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: Not with me?
Pantoliano: Here, 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.”
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.
Cooper: He ran for president.
Pantoliano: Yeah! Isn’t that funny? So it came full circle.
Cooper: Great story. Have you ever met the Carters?
Pantoliano: I got to know Rosalyn when they invited me out to the Carter Center. They showed me the quarters where they live. There was President Carter and Amy Carter and her son, and they offered us a glass of wine. Their apartment was very modest, maybe 1,500 square feet total.
Cooper: They’re incredible people.
Pantoliano: (signing on to a computer) I’d love you to see a cartoon. It’s called Animate This!, and it’s hysterical.
Cooper: Did you make it?
Pantoliano: Yes, I narrate the story. We call it The Jersey Shore.
(They watch the cartoon, which is about a man who takes his prim and proper girlfriend home to his out-of-control family.)
Cooper: Very funny. Switching subjects; we’re expanding our website with communities that deal with a range of issues. Maybe we could work together with you as a community leader on the mental health front; it ties well to your No Kidding, Me Too! website.
Pantoliano: I’d love that. We could have part of our 501(c) use celebrities to create content. We are creating content to get the message out.
You know what I’d love to do? A story using the material I got when I was over in Iraq; we shot over 13 hours of interviews with GIs and their attempted suicides. They talked about the reasons why they tried to kill themselves. Mind-blowing.
Cooper: That reminds me a little bit of what Spielberg did, where he interviewed survivors of the Holocaust. If you have all this content, you should figure out the place that people can go and view it, like an archive.
Pantoliano: We do. We’ve got it all on YouTube. Here, listen, it’s only two and a half minutes.
(He plays a video clip.)
Cooper: That’s really nice, a lot in a short period of time.
Pantoliano: We tried to sell it: three minutes, five minutes.
Cooper: Like a series?
Pantoliano: Yeah, but they want to own all of it. They want to take—
Cooper: —control of it as well?
Pantoliano: Greater control anyway. They also want to base it on my first memoir, which was the first 18 years of my life. But we couldn’t make a deal. Pretty soon you’ll be able to eliminate the middle guy to finance these projects.
Cooper: You see what’s happening with music.
Pantoliano: Yes, it’s a lot more creative and autonomous.
Cooper: There are shows that are doing web stuff first to build an audience. That still seems expensive, to do that cartoon.
Pantoliano: It’s about $800 a minute.
Cooper: That can add up. You know the last time we talked we said we would see if we could stay in touch around the ABILITY House project.
Pantoliano: Where you build a house for people with disabilities?
Cooper: Right. We could identify people with mental health conditions for whom to build a home. We have volunteers with disabilities build the houses, usually in partnership with Habitat for Humanity. You said your wife was doing something along similar lines.
Pantoliano: She helps female veterans find housing.
Cooper: That’s good.
Pantoliano: You should talk to Nancy. There’s an average of about 120,000 veterans who will be homeless tonight. This war’s been going on now for 11 years, and there have been about 4,800 deaths—deaths due to battle conflict—and about 50,000 suicides. Every 80 minutes a GI kills himself. The Taliban doesn’t need any help. We’re doing it ourselves, to the tune of 22-plus men a day.
Cooper: Did you hear about how many of them come back, buy motorcycles on their way home, and then never make it? I talked to a psychiatrist about this who said it wasn’t that they don’t know how to ride; it was that they were riding towards the danger.
Pantoliano: That feeling from when they were over there. Yup. Makes sense. It’s where you just go, “Forget it!” And a lot of these guys, they have one leg and they’re able to get retrofitted so they can ride their bikes.
Cooper: Do you ride?
Pantoliano: I ride a Vespa 250cc! I get around, baby.
As I succeeded in my career, and succeeded and succeeded, it was only then, when I realized that I had all of these things and they still weren’t enough—they were never enough—that I started to self-destruct. I was 800 Internet Movie Data Base points from true happiness, and then came the depression. The real depression.
Ironically, in 2005, just as I was about to hit bottom, I started working on a movie about mental health called Canvas. In the film I play a man named John who is married to a schizophrenic. Anyone watching it can see the exhaustion and resignation in my face, the sluggishness in my walk. Talk about affective memory! Boy, would my acting teacher have been proud! I was certainly using my personal experience for this guy! What was inside of me served my character well.
Towards the end of pre-production on Canvas, two days before the start of shooting, I got a call from my old friend Charlie Rocket. Charlie was not only a brilliant actor and comedian, he was also a self-ordained minister. Charlie had married Nancy and me, our ceremony was like a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live. He surprised me, Nancy, and our 300 guests by presiding over our nuptials in his magenta tuxedo and rose-colored John Lennon glasses. He spoke of those rose-colored glasses as a metaphor for married life in his wonderful deep voice, sounding like the voice of God Himself.
In fact he was so funny that director Andy Davis cast Charlie on the spot for his next movie, Steal Big Steal Little. Charlie was my go-to man for many of my problems. So when Charlie called out of nowhere, I was glad to hear that voice. In our 15-minute conversation, we shared a couple of laughs, and made plans to get together with mutual friends over the Thanksgiving weekend, some eight weeks away.
On my second day of shooting Nancy called to tell me that Charlie was dead. He had slit his throat with two kitchen knives, one in each hand. He didn’t leave a note. I thought, how could this be? I just talked to the guy! There was no evidence that he was troubled in any way. How angry must he have been? Later I learned that suicide without warning is actually very common. People experience a wave of despair and/or fury, sort of like a stroke, and they seize on the idea of suicide and just do it. A permanent solution to a temporary problem.
The thing is, I had had friends commit suicide in the past. I remember being angry at them for choosing that way out, and for leaving such a mess. But I didn’t feel that way with Charlie. Not this time. I felt an overwhelming sense of compassion and empathy. I became scared. I remember thinking that suicide might be a reasonable way of ending my own pain.
When I had that thought it stayed in my head, and I could not shake it. Kind of like an out-of-body experience, I sensed my unconscious mind floating above me, contemplating my physical self’s next move. Charlie’s death coupled with all the emotional dust that was being kicked up throughout the filming of Canvas had me on the ropes. To think that I, of all people, now that I had everything that was supposed to insulate me from bad feelings, would really want to commit suicide…the idea left me white-knuckled and frozen with fear.
Depressed as I was, working on Canvas changed my perception of mental illness. I began to realize that mental illness is something different from the way it’s typically portrayed in the movies. One day my costar Marcia Harden and I went to a mental clinic so that we could learn the mannerisms, the rhythms. After talking awhile with some of the patients, I said, “You folks are very nice, but where are the ‘crazy’ people? You know, the ones who talk to trees?”
“We are the ‘crazy’ people,” they said.
There was something else in making the movie: the way Marcia was building her character. Everything she was doing in front of the camera was dead on for my mother, and Marcia had never met her. It was like the scenes in the movie were scenes in our cold water flat in Hoboken. I always thought Mommy was just a character in the first-generation Italian-American melodrama I grew up in. Now I began to realize that my mother may have had Brain Dis-ease.
BD is subtle. It isn’t always seeing elephants or hearing bells. The way Marcia portrayed her character was very real. Her behavior didn’t look like out of the ordinary. In one scene her character says, “I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to go to that house.” She reminded me of my mother when there was a thunderstorm, and she was afraid afterward that I would fall into quicksand. She had a million reasons for not allowing me to hang out with my friends or have a sleepover or go down to the shore with my friends, or insisting that I call as soon as I got there, and if I didn’t she’d be screaming and calling the cops.
But even as I was recognizing my mother’s mental illness, I didn’t have enough perspective to see that I, too, needed help. I was racked by despair and anesthetizing myself daily with painkillers. My director, Joseph Greco, would say, “Cut,” but the feelings stayed in me; I couldn’t shake ‘em.
Meanwhile I’d make offhand remarks about the painkillers I was taking for my various ailments, or mention my many doctor visits. Apparently Greco had been observing me more closely than I thought. He texted me at one point and said, “I don’t care if you get mad at me, I’m worried and scared and I have to tell you, I’m afraid you’re going to kill yourself using these painkillers.”
Schmuck! Did he want the whole world to know?
I stopped whatever I was doing and went directly to his hotel. We were in Hollywood, FL, which had recently been hit by Hurricane Wilma, and now a different type of storm was brewing. I burst into his room and grabbed him. I wanted to nail him to a cross!
“Are you fucking nuts!” I screamed in his face. “You never text shit like that to me, putting it in writing! Once you hit that button you’re making my life public knowledge! Words live on forever!” (Like the words I’m writing right now!) I kept ranting at full tilt. “You motherfucker, how dare you. Don’t ever text me or anyone else about my personal affairs!”
It took balls for Greco to confront me, and it had to be said. I had lost my smile and I couldn’t find it anywhere. Greco cared about me so much he ran the risk of alienating me completely.
The truth is that by getting hooked on painkillers and letting my health deteriorate, I was repeating family history. My mother became addicted to prescription drugs and tranquilizers, but we didn’t know that in those days. How could you know that in 1965? We just knew that she needed her “tranquilizehs.” My mother’s other vices were cigarettes (three to four packs a day), coffee (with three scoops of sugar), and gambling. Mommy’s death certificate read coronary thrombosis, but no doubt the tranquilizers, cigarettes, sugar and later diabetes sped her decline.
There was a report put out by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) a few years ago that really got my attention: It said people with undiagnosed mental disease will die 25 years younger than those in treatment. I started on the pills at 50; Mommy was 50 when her downward spiral began. She died at 63. My aunt Tillie, a drug addict and alcoholic, died at 59; my grandfather, an alcoholic, died at 50; my grandmother died at 49 (although my uncle Pete, who really suffered from gambling addiction, lived to be 93!).
When the movie was done and I went home, I knew something was going on inside me. Something was up. The movie was in my head. So was my friend’s suicide. So was one of the first characters I ever played, Billy Bibbit, who slit his throat like my friend.
I lived in the bedroom, which became my cave, like an old dog who knows his time to die is drawing near. I could see how empty my life had become, even though I was surrounded with the pretty things meant to define me. I pushed everyone I loved away, or scared them, thinking I was teaching them a lesson. I withdrew from everything that I had accumulated in my past, and I was ashamed of a tomorrow that hadn’t even come yet.
At first everything at home was great. There was no distinct moment when all of a sudden, boom, there was this different person in my life. It was a slow slide. You know, things happen in life. I would attribute a change in his mood to a TV series being canceled. So, he’s a little depressed, no big deal. He’s a little angry, or worried. Then the next job comes around or the next good thing happens and those bad feelings would go away. Same with the drinking. If it got to the point where it felt like Joey was drinking too much, all I had to do was say something and he would stop. And that was true for a long time. But the drinking periods got longer and longer until it got to the point where it seemed like it was always tough to be together. Everybody was on pins and needles.
For example, he’d be coming home from somewhere-he’d have been gone for a month—and what he would do is come in and he’d inspect every corner and find something wrong with everything. But I didn’t understand why at the time.
Before one homecoming I went top to toe everywhere, outside, inside, everything I could think of, and had the house perfect. In he comes, and he’s looking around, going to each room and he can’t find anything wrong and it’s making him crazy. There’s nothing out of place and it’s totally messing him up. This is when I realized what was going on.
He went to his office and walked around. Then finally he was outside, and he went way down in the backyard, down the steps, behind the garage, way in the back to a deck where none of us ever goes. We had furniture piled up. We never put the furniture out because we never went back there. The furniture was still piled up from the year before. Joey comes up. “I can’t believe you didn’t put the furniture out!” And blah blah blah. We all started laughing because, oh my God, he actually found something.
“Why are you laughing?” he said.
The routine used to be, whenever he’d come home he’d have to find something and scream at somebody and make it all OK, right? So we would all scatter. But this time we were so sure we did it right that we were watching him. And he was just storming. We just laughed. But it was very serious business. I told my therapist about it, and she said,
“It’s about him feeling out of place and needing to feel in place.” And that was his way of doing it. It’s kind of like a dog pissing on a bush. It’s his imprint.
The more depressed I got, the more dogs I got. When I was at my sickest we had 10 dogs. Nancy joked about me being a dog hoarder. I loved the dogs. I let them kiss me. The kids would say, “That’s disgusting!” and I would reply, “Have I ever gotten sick?” (My dad once told me that a dog’s tongue is clean and healing. A human tongue has 600 percent more microbes and it’s filthy. And yet people French kiss each other on the first date! Meanwhile dogs are 600 percent cleaner and they don’t French me.)
Why was I working to surround myself with so many dogs? Because they understood. My dog, Bogie, named after Humphrey Bogart, was my higher power. My dogs loved me unconditionally, and I never had to apologize to them. Unlike my human family, they never talked back or suffered hurt feelings when I behaved badly. And the more depressed I was, the worse I behaved.
At our house we have a bell that goes off when you come into the driveway to let us know that people are coming. That bell would go off when I drove up, and the dogs would come out to greet me. The kids would say, “He’s home.” They’d gather their stuff and go to their rooms so they wouldn’t have to deal with me.
In one of my darkest moments, I found myself in a DC hotel room confessing all of my transgressions to Nancy. All of my failures as a husband, all the betrayals I’d committed during our marriage. She needed to know what kind of person I really was.
I remember confessing my sins to the figure behind the white lace shower curtain while watching the warm water ricocheting off the vinyl below. I had surrendered my arsenal of deceit. My petty crimes were a repeat of the same broken record, the rusty needle going round, scratching out the same predictable song my mother taught me with white lies of omission. Mine was a disease thirsty for attention and deaf to the volume of harm.
I lay back in bed with my head up on the pillows. In this position I could see the bathroom I had just left after finishing my confession. I could see the silhouette of Nancy’s lean and shapely body reflected in the large bathroom mirror above the sink, still steamed up, her shower sounding like rain as it bounced off the porcelain and drowned out her muffled weeping. What would be my penance for my petty crimes of passion?
Nancy entered the room still wet from her shower, her eyes red from crying. She was now covering herself, turning from me, embarrassed, not knowing me anymore. I had admitted my laundry list of transgressions, hacking away at our foundation of trust and respect.
When I met Nancy, she was already successful in fashion and print. At 28, she was a veteran model and a single mom.
She spent two years in New York City, then went on to Paris and Germany for five years. Nancy wasn’t naïve; she had literally been around the world; she had had her share of heartache. But in this hotel room, 25 years later, my confessions had hurt her deeply. My Nancy folded over, sobbing. She couldn’t hold herself up. She was crumpled up on the floor in a ball. I was standing there realizing the magnitude of pain that I caused her, seeing the effect of all my lies and my desires on my wife, the woman I love. And the messed up part was, I did love her. I loved her even as I hurt her by showing how unworthy I really was. I despised myself, and part of me must have despised her for loving me.
I needed a way out of this pain. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, and nothing seemed to satisfy me or bring me joy. I was already on antidepressants, and checking in regularly with the doctor who prescribed them. When I finally told him about the depth of my despair, about how suicide now presented itself as a viable option, Doc listened to all of this. He said I needed to see someone. Oh, no kidding. He wrote on his prescription pad names and numbers of three different psychiatrists.
I waited a few weeks and went to see Dr. George Kelly, a shrink. He has an office in Norwalk, CT, not far from my home. When he called me in, the first thing I noticed was his poof of white hair, like the cumulus cloud I saw floating out there in the sky, framed by the vertical white blinds.
I walked over to the window and looked out. Wouldn’t you know—a funeral parlor. I know funeral parlors. They were our entertainment when I was growing up. Mommy dragged me to every funeral and made me look at the dead people. I thought that was normal.
Dr. Kelly with his hair was straight out of central casting. If you’ve ever been to one of these therapist guys, you know they like to sit there and say nothing, to wait till you talk. Well, we were a perfect fit. I don’t know how to stop talking.
People have always said of me, “This guy, there’s no edit button with him. What hits the brain comes out of his mouth.” That’s a good trait to have as an actor. They call it spontaneity, to go with whatever’s flashing in your head, to be fearless. Great in acting, shitty in the real world.
The pills, the booze, the betrayals, Mommy, the despair, I told him all of it. When I wake up in the morning my first thought is, “#%&*!, I’m still here.” There is no reason to live, I said, and it’s a cliché unless it’s you who’s thinking it. If this is what my life was going to be, if even these pills don’t work, I’d rather be dead. Then I ran out of words, and there was a silence in the room, and I was thinking, That’s your cue, Doc.
“It’s not your fault,” he said.
I didn’t understand what he was saying. I tried to explain. Doc, I lie and cheat; I was taught to lie and steal as a kid. I do booze, pills, women, clothes. I am those bad characters I play in the movies.
“It’s not your fault,” he repeated.
Of course I had to take responsibility for my actions. But that’s not what he was saying. What he was saying was that I had something inside me that I didn’t put there. I had a mental illness, a brain dis-ease. Depression. There are three degrees of depression, he explained. The clinical is the toughest. That’s the one that lives inside of me. It’s in my genes. And it was nursed along by everything I experienced as a child. It was in the script I wrote as a kid to explain my world and me to myself. Those lines keep coming back to me decades later. It’s like I can’t start a new movie. I just keep reciting the old lines.
So that’s it, I thought, when the doc told me. I’m crazy. Not Hoboken Italian crazy, but there’s-a-diagnosis-for-this crazy (He didn’t actually say I was crazy. I think he called me a “lovable neurotic.”).
I felt as though I’d hit the lottery. It’s not my fault. I had been saying to myself forever: Shame on you, Joey, shame on you. What else do you need? What else do you have to have? You’ve got all this and you’re mired in quicksand. Now I didn’t have to feel that way anymore.
On hearing that they officially have BD, many people take a room at the stigma motel. I didn’t. I was hitting my bottom—a term I would eventually learn is used in 12 Step Programs—but it was a bottom that offered a rope to climb out. None of this made a lot of sense at the moment, but now these flying monkeys in my head had a name: Depression-Capital “D” Depression. They have therapy for that, and pills for that, and they can teach you how to manage that the right way.
As Dr. Kelly and I sat there in silence looking at each other, I realized, I’m 55 years old and suddenly my life has an explanation. This is an epiphany. You don’t get many real ones in life, and when you do, you gotta grab ‘em. It was the beginning of a 12-Step journey.
Dr. Kelly said that what we would do is delve into my past and look at the stories and situations that have been unresolved. My stories were not very flattering. What was my past like? One incident sums it up nicely. Six months before he died, my father, Monk, was arrested for getting into a fistfight with a candy store owner who accused him of stealing a 60-cent cigar. Which he had done.
I can still see me surrounded by all of that Italian madness. All those symptoms, living in the neighborhood of the Deadly Symptoms. The gambling, cheating, lying, addictions. Those are the symptoms. Let’s call them Symptomotron. I was assembled on the character-defect factory line. I was an emotional second, couldn’t be sold as a primary part. I was in the discount department.
The fact was I never had the tools for proper living, because my family never had the tools, and I thought the entire human race was like that. The gambling, the lying, the stealing, the addictions. My mother was doing my father, and she was doing her cousin Florie. My father and mother broke up, but they never got divorced, and Florie never got divorced from his wife, Marcia. This is what I think life is like.
That first session with Dr. Kelly started me off on a journey to look squarely at my life. Getting here was a combination of things. The drugs—Mommy’s “tranquilizehs”—I took to be tranquil, to be able to live in my own skin. But then I built up a dependence on those drugs and they started losing their effectiveness. My mind would race and I would want to jump out of my own skin.
It was making Canvas, meeting Marcia Gay Harden, seeing my friend Charlie take his life, thinking, for the first time, that it might be an option for me. It was the misery and shame I felt, having accumulated all of these amazing things, setting enormous bars for me to hurdle. I was achieving that. Now, I’m no Jack Nicholson, I know, but I was regarded as one of the top character actors, and that made me uncomfortable.
I am now a walking potato sack of diagnoses: I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia, and now depression and PTSD. ADHD and dyslexia, yes; depression, yes; but PTSD?
I was telling the doctor, “But I’m an actor. I never went to war.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Trauma is trauma. And trauma to a child impacts like a bomb over Baghdad.”
PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Before I started working with my shrink I believed most of the stressful, traumatic times from my childhood were just funny anecdotes from my past. I knew they were dark, and twisted, and black humor at best. However, I never admitted to myself that what I called “antics” or “hijinks” often were violent, abusive acts.
Now I understand what post-traumatic stress is. When I was a little boy, two boys who were much older, maybe 11 or 12, held me down and urinated on my face and all over my clothes. How did that affect me? It’s not funny. Well, it sounds somewhat funny. But mostly it was horrible and scary and traumatic. I was only six.
Another time a friend threw my ball down a sewer. He did it on purpose, but mostly just to fool around. My dad took the sewer cover off and grabbed this kid by his ankles, a 12-year-old kid, and hung him upside-down to grab my ball. I thought my dad might kill my friend, and I was screaming, “Daddy, stop! Daddy, stop!”
I used this trauma. I meditated on it and wallowed in the pain to create characters with depth. In many ways it was indispensable to my career. In acting school, in auditions, onstage and on set, I was rewarded for my dysfunctional life.
I guess you use what you’re given. I didn’t hesitate to capitalize on the emotional trauma of my past to create emotional characters. Growing up, emotion was acceptable in our house. In my family, bad feelings were expressed without hesitation. Talk about living in the moment. In a lot of ways we were seizing the moment, carpe momentum, because we didn’t carry resentments. We said it. All of it. Our kitchen was ringside, ready to ignite. Mommy vs. Daddy, Mommy vs. Florio, Florio vs. Daddy, Mommy vs. me, or a neighbor, a stranger, or a bookie. Our cumulative blood pressure could have fueled a power plant.
We’d want to kill each other. Then 10 minutes later it was, “Joey, you want some coffee?” You just lay it all out in Italian families, especially in Italian families infested with mental dis-ease. I thought the entire human race was like that. So I had a gift. In acting school that’s what they called the ability to relive a traumatic experience. I was “gifted.”
“Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings. The men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected it with the name of the noblest of arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art. . . .
So, according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense. . . . Madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.”
Well, which came first, madness or creativity? God didn’t give the gift of madness to everyone. And it is a gift, you know. The scientists have linked ADHD and creativity. And I was able to find a craft that was exciting to me, that held my attention. Until I found acting, I couldn’t focus on anything for long before it became boring. Discovering acting was like finding a key that would take all my defects and turn them into assets. As a performer and storyteller, I found a use for all the pain and emotional trauma that dogged me over the years.
Confucius say, “He who would pursue a career as actor has to be a few sandwiches short of picnic.” Because, financially speaking, as an actor you can’t make a living. To survive, you have to make a killing!
Everyone working on a picture leaves a part of himself or herself—their pain, their soul, their spirit—in that project. Example: On the Waterfront. Iconic film. Shot in my home town. Imagine the filming of that classic scene of two brothers in a cab, arguably the most memorable, discussed, imitated and acted scene in movie history. Brando and Stieger are sitting in the rear of a severed taxi—what we folks in show business call a picture car—that through the wonders of movie magic seems like it’s in motion.
(Remember, King Kong was only three feet tall . . . but I digress.) So, two thespians sitting in the rear end of a severed cab inside some garage in Hoboken. Lights, camera—and now some crewmen start shaking the cab, creating the elusion the cab’s driving on its way to 427 River Street—then director Elia Kazan says action!
That scene is a creative collaboration between two actors, a screenwriter, a director, a photographer and a composer (the music, especially when created by Leonard Bernstein’s brain, plays a starring role). All complicated men, from different socio-economic backgrounds. Their individual lives, their secrets, personal experiences, some even traumatic, are sublimated into the material and transmitted through the actors into that cab scene, a frame at a time.
In the end the film is really a magic carpet made from pieces of everyone who contributed to it, and we the audience play our role too. We bring our own life experience into the mix as we experience the scene. As Brando and Stieger play brothers Terry and Charlie, their performances affect us deeply because we identify with them; we’re reminded of our own emotional past. Everyone has regrets, has made mistakes. We all want redemption as we watch those flickering images. The actors’ affective memories conjure up our own. Because we coulda been somebody, too.
The thing about madness is that it gives its gifts to those cursed with the need to express themselves. All actors and artists have a pinch of madness that pulls audiences toward them. We empathize with them. Through their words, music, paintings and performances, we see ourselves in them.
This is true of our greatest actors, if I dare put myself in that class. Consider the stories of such brilliant performers as Fanny Brice, George M. Cohan, Paul Muni, John Garfield, Glenn Ford, John Wayne, John Ford, Ward Bond, Spencer Tracy, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Rip Torn, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, William Holden, Alan Ladd, Grace Kelly, Henry Fonda, Elia Kazan, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Laurie, Walter Houston, John Huston, John Barrymore, Drew Barrymore and her great-aunt Ethel Barrymore, and uncle Lionel Barrymore. And the television actors of the ‘50s and ‘60s like Robert Young, Gig Young, and Robert Blake. They all had great qualities, but they all had their own dis-ease, their own deadly symptoms. I could feel myself in them, in their pain, which is what made them great stars. River Phoenix, Heath Ledger—
The list goes on and on and on. Why did I want to be like Spencer Tracy? Oh my God, he was such an alcoholic. Ava Gardner was a mess with alcoholism. Frank Sinatra was manic-depressive. Dean Martin was depressive. And why did I love Cary Grant? I adored him because I sensed his pain, and he made me laugh. I think he is the greatest film actor of our time, and yet he suffered greatly from depression.
This is the company I have kept in the asylum, where I was rewarded for my dysfunctional life, manipulating my brain to dredge up emotional trauma from my past, or to create emotional trauma through my imagination. People pay to see me do this.
Mental dis-ease never leaves you. If you don’t deal with it, it gets you. And so many of its causes are subconscious. I didn’t have a clue about where it was coming from or what the root of my problem was. To deal with it, you first have to see it, and it can be such a part of you that you can’t see it, like the fish can’t see water. Sometimes you need a Dr. Kelly.
by Joe Pantoliano