face and name.
He is many things: an unmistakable presence, "Matrix" and "Memento" villain, noted baldie, guy who famously beat a stripper to death on "The Sopranos," author (of a memoir on his youth, "Who's Sorry Now: The True Story of a Stand-Up Guy"), and depression sufferer.
That last one might come as a surprise, especially since the actor has always seemed so, well, happy-go-lucky. (His nickname is Joey Pants, for goodness sake.)
Looks, of course, can be deceiving, and as he explains in "Asylum: Hollywood Tales from My Great Depression, Mental Dis-Ease, Recovery and Being My Mother's Son" (got all that?), being so open with this element of his life took time: "Louis B. Mayer once said, ‘The most important thing about acting is sincerity. Once you learn to fake that, you got it made.' That's what my depression felt like — like I was faking it."
This feeling led to his "seven deadly symptoms": food, vanity, shopping and shoplifting, success, sex, alcohol, and prescription drugs. They "made me feel great," he writes. "But I was a ghost, lost and alone, held hostage by the things that I always felt would set me right."
His is a sad story, with career highlights dented by personal difficulty, and it leads to a so-so reading experience. As recently as 2005, the successful actor was still gripped with depression. He "started to self-destruct … "I needed a way out of the pain." The official diagnosis of brain dis-ease (BD) led to recovery, and this book. While not entirely focused on his battles with BD and addiction, "every moment of "Asylum" connects with the actor's mental state.
His link to Robert Wagner and the late Natalie Wood is especially intriguing. The doomed siren was his co-star in 1978's TV adaptation of "From Here to Eternity." He became close friends with the couple, and even spent time on the couple's infamous yacht, shortly before her death. Years after the miniseries, he ran into Wagner, who "mentioned that Natalie and he would be spending the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend on their boat in Catalina with Chris Walken. Did we want to come to brunch that weekend?"
This was, of course, the weekend of Wood's death. And to Pantoliano, it brought to mind the moment he slipped and fell off the couple's boat years earlier.When it comes to filmography contemplation, Pantoliano's recent career-spanning interview with the Onion's AV Club was more probing than "Asylum," but he does offer some insight into his "Sopranos" portrayal of Ralphie Cifaretto,. "I loved my ‘Sopranos' character because he was such a bastard," he writes, and it was a bummer when David Chase said "the inevitable: ‘Joey, we racked our brains, and it was a painful decision, you've been a pleasure to work with, but we're killing you.' "
Ralphie's death, and the wildly controversial beating to death of a stripper in one of the show's most brutal episodes, might be how most viewers know and remember Joey Pants.
What does it all add up to? An interesting book that jumps around a bit too often, and even at just 249 pages, feels overlong. It is never maudlin or dreary, and always readable, and its author comes across as just as likable as one would hope. For me, as admirable as Pantoliano's memoir is, it simply isn't as memorable as he is.
Christopher Schobert is associate editor of Buffalo Spree.
Asylum: Hollywood Tales from ?My Great Depression, Mental Dis-Ease, Recovery and Being My Mother's Son
By Joe PantolianoWeinstein Books, 249 pages, $25