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Actor Joseph R. Gannascoli Opens the Books with Ringside Report to Talk about his Role as Vito Spatafore on The Sopranos and The Sport of Boxing

Exclusive Interview by “Bad” Brad Berkwitt (Reposted for Archive Purposes)

“I actually cried as so many did when The Greatest (Muhammad Ali) lost.” –Joseph R. Gannascoli

Joseph R. Gannascoli is a Brooklyn, New York, born and raised actor who has plied his trade for many years in some well known movies, but hit pay dirt, as Mafia Capo Vito Spatafore, a tough guy character that is found out to be gay in the HBO Hit Original Series, The Sopranos.  Before he became a truly famous face, he had parts in movies such as Ed Wood with Johnny Depp, Mickey Blue Eyes with Hugh Grant, and maybe one of the most famous actors to play a mafia figure in James Caan, (Sonny Corleone in The Godfather).

When you look at Gannascoli’s resume, you see a guy who has worked his way up in each movie role with small parts leading of course, into bigger ones. Acting, in a sense, is no different than boxing. Both the boxer and actor must start out small working their way up the ranks. The Actor starts with smaller roles, the fighter in smaller venues, working his way through lesser competition.  So in that sense, an actor such as Joe, who if he wins the Oscar one day, is like the boxer winning his first legitimate World Title.  Exciting for both, no doubt, and for sure a milestone that can passed on to generations in their families.
In this new series that saw us debut with Attorney Robert Shapiro, this week, and wanting to follow up that interview with a name that would instantly invoke many thoughts because of The Sopranos success, but to also show that boxing fans truly do come in all walks of life.  So if you are thinking of not reading any further:  fuggettaboutit…..

BB:  I know my first question you have probably been asked countless times since the final episode of The Sopranos went off, but what did you personally think of it?

I thought it was very good.  Working with David Chase (Creator), I know the way he operates and he doesn’t tie up loose ends.  You don’t know if Tony Soprano lived or died, which I would like to think he lived and it leaves the door open for future things, which personally, I don’t think is going to happen.  The music in it had a lot of meaning and the episode had a lot of symbolism from eating an orange, from Uncle Junior with no teeth in his mouth.  I really did love it. 

BB:  Your character Vito Spatafore, which got a lot of airtime was not only was a high ranking Capo, but you were also found out to be a homosexual as well.  In my research, I read that you came up with the idea to incorporate it into your character. How did David Chase take to your idea?

Yes, that was my idea from a book I was reading and I thought it would be interesting because it was something you just don’t see in Mob life.  It was also a chance to get some challenging acting work in.  I brought out to the creators about the book I was reading (Murder Machine by Authors Gene Mustain and Jerry Capeci) which had a gay character in there, which if they were interested in running with it, I wouldn’t mind. That was actually in the middle of season 3.  I didn’t hear anything about it until about season 5, when they asked me the name of the book I was reading which talked about the murder of the Acting Boss of the Family, “Johnny Boy” D’Amato back in 1992, that actually happened in Brooklyn, New York, when he was shot from the front several times in a backseat of a car.

BB:  Looking back now that your character is in the can, how did you think you did on your portrayal?  Finally, how did the different Gay and Lesbian organizations feel about your role since it was a main character on of the most watched TV shows in the history of television?

It’s hard to judge my own performance, but I heard from both people in the community, and gay community, that they loved it, which is very gratifying to hear.  In the portrayal of Vito Spatafore, I just really tried to give an honest performance.  Many people don’t realize this, but during that entire season, I was in tremendous pain with major hip problems where you actually see me limping around because of it.  Since then, I have had double hip replacement surgery and I’m happy to say, I’m feeling much better now and playing racquetball everyday. 

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) nominated my scenes in The Sopranos for a drama award, but they didn’t win.  I was honored by that even without the win.

BB:  Researching your acting career, I found a movie (Money For Nothing) that happened to have both James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) and Elizabeth Bracco, Lorraine Bracco’s (Dr Melfi’s) real life sister who also played your wife on The Sopranos.  When you finally realized you were going to be on the Sopranos, did you already have some type of rapport with either star going in?

Wow, I didn’t realize that Elizabeth Bracco was in that movie.  I didn’t work with James (Gandolfini), but I had a couple of scenes with Michael Madsen.  So honestly, since I didn’t work in it that much, we didn’t build rapport from this movie going into The Sopranos because I didn’t see either one of them. However, I did become friends with Benicio Del Toro from the set which really helped me get started in the business. Benicio also directed me in a short film back in 1995, called Submission.

BB:  With the huge success of The Sopranos worldwide, I am sure that anyone on the show whether a mainstream character or lesser known maybe recurring role would say it changed their life.  With that said, how did it change your life and create opportunities for a hard working actor such as yourself? 

The whole point of doing the gay thing was about getting more work of course.  Yes, there were many perks that came with being in the show such as having a book published (Meal to Die For), having my own cue stick line and I have a line of cigars coming out soon.  It allows me not to have to always sit and wait by the phone as so many actors have to do.  I got married a couple of years ago and it afforded me the opportunity to purchase a beautiful house.  With having a new family, it takes some of the burden off of me to worry about where the money is going to come in from.  The Sopranos for sure was a springboard for me into other things and now when the phone rings, they know I can do the work they would like to offer me and it’s just a matter of fitting them into the schedule. 

BB: One other question before we talk about boxing, and I must ask since I am big fan of Ed Wood movies. Looking at your career, you actually played a role in biographical movie about Ed Wood that starred Johnny Depp and Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi (Dracula).  What was that set like since the story of Ed Wood is pretty wild?

It was a wild set though I was not on much, but had scenes with Johnny Depp who is a great actor and I really enjoyed doing on the Warner Brothers Set.  I actually got the job from the same casting director who cast me in Money For Nothing. I really owe a lot to them. 

BB:  Let’s now shift our interview to your love for the sport of boxing.  First thing that came to mind when I was thinking back on The Sopranos along with boxing is they never if I recall, went to a fight or shot a scene maybe at a fight or a gym. But they did have a picture of Rocky Marciano that was in the office at the Bada Bing Strip Club.  Was there ever talk about doing any stories around boxing or a fight that got canned?

Not that I know of. 

BB:  How long have you followed boxing?

I have followed it since I was a kid and really was a huge Muhammad Ali fan.  Over the years, I have read as many books as I can about him and truly respect the man. He actually fought Leon Spinks on my 19th Birthday (Feb 15, 1978) and lost his title as we all know by a split decision to Spinks who amazingly was fighting for the 8th time as a professional fighter.  I actually cried as so many did when The Greatest lost.  He is a true Muslim who has taken his religion very seriously over the years and standing up for what he believed in always.

BB:  Being a New York born and raised guy like you are; what fights did you enjoy seeing at Madison Square Garden over the years?

Believe it or not, as much as I love boxing, I just started getting out to the fights such as Floyd Mayweather, JR. versus Arturo Gatti in Atlantic City, and Wladimir Klitschko versus Calvin Brock at MSG where I was sitting next to Zab Judah who was a real cool character.

BB:  Pick three Italian or Italian American fighters that you would rate as the best and why for each?

First would be Jake Lamotta.  He was a tremendous competitor in the ring and fearless who was a little crazy, which I am sure he had to be.  Rocky Marciano was very exciting even though his career was over by the time I was born. I have seen his old fights and as a kid.  I can remember that boxing program he had on TV where he would breakdown a fight and talk to the kids as well. I really enjoy both Arturo Gatti and Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini who are true “Blood and Guts” fighters, but I also like the fighters who are also boxers.

BB:  What is your favorite boxing movie and why?

The Setup, filmed in 1949, with acting great Robert Ryan in the lead and Robert Wise as the Director.  This was a great film all around and stands the test of time when it comes to boxing movies.

BB:  Do you have any funny stories you can share with the readers about any fighters you have met or hung around with?

Funny you ask this. It’s not really a story about boxing, but does kind of involve it.  Currently I am kind of involved in spat with this F*&^%$# Jerk off Philly Sports DJ who has been saying bad things about me on WIP Radio.  I don’t want to even say his name to give him publicity, (RSR looked it up and the DJ’s name is Howard Eskin so we said it). 

The morning Sports DJ named Angelo Caltadi who is a guy on that station said he was a really A#% while he was on the air for what he said about me, which was totally not true and the way he acts.  Some other of the DJ’s said they would set us up in a boxing match with 42 ounce gloves on and if I win, which I will, I will donate to his rehabilitation because I will knock him out. 

I was in Philly doing some work and at a baseball game where I was invited back to the meet at the hotel.  Well, this guy (Eskin) says I was selling pictures in the hotel suite.  That is an absolute lie. Yes, I do signings and get paid to do them, but I never charge a fan that comes up say in a restaurant or maybe the owner for a picture.  See, this is just principal to me. Attack my acting…you’re entitled to your opinion.  Say “Hey Joe” you Fat F@#!,” who cares?  But attack my integrity, and no way am I going to put up with that crap.  This guy is trying to make a name on this crap and I would love to box him. In fact, I know you guys shoot video for your RSRTV.  You guys can come out and film it.  I hope he reads this and accepts the challenge.  

BB:  Do you favor a mandatory retirement fund for all boxers, and if so, how do you think it could be accomplished?

Yes, I do 100%.  It has never been something I have been asked, but it’s a shame that fighters don’t have one like the NBA, NFL and MLB.  The easy answer would be of course for the fighter and the promoter to pay in, but I know it needs a lot more than just this to ensure it was done right so they would be taken care of. 

BB: If you had the power right now to change one thing in the sport of boxing, what would that be?

Wow, good one!  I would get rid of so many of these organizations because years ago, you knew the champion in a weight class for the most part. Today with it being so diluted, you don’t know who the champion is in just about any weight class.  This in my opinion would help the sport and bring more attention to the champions by even the casual boxing fan out there.

BB:  Finally, what is the saying you live your life by?

“Be a good person and it will come back to you.”

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