Joey Pants interview with Chet Cooper

ABILITY’s Chet Cooper met up with Joe Pantoliano, aka Joey Pants, at a Belgian restaurant in New York City recently. The popular character actor has appeared in such films as Risky Business, The Fugitive and The Matrix. His skill at playing scumbag mobster Ralph Cifaretto on the hit HBO series The Sopranos won him a 2003 Emmy Award. And he garnered sparkling reviews on Broadway opposite Rosie Perez in Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.

Pantoliano is the author of two memoirs: Who’s Sorry Now: The True Story of a Stand-Up Guy and Asylum: Hollywood Tales From My Great Depression: Brain Dis-Ease, Recovery and Being My Mother’s Son. In the latter, he writes about his addictions to alcohol, food, sex, Vicodin and Percocet, before being diagnosed with clinical depression. To disarm the stigmas around mental health, the actor started the organization No Kidding, Me Too!, whose title comes from the response he’s heard all too often after divulging how mental illness affected him and his family. He’s also shot a documentary called No Kidding, Me Too!.

Chet Cooper: Lately you’ve been focused on your upcoming reading of the play Moolah, with Mario Cantone from Sex and the City.

Joe Pantoliano: That’s right.

Cooper: So when you’re performing the play on Broadway, will you stop taking movie and TV roles?

Pantoliano: There are a couple of movies that I’ve been offered lately that I’m considering, because the play is something we’re still trying to set up. The point of the reading is to get it financed.

Cooper: People in the audience will be—

Pantoliano: —backers. So that’s still in process, and in the meantime there are a number of options floating around. I just met the consul general of South Africa. They want to get more involved in filmmaking. He was talking to me about going out there … perhaps setting something up with them and even teaching at their university, doing a two-week course on acting and the art of filmmaking. I’m currently a visiting professor at Penn State and do a couple of programs over at Wesleyan University. I enjoy that.

Cooper: I thought you might be at New York University, because you pass through there all the time.

Pantoliano: I’ve been going to a writing class there with Boris Frumin, who is a professor at the film school. It’s really cool. I never went to college, so now I’m going at 60 years old.

Cooper: And teaching, too. I imagine that must be kind of fun for you.

Pantoliano: It’s fun to mix it up. Acting, writing, shooting something here or there. Did you ever see the Public Service Announcements (PSAs) we made with Harrison Ford?

Cooper: I don’t think so.

Pantoliano: Let me show them to you.

Cooper: Was this for your No Kidding, Me Too! campaign? How is that moving along?

Pantoliano: We could use more help with financing.

Cooper: That sounds like most nonprofits.

Pantoliano: It’s hard. I don’t want to be running around raising money. Either I’m raising money or I’m acting. We’re going to do a party/fundraiser so we can make more PSAs. I want to show you the 30-second and the 60-second versions. Do you have earplugs?

Cooper: You mean earphones?

Pantoliano: Earplugs: You put them in and they plug you up.

(Cooper puts them in; Pantoliano plays the PSAs)

Cooper: That’s really good.

Pantoliano: Keep them in. I want to show you something else. This is a cartoon based on a story from my first book. There’s also a lot of No Kidding, Me Too! stuff on our Facebook page.

Cooper: You were telling me a story about being at Caroline’s comedy club.

Pantoliano: Right, and it’s 8 o’clock and we’re watching the results of the Bush-Gore election. The results have come in, and Peter Jennings comes on and says, “And Florida goes to Al Gore.” It looks as if, with Florida, Gore will be our next president. Everybody’s screaming, you know. And then, about a half hour later, it seems they’ve made a mistake. They take Florida back from Gore. I go from the water I was drinking to double martinis. A short time later, I’m feeling no pain, and my wife sees the writing on the wall. She says, “OK, I’m going home.” By then my friend Tony and his wife have shown up, because I called them up and said, “Why don’t you come to this thing?” Tony was in a sweat suit with a long raincoat; he hadn’t shaved, and he looked like Columbo on his day off.

We hear that Harvey Weinstein, my publisher, is having a party at Elaine’s for Hillary Clinton, because she’s won her race to become the next senator from New York. So we say, “Let’s go to that.” And I’m with Rosanna DeSoto, who played Ritchie Valens’s mother in La Bamba, and was visiting from California. Tony had his wife. And with four of us I figured, “We’re not going to get in because of the Secret Service…” And Tony says, “Let’s give it a try?” And I say, “No.” But we walk over there anyway, and Tony is right: They let us in.

The place is packed. They’ve got a tent on Second Avenue. I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s no place to sit, except for this big table for eight that’s completely empty. I say, “Let’s grab that before somebody else does.” We sit down. There’s three of us on a table for eight. I got a cigar I’ve been smoking all night. It’s about this big, and I haven’t lit it in a while. I’m just chewing on it. At that point I’m so toasted I’m not even drinking, because I know I’ve got to go to work the next morning. I’ve got a 6 a.m. call with The Sopranos.

So I’m sitting there, and this one girl comes over and she goes, “I’m sorry, folks, you can’t sit here. This is reserved for the president and Senator-elect Clinton.” I said, “I figured as much. I’ll tell you what: As soon as we hear ‘Hail to the Chief,’ we’ll get up. She said, “No, you can’t. You have to leave.” I said, “But he’s not here. There’s no place to sit.” “But he’s coming,” she assures me. “Well, when he comes...” I assure her. And it’s a back and forth, yelling. Finally she says, “I’m going to tell Harvey.” I said, “Tell Harvey. He’s going to understand. Sure, tell Harvey.”

As that’s going on, something else is happening behind me. It’s Jessye Norman, the opera singer, and she’s giving me all these dirty looks because I’m smoking a cigar. I’m going, “It ain’t lit. See, it ain’t lit!” So finally we hear, “Ladies and gentlemen, the president and senator-elect are not going to come.” Harvey made the announcement. “Those of you supporters who wrote big checks, we’re going over to the Hilton Hotel, and we’re going to see them there. So come on over.” We jump in the Jeep, and drive down to the Hilton on 42nd near Grand Central Station.

Cooper: So what happens at the Hilton?

Pantoliano: For starters, Tony slips him, the bellhop, 20 bucks so we could just leave the car there. We were going to run in and see if we could find the Clintons. We run in, and it’s enormous. It’s got 3,000 volunteers partying it up. I said, “There’s no way the president’s coming to this. They don’t have any good cover. Anybody can flip ‘em. Come on, Tony, let’s go home. I’ve got to get up early.” As we’re walking out, Tony notices that Harvey, Bob Weinstein, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Affleck, Jessye Norman, a whole line of them-

Cooper: —the A-Team—

Pantoliano: (laughs)—are walking in, and Tony goes, “Look!” So we sneak in at the end of the line. And we walk into the service elevators that are there. I wind up with Jessye Norman again. She’s standing there, and I’m goin’, “It’s not lit!”

And there’s a guy with an Uzi who looks like he’s out of Men in Black, and he says, “Sir, the cigar please.” I said, “It’s not lit, see? Not lit, not lit, not lit!” We get off, and someone says, “Joe, would you come with us?” I said, “Sure.” So they took Tony, Rosanna and me into a suite that’s probably as wide as this room from the counter to the wall, twice as long, and they’ve got wine and beer and hors d’oeuvres, and there’s a television set that’s in the corner on a steel roller thing. The TV’s about this big, and it’s showing the results. As soon as the guy with the Uzi went out the door, Tony says, “You got us arrested! See what you did? You couldn’t keep your mouth shut.” I’m like, “Tony, you see this food? You see this wine? You call this arrested?”

I said, “Take it easy. I’m going to go take a leak.” So I took a leak just in case he was right. When I walked out, I walked right into Chelsea Clinton and 120 other people. This place looked like the A train during rush hour. What I found out is that we were getting really special treatment, because they put those other people in a different room, and we got the president’s room. They saw the president first, Tony and Rosanna. So I come in and I got this cigar and I’m going, “Chelsea, we did it! Hillary, we did it!” I had met them before. They know who I am. They may not know my name, but they know I’m the actor, right? And she’s going, “Thank you, thank you!” And they’re taking pictures, and I tried like the dickens to find the guy who took those pictures, because I wanted to put it in the book.

Cooper: Where is Bill Clinton in all of this?

Pantoliano: He’s standing in the corner like he’s holding forth, “Maybe he can win Alabama,” Clinton says of Gore, thinking ahead. So I go up to him and say, “Mr. President, Mr. President, we’re going to miss you. I’m going to miss you,” and he’s going, “Thank you, thank you very much!” I said, “Oh, we had good times those eight years, Mr. President,” and he goes, “Thank you!” And I feel this pinching, this grabbing at my leg, and it’s Tony, and he says, “Sit down, sit down. [the Secret Service] have their guns out! They’re gonna clip you! Get down! Get down!” I literally kissed the president on the cheek. “I love you, man! I love you! I’m gonna miss you!” Tony pulls me down. He says, “I’m never gonna work again! I swear to Christ, if you touch that man again, I’m gonna throw you through the window. Leave him alone, Joey. Leave him alone!”

President Clinton finally says, “Thank you,” and then he starts talking to the whole room: “What Gore’s got to do is win Florida now. They’re going to have to get Florida in order for him to win.” I say to Tony, “Well, it would have been a lot easier if he’d left his hands off that chick with the blue dress, right?”—meaning Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. And Clinton heard me. And he said, “Well, I gotta go, I gotta go back to work. Thank you.” And he walks out. I felt really bad about that.

Cooper: Yeah! Is Tony still a friend of yours?

Pantoliano: Yeah, Tony’s still a friend.

Cooper: (laughs) Clinton might not be!

Pantoliano: Bill Clinton is, too. So the cap to this story came awhile later when I was doing press for Bad Boys II, and they had me at this hotel not far from 51st and Park. Steven Spielberg was in town for the opening of A.I., and I got invited and had an extra ticket. I was going with Tony. At that point, my celebrity had gone up a couple of rungs, and when I walked out, there were people wanting me to sign photographs they had of me; I never know where they find these photographs. They just show up, because they’ve got pictures from movies I’ve been in.

Tony goes, “Oh, great, here we go.” He walks up to the limo, and the driver says, “Are you with the general?” And Tony goes, “Oh, great, now they’re calling him the general. Listen to me: He ain’t no general, all right?” I get in the car now. Now the guy’s really confused. And there’s a tap on the window, and they said, “Joe, you’re in the wrong car.” So we get out. Here’s this huge guy and he’s got white hair and he’s pissed. We figured it was the general. We never found out who he was.

Now we’re at the party, and then the after party, and all of a sudden this guy who’s laughing comes up to me, he goes, “Hey, Joe, how are you?” I said, “I’m good.” He says, “You don’t remember me. I’m on Steven Spielberg’s detail. I’m retired. I’m Secret Service. I used to be on the president’s detail.” I said, “Oh, yeah!” He said, “You were funny that night.”

Cooper: (laughs)

Pantoliano: “President Clinton was laughing in the car. They couldn’t believe how [drunk] you were.” So it was a dot to the end of the story. I was so happy that the president wasn’t insulted.

Cooper: He knew you’d had a couple of drinks and were just being kind of loose lipped.

Pantoliano: Yeah, and I remember being at a party up in Harlem. It was the Congressional Black Caucus. And President Clinton and I and a bunch of people were talking, and he was like, “Let bygones be bygones. Come on, let’s take a picture.”

So now I’m in L.A. I’m working. The next day is my birthday. I’m going to be 50, and my wife is throwing me a surprise party at Ron Berkel’s mansion. Green Acres, I think he calls it. Big place. He’s a big funder for the DNC and the Clinton campaign.

Cooper: Does the back of his house have this really long pool area? I think I’ve been there before.

Pantoliano: It was built for Harold Lloyd, the Harold Lloyd estate. The morning before the event, my cell phone rings. I don’t get it. I listen to the message. It’s a woman crying, and all she keeps saying is, “I’m sorry. This is horrible. I’m sorry.” So I turn on the TV, like, what the hell? And I see all the stations have that the World Trade Center one of them is burning. I’m trying to figure out what’s going on when I see the second one. Needless to say, I found out that there wasn’t going to be a party. Thank God my wife didn’t fly out from New York that morning, because she would have been on that flight.

Cooper: Oh, my God! Wow!

Pantoliano: A friend was coming in from Boston. He would have been on that flight. So I go to work. I’m doing a TV show. It’s surreal. I can’t concentrate. I know that my son, who’s living in Hoboken, has got a meeting downtown and all I can think is: “Is he taking the PATH train? Is he going to Christopher Street or the World Trade Center?” I finally thought, “The party must go on, but I’m leaving. I’ve got to go home and see if everybody’s all right.”

They said, “Don’t worry about it. We’re canceling. I called Tony and Chad, another friend of ours; we all live around each other in Connecticut. So we meet up with Chad, and we’re watching CNN, and all of a sudden they cut to this general, and Tony and I go, “It’s the general! Holy %@#&, it’s the general!” His name was Wesley Clark.
.... continued in ABILITY Magazine click here to order a print copy or to subscribe .

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Excerpts from the Joe Pantoliano Issue June/July 2012:

Equine Therapy — Horses Help Vets to Heal

Joe Pantoliano — He Puts the ‘Fun’ in Dysfunctional

China — A Teacher Who Moves Mountains

Saudi Arabia — A Princess Seeks a World of Change

Derek Amato — He Sees Music

Humor — Adulthood is Overrated

George Covington — The Thing About Getting Old

Articles in the Geri Jewell Issue; Humor — Adulthood is Overrated; Ashley Fiolek — Balancing Work and Play; Sen. Harkin — The Affortable Care Act; China — A Teacher Who Moves Mountains; Saudi Arabia — A Princess Seeks a World of Change; George Covington — The Thing About Getting Old; Derek Amato — He Sees Music; Joe Pantoliano — He Puts the ‘Fun’ in Dysfunctional; Asylum — Book Excerpt; Geri Jewell — A Good Act to Follow; Brad Hennefer — Loves His Tee Time; Equine Therapy — Horses Help Vets to Heal; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

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