by Jason F. Koenigsberg
Another prolific career in motion pictures was that of Italian-American actor Joe Pesci. A native of New Jersey, he became synonymous with New York, Italian tough guy, mobster roles. Pesci got started acting later in life. Unlike many actors that try to sing (Eddie Murphy, Bruce Willis, Russell Crowe) Joe Pesci really could sing. He grew up with the original Jersey Boys and released albums. He had several roles in the 60’s and 70’s but Joe Pesci’s real breakout was his performance in the Jake La Motta biopic Raging Bull (1980) where he starred as Joey La Motta, Jake’s little brother. This would mark the first of several times working with his friends and frequent collaborators Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. Pesci earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and his career in front of the camera really took off from that point on.
Little Joe could sing, but he also could act and throughout the 1980’s split his time between comedies like Easy Money (1983) opposite Rodney Dangerfield and heavy dramas like Once Upon a Time in America (1984) reuniting him with his Raging Bull costar and close friend Robert De Niro. It would be the same group of friends Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese that would give Joe Pesci the best role of his career when they all reunited a decade after Raging Bull and made the mafia masterpiece Goodfellas (1990).
The late 80’s and early 90’s were probably the best era in Joe Pesci’s acting career. A scene stealing comic relief role in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), his Oscar winning turn as a foul mouthed, hot tempered mobster in Goodfellas, that same year starring in the biggest financial hit of his career in the family comedy Home Alone (1990), showing his versatility and then in 1992 a leading role playing on both his strength’s as a tough guy and his comedic timing with the legal comedy My Cousin Vinny (1992). This was where Joe Pesci started to establish his schitck and would get typecast and pidgeonholed into certain characters. When you look at the rest of his filmography you can basically tell what Pesci’s motives were. He was either acting in a movie to be with his dear friends De Niro and Scorsese with films like Casino (1995), or he was in it for just a paycheck, often playing on the persona he created in Goodfellas. How else could you explain 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag (1997)?
His last official movie was Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), which again was a chance to hang out with some friends since it was the same cast and crew of the previous Lethal Weapon movies and he obviously liked them enough to star in all of the sequels. Since then he has only appeared in two films. One basically a cameo role in The Good Shepherd (2006) which he probably did as a favor for his friend Robert De Niro who costarred and also directed the film. He also had a “what was he thinking?” role in the terrible Taylor Hackford movie Love Ranch (2010) about the first legal brothel in Nevada.
Pesci publicly announced his retirement from acting back in 2001 saying he wanted to focus on his music career. Since then he has released a few albums and also done a lot of charity work with his golf tournaments. There are rumors that he may get coaxed out of retirement for another role alongside Robert De Niro called The Irishman also to be directed by Martin Scorsese. If those two longtime friends of his cannot get him back in front of the camera then I do not think anything will. He is currently 74 years old so there is still time. It would be great to see Joe Pesci act again in a role that really benefits from his dramatic talents or comedic timing so we are not left with his last role being inconsequential parts in Lethal Weapon 4, The Good Shepherd, or Love Ranch.