Not only is acclaimed actor Joe Pesci nominated for an Academy Award at the 2020 Oscars, but the Feb. 9 show marks his 77th birthday as well.
Everyone knows that Pesci is responsible for some of the most memorable film roles throughout the past four decades. However, many may not know that he recorded three studio albums starting in 1968 with his breakout record, “Little Joe Sure Can Sing!” before going on to major acting acclaim
Whether it’s singing songs, getting laughs in “Lethal Weapon” or inspiring some heavy drama in movies like “JFK,” there’s a lot to unpack when it comes to the lengthy career of Joe Pesci.
Pesci was picked out of relative obscurity to co-star alongside Robert De Niro in the role that would kick off his working relationship with acclaimed director Martin Scorsese. After a lackluster music career and a handful of failed comedy and acting gigs, Pesci was given his big break after De Niro spotted him in the 1976 film “The Death Collector.” According to Mental Floss, Pesci was brought in for the role of Joey, which initially didn’t exist in early drafts of the script, after the star and director decided he’d be perfect for the role. It ended up working so well that Pesci went from relative obscurity to earning a nomination for best actor in a supporting role at the Academy Awards.
It would not be his last time working with Scorsese, nor his last nomination.
After Pesci got his big break with “Raging Bull” in 1980, he worked steadily over the course of the next decade. However, his next memorable part came in 1990 with the role of Tommy DeVito in another of Scorsese’s movies, “Goodfellas.”
Pesci plays a small-time delinquent turned big-time mob player, but the role is perhaps most memorable for the infamous “how am I funny?” scene in which he mocks a younger mafia player for complimenting his sense of humor. According to the book “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies,” the scene was based on a real-life incident that happened when Pesci complimented a mobster at an Italian restaurant when he was young. The scene was mostly improvised between Pesci and co-star Ray Liotta and remains one of the most memorable pieces of dialogue in movie history.
The role not only earned the actor his second Oscar nomination, but he ultimately won the best supporting role accolade that year.
After making a name for himself with offputting tough-guy roles, Pesci was ready for a bit of a change following his violent role in “Goodfellas.” Speaking to CBC in 1992, the actor explained that when the “Home Alone” script came across his desk, the former comedian was excited for the opportunity to be kid-friendly and funny.
“I thought Home Alone was a great script,” he explained. “I wanted to play it for the kids because I never get to work for children, you know?”
It wasn’t a big departure from his usual roles, as the character Harry was still a mean-spirited criminal. However, after being in very adult movies, his pivot to a family-friendly comedy ended up being more popular than anything he’d done before. As a result, Pesci became a household name.
He reprised the role in 1992 for the successful sequel and even appeared in a 2018 ad for Google Assistant that featured both him and co-star Macaulay Culkin.
After flexing his comedy chops in “Home Alone,” Pesci further stepped away from his tough-guy image in the title role of “My Cousin Vinny.” The film centers around two young college students who are mistakenly arrested and charged with the murder of a convenience store clerk. One of the young men has a cousin who is a rather inexperienced lawyer from Brooklyn, Vincent LaGuardia “Vinny” Gambini (Pesci), who agrees to take the case.
The film was by and large given positive reviews and remains a seminal comedy classic. The role was originally conceived for comedian Andrew Dice Clay, but ultimately went to Pesci, who Mental Floss notes based the character that fans still love to this day off guys he remembered from growing up in New Jersey. As a result, it’s very likely that the actor gave a singular performance that contributed to the movie’s longevity. There certainly wouldn’t have been the film’s companion album that Pesci recorded in character, titled “Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You.”
Not only does “The Irishman” mark a memorable role for all the stars involved due to the use of de-aging technology to make Pesci and other co-stars look like young men, but it marks yet another collaboration with Martin Scorsese for which the now 77-year-old actor received an Oscar nomination. After announcing his retirement from acting in 1999, Pesci only appeared in a handful of acting roles. However, speaking to Fox News, his on-screen wife in the movie, Kathrine Narducci, revealed that he needed a lot of coaxing before he’d take the role.
Fortunately for viewers, he did and was given his third Oscar nomination, once again in the category of best actor in a supporting role.