Searching for Joe Pesci, in Honor of ‘Goodfellas’ at 25

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Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic Goodfellas turns 25 this week, and being good capitalists, Warner Brothers released a 25th-anniversary Blu-ray edition of the movie a few months back (its third time out in the format, but I digress). It’s got a new transfer and some new special features, and a new cover as well — one that’s striking, due not to the boldness of the design, but to a particular exclusion.

In contrast to the iconic three-up profile image familiar from the original poster and earlier home video releases, the new disc keeps the name but removes the visage of Joe Pesci — who not only turned in the most haunting and enduring performance in the picture, but won an Oscar for it (the movie’s only win). His face apparently won’t move units anymore, which is a little silly when you consider who’s probably buying the 25th anniversary Blu-ray of Goodfellas. But perhaps it makes sense from a standpoint of cultural relevance, since Joe Pesci has pulled one of the oddest disappearing acts of any recent actor of note.

The numbers tell the story. After a period of exhausting ubiquity, acting in 17 films between 1990 and 1998, Joe Pesci basically stopped working. He announced his retirement in 1999 (initially, he said, to focus on music, which is a whole other story) and has since appeared in exactly two films: a one-scene turn in his pal Robert De Niro’s 2006 directorial effort The Good Shepherd, and a leading role in the little-seen 2010 comedy/drama Love Ranch. And that, aside from an odd Snickers campaign and (according to IMDb) a voice-over turn in the forthcoming English version of the Russian animated film Savaa, is it.

It’s not just that he doesn’t act anymore—he doesn’t even show up to revel in his past successes. Public appearances and interviews are sporadic, and often tense. He doesn’t turn up on the Goodfellas Blu-rays or anniversary interviews to wax nostalgic, and when Jon Stewart hosted cast members at a Tribeca Film Festival anniversary event, Pesci wasn’t there (according to a source at the festival, he couldn’t attend due to a “long standing family commitment”). But surely, on the birthday of his greatest success, he couldn’t resist showing his face, doing a few interviews, and accepting his accolades, right?

Turns out, not so much. As you may have noticed, this piece is not headlined “Rare, Exclusive Interview with Joe Pesci,” though it’s certainly not for lack of trying. Your correspondent spent roughly a month trying and failing to talk to Mr. Pesci — or, indeed, anyone close to him. I sent inquiries and requests to his directors, his co-stars, and his representatives. Emails were ignored, calls weren’t returned. Publicists insisted there wasn’t a story here. A director would only participate if I was also interviewing Pesci. Finally, after turning down my initial inquiry, his agent at CAA agreed to forward my questions in email form. Excitedly, I sent my seven most thoughtful and interesting queries. That was May 21. Maybe he’s just been busy!

In a strange way, there was something almost systematic to the way in which I got absolutely nowhere. Maybe his former collaborators just didn’t want to cross him — after all, in addition to being litigious, there were rumors Pesci had become increasingly more unhinged in his older years, prone to the kind of aggressive intimidation and profanity-laden outbursts you’d expect from, well, a Joe Pesci character.

Or maybe it was something else. One of the best stories about Pesci’s unlikely stardom concerns the casting of his breakthrough role of Joey LaMotta in Scorsese’s Raging Bull. It goes that on the eve of production, De Niro saw a little-known, low-budget 1976 mob movie called The Death Collector. He was impressed by Pesci, who appeared in a supporting role. It was Pesci’s first film, and as far as Pesci himself was concerned, it was his last. When it didn’t do anything for him, Pesci quit acting and ended up managing an Italian restaurant in the Bronx, which is where De Niro found him. He did not react like a struggling actor getting his big break, according to biographer Shawn Levy:

He had truly given up chasing a career as an entertainer, he explained to De Niro in that first phone call, and he didn’t feel that he was up to the job. “I told him I didn’t think I wanted to do it, that I wasn’t interested. He said he’d come and talk with me.” They had dinner at Pesci’s restaurant, Amici’s, and De Niro brought along the script. “Robert told me, ‘It’s a good role, not a great role,’ ” Pesci recalled, “and I told him I didn’t want to go back to acting unless I got a part that proved I was good.” He was grateful for the opportunity, of course, but he was still reluctant: “I figured they should give it to a working actor who really wanted it.”

He was nominated for an Oscar for that role; ten years later, he won one for Goodfellas, beating out such formidable talents as Al Pacino, Andy Garcia, and Graham Greene. And his acceptance speech is fascinating. After winning acting’s highest honor for playing one of the most vocally intimidating characters in modern movie memory, a man whose verbosity can make you roar with laughter at one moment and rise with gooseflesh the next, Pesci stepped up to the podium, looking downward. He shook his head, and smiled a bit. Then he raised his statue and said just six words: “It was my privilege. Thank you.”

Joe Pesci was never supposed to be a movie star, and quite possibly never even wanted it. Coaxed out of his self-imposed early retirement only by the greatest actor of his generation and the greatest director of his generation for one of the greatest movies of his generation, he spent the years after his Oscar win biding his time in a series of decreasingly valuable vehicles, sequels and misfires that were transforming his complicated and nuanced work in films like Raging Bull and Goodfellas into a predictable, stock type. He doesn’t seem to have much fun in those later movies, and you can’t really blame him.

Maybe he saw what was happening, or predicted what would happen, to his old nightclub partner Frank Vincent, whom De Niro and Scorsese also spotted in The Death Collector and cast in Raging Bull (and Casino, and Goodfellas; he was Billy “Get your fuckin’ shine box” Batts). A terrific actor himself, Vincent has ended up playing variations on his tough-guy Mafioso character in everything from animated movies to video games to straight-to-video clunkers, and maybe Pesci didn’t want to go that way. Even worse, maybe he saw, or could see, the turn in De Niro’s career, from god-like actor’s role model to figurative (and, occasionally, literal) self-parody.

Maybe he just didn’t want to turn into that that, so instead he did to the film industry what he’d done on that Oscar stage a few years before. He smiled. He told them it was his privilege, to have done this work and received his recognition, and he thanked them.

And then he walked away, and didn’t look back.