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Joe Pantoliano sheds supporting status in 'From the Vine'

Actor has built his career on supporting roles in successful movies

PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. – Joe Pantoliano has acted alongside some of Hollywood's biggest stars -- Tom Cruise, Robert DeNiro and Harrison Ford among them.

But what sets him apart from the aforementioned actors is his face. He calls it his "20-minute face."

"You're describing movie stars," he said Friday during a visit to Local 10 News. "I'm a movie actor. There's a difference."

Although it's true that his name may not immediately trigger in the minds of moviegoers when mentioned, Pantoliano is unmistakably recognizable, mostly because of his many memorable performances.

"I've really enjoyed a career in playing very diverse characters," the 68-year-old, New Jersey-born thespian attested.

Indeed, he's enjoyed a range of supporting roles through the years, from playing Guido the pimp in one of his earliest movies, 1983's "Risky Business," and appearing opposite Robert Davi as one half of the Fratelli brothers in 1985's "The Goonies," to portraying a sleazy bail bondsman in 1988's "Midnight Run" and teaming with the Oscar-nominated Tommy Lee Jones as a U.S. marshal in 1993's "The Fugitive."

"I got a 20-minute face and movie stars, they've got a 90-minute face," Pantoliano said. "So it's like, 'how am I able to change this face enough that they never get sick and tired of me?'"

For his latest movie, "From the Vine," which is making its East Coast premiere Sunday at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, Pantoliano changed his face into that of a lead actor's, this time sans facial hair and sporting a bald head.

Pantoliano stars as a conflicted corporate executive who quits his job and travels to Italy to revive his family's old vineyard.

"It's a comedy. It's whimsical," Pantoliano said in describing the movie. "You know, it's about relationships and love and unrequited love and finding love again."

When Pantoliano's agent first gave him the script, it took him by surprise.

"I got on page nine and realized that he must have made a mistake because this was the lead in the movie," Pantoliano said. 

I​t was a rare opportunity to carry a movie -- his first lead role since 2006's "Canvas," which was filmed in Fort Lauderdale and also screened at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.

Before signing on for "From the Vine," he couldn't help but wonder, "How many people turned this job down?"

"It was a great opportunity," he said. "I was very fortunate that they wanted me in their movie."

Besides, it was set in Italy.

"It could have been a terrible script," he joked. "I was going."


Pantoliano never thought he'd be working as long as he has been.

"I prayed for a 30-year career and now I'm stuck with a 40-year career, so thank God I'm still able to get a job at this age," he said.

Pantoliano has appeared in more than 100 feature films, television movies and series since 1973, but it was his performance in "Risky Business" that catapulted his career.

"It was a hit," he said of the movie, which stars Cruise as a suburban Chicago high school student who is unwittingly pitted against Pantoliano's character after an encounter with a prostitute (played by Rebecca De Mornay). "People are attracted to movies that make money. So when you're in a movie that makes money, the tendency is that they see you as a guarantor on your investment."

Pantoliano said he wound up becoming a regular in several other profitable Warner Bros. pictures, including "The Goonies," "The Fugitive," its 1998 sequel "U.S. Marshals" and the first installment of "The Matrix" franchise.

He delivered the titular phrase to DeNiro's bounty hunter in "Midnight Run" and had a smorgasbord of quotable lines in "The Fugitive."

"We improvised a lot," he said.

Pantoliano is no stranger to South Florida. Aside from his work in "Canvass," he's also played the boss of Will Smith's Mike Lowrey and Martin Lawrence's Marcus Burnett in the Miami-based "Bad Boys" movies. He'll reprise his role as Capt. Conrad Howard in next year's "Bad Boys for Life."

"I think I've done something like close to a dozen pictures over the last 20 years, 30 years in Florida," he recalled.

Each visit was typically during, as he described it, "The Mean Season" (also the name of one of his movies) when temperatures frequently teetered around 100 degrees.

"I hate it," he said.

Not so during the making of "Bad Boys for Life," which wrapped production in April.

"I was like, this place is great," he said.

Pantoliano's talents aren't just limited to the silver screen. He also appeared in season three of HBO's "The Sopranos," winning an Emmy for his (surprise, surprise) supporting role as Ralphie Cifaretto, who met his demise -- all because of a horse -- in a brutal brawl with the late James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano.


When Pantoliano is in town, he likes to discover new places. He spoke of "the globalization of the world" and its cookie cutter-like transformation.

"It was always fun to come to Florida and find these little mom-and-pop shops," he said.

That's what he did Thursday when he got to Fort Lauderdale. He had a hankering for some Cuban cuisine. That led him to Alexandra's on Hollywood Boulevard.

"It was fantastic," he said.

Having a career mostly built on supporting performances has its advantages. One is the element of anonymity. He's not the guy who ventures outside and gets accosted by strangers on the street.

Pantoliano, recalling what James Cagney once said about doing "one or two things that keeps you memorable," is comfortable with that.

"You know, I pretty much made a career on anemic, written roles that I could see that I had an opportunity to turn it into a standout performance," he said.

It's served him well.

"Fortunately, I was able to parlay that into better parts and better movies," he added.

Which brings him to Fort Lauderdale, where he'll be honored with a lifetime achievement award before Sunday's screening of "From the Vine."

"It means it's something else I gotta carry home," Pantoliano said of the honor.

The longtime role player expects audiences will be in for a surprise when they see his name in an unfamiliar position during the opening credits -- before the title.

"I hope they come and see it," Pantoliano said. "I hope they come and support all of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival," calling it an "opportunity for people to see movies that they're never going to see in many cases."


"From the Vine" has two showings Sunday -- 4 p.m. at Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale and 5 p.m. at Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood. General admission tickets cost $35 and include admission to the closing night party at the Atlantic Hotel & Spa.


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