James Gandolfini Remembered, The Sopranos & A Closer Look at Actor Robert Funaro
Exclusive Interview by “Bad” Brad Berkwitt
(Interview conducted in 2007)
“I can remember as far back to the fights of guys like Muhammad Ali, Jerry Quarry, and Joe Frazier who when they were boxing, I was always trying to catch them on TV.”–Robert Funaro
Italian American actor Robert Funaro is a born and bred New Yorker who wears it like a brand new pair of diamond cufflinks. His works screams NYC. His voice echoes Brooklyn. His passion for his work is unmatched. He uses boxing throughout his various analogies about his acting career because he realizes that as he plies his trade day in and day out, he is like a boxer. The boxer goes to the gym. The actor to the studio. Both work themselves to the bone to win the championship in their craft.
Funaro challenged for the title at an early point in his acting career just like fellow New Yorker, the late junior middleweight Davey Moore from the Bronx, did in just his ninth professional fight. Davey struck Gold when he knocked out the Japanese Champion Tadashi Mihara to win the WBA Junior Middleweight Title.
In Bobby’s first attempt at the title, he faced a major champion in the television show, “The Sopranos.” It was already a hit show and he was contacted personally by a friend he calls “Jimmy,” but is known to the rest of the world by the character name of Tony Soprano, who requested him to audition for the show. Funaro entered that audition, with hands wrapped tight and boxing gloves on. His audition wowed the “Powers That Be” and the character who was known only in words as Eugene Pontecorvo, now had a live soul to channel the written word to the actor.
Pontecorvo was a member of the crew headed up by Ralph Cifaretto, and was one of the newer made guys in New Jersey; who got his button at the same ceremony as Christopher Moltisanti. That day, Eugene stood up in front of Tony Soprano and the rest of the family, and pledged his undying devotion to them, above any and all else.
Pontecorvo later learned the seriousness of that pledge, when he inherited $2 million from an Aunt. Seeing a chance to make a new life, both he and his wife devised a plan to move to Florida and asked Tony for permission to leave. But after considering it, Tony dispatched the trusted Capo Silvio Dante to inform Eugene that this wasn’t the NHL – there’s no retirement. Pressed hard by his near-hysterical wife and, suddenly, the Feds, who wanted him to be their new man on the inside of Tony’s crew, Pontecorvo took the only way out – he hanged himself.
Funaro’s character, Eugene Pontecorvo, may have died on The Sopranos, but Bobby’s acting career and now his documented love for the sport of boxing in this exclusive interview, shows he is in fact, very much alive…
BB: Last week I interviewed Joe Gannascoli (Vito Spatafore) and I asked him his opinion and thoughts on the last episode of The Sopranos. What were your thoughts about it?
I loved it because it had the open ending like Director Francois Truffaut’s 1959 movie called (Quatre cents coups, Les – translation 400 Blows), which was up for an Oscar for (Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written directly for the screen). At the end of this movie, the little delinquent boy is seen making it to shore, then a still shot of him, with the picture fading to black just as it did with Tony Soprano in the final episode.
It left you with a thought that just maybe, there may be something else down the road for Tony and the crew on The Sopranos. David Chase, really in my mind, stayed the course with his writing because he left a lot of stories open such as the Russians who were at war with Paulie Walnuts or Dr. Melfi’s rapist, who folks wondered if Tony ever took care of him?
BB: Your character Eugene Pontecorvo got his button in the same episode as Christopher Moltisanti who was made. Talk about that famous episode and your tenure on The Sopranos.
Funny thing about my last name in the show. I did a scene with Actor and Director Paul Mazursky on The Sopranos and we actually got into a discussion about my characters last name. It means Bridge (Ponte) Crow (Corvo) in Italian. (Laughs). I think a lot of the guys names on the set are named after folks that David Chase (Creator) whose real name is (David DeCesare) knew about growing up because he is Italian.
I was scared sh*& if you look at my face during the shooting of the episode where I get my button. But really, in that episode, I got my button in terms of being on TV working as a professional. It was like art imitating life for me. What it was for Michael (Imperioli) in the show (being made) was for me doing the show.
Many don’t know this, but when I first got on the show, I had some health problems and took a gamble to not elect to have surgery, which my brother who is a doctor, said I needed to have. I prayed to God that it would work out because I knew my acting chops would have to be up to a very high level.
I was on the show a total of four years and did about 25-28 episodes during that time. During those shows, I was more in the outer circle, but the big break came when I did a show titled “Members Only.” I was hearing from my acting friends, I was getting a wife and kids, so of course, they wanted to play them. (Laughs)
I started saying to myself this could be really great for me or bad. (Laughs) One day I was on the way out to the movies with my son, when David Chase calls me, which he does personally with all the main guys to let them know what the story is and if they are going to be let go. David says, “I have good news and bad news for you.” I said, “Give me the good news first.” David than says, “The first episode of that season was all about my character Eugene Pontecorvo and it will give you a chance to shine Bobby.” The bad news was he also said that I was going to die! (Laughs)
When I got the script for the episode (Members Only), I was thrilled to death! It had Terence Winter (Writer) and Timothy Van Patton (Directing). You could not ask for a better team. When I first got the script, folks were saying no way he would kill himself over two million dollars, so they pumped the script up and I have to tell you, by the time we got done with it to shoot, I was so honored by what this script allowed me to do with my acting. I don’t think I could do it again today with everything being as good as it was for that shoot. It won an Emmy Award for writing, which I was very proud of for Terence (Winter). I was actually on the ballot for the Emmy, but did not make the final cut, but still it was an honor nonetheless.
Finally, I dedicate what I feel is my biggest triumph (Members Only) thus far in my acting career to my dearly departed mentor and friend, actor Richard Bright. (Al Neri in all three Godfather movies and many others)
BB: Let’s have a little fun with The Soprano Characters. I will throw a name out at you and for each, just give a few words on what you think of them from your working experience.
James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano)
Three words. Honesty, truthful, and humility. This man truly has a lot of courage and those three words describe him.
Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano)
At the top of her acting game!
Michael Imperioli (Christopher Multasanti)
Great guy! He was the first one to come up to me on the set and welcomed me aboard.
Steven Van Zandt (Silvo Dante)
The real truth and a great musician!
Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts)
Brooklyn all the way! He is at the top of his game and really has a lot of heart. Just look at how long he was in the business before he got his big break on The Sopranos.
BB: What type of work did you do to sustain yourself while waiting on acting jobs or getting your big break?
I was managing Caroline’s Comedy Club on Broadway in New York City, which is the biggest comedy club on the east coast.
BB: How did you first get into acting?
Since my days in college, it was always my dream to be an actor. I always kind of dabbled in it and actually did a play with Jimmy (Gandolfini) in Europe called “A Street Car Named Desire.” I played Stanley Kowalski (Role made famous by the late Marlon Brando) and Jimmy played Harold “Mitch” Mitchell (Role made famous by Karl Malden) in the 1951 movie version. We toured Scandinavia doing it.
When we came back, I actually got out of acting for the most part, but always remained in entertainment. Jimmy (Gandolfini) started to get somewhat famous in his acting work, then, The Sopranos broke for a huge hit. The third year into the show Jimmy, heard from a friend of mine that I was working at the Comedy Club and actually came to the club one night to check on me. He then went on to say to me, I want you to audition for The Sopranos.
I was floored! Funny thing, I had to go to Georgianne Walken’s Casting Office (Christopher’s wife) office, which was a street over from where I worked. They sent the script over and I had my audition at the Silver Cup Studio in New York City. I was in shock to see the entire Sopranos crew there and that includes David Chase. I was scared to death, but I did well. Jimmy (Gandolfini) is the reason I got on the show because I had no agent at the time. This really is the kind of guy he is. I will forever appreciate what my friend did for me.
BB: To even a novice eye, I think it’s safe to say your career progression in just close to seven years, has been pretty amazing. What do you think?
All I can say is that I have been really blessed to have been on The Sopranos as a young apprentice to work my way up to an episode like “Members Only” is humbling for sure. I may or may not ever repeat the level of acting I hit in this episode and to be honest, it is not different than the boxer who goes out there, and has his greatest night in the ring winning a title, but then, cannot duplicate in his first title defense.
BB: Your most recent film work is in American Gangster with Denzel Washington in the lead. With an all-star cast such as Washington, Russell Crowe and Cuba Gooding, JR., to mention just a few, what was that set like?
It was just great. The movie is based on a true story. Ridley Scott in my opinion did a great job in the Director’s chair and Russell Crowe was a regular guy for sure. My partner in the movie is Josh Brolin (Actor James Brolin’s son) and we had a great time together shooting. I played McCann who is a Special Investigative Unit Detective who is underhanded like (Treat Williams’ character in the 1981 movie Prince of the City).
BB: I am a huge fan of Al Martino (Singer Johnny Fontane from The Godfather and legendary Italian Crooner). I see you made a short movie called “Cutout” (Directed by Marc Cantone) with Al last year. What was the movie about and where can fans of both of your careers see it?
We actually rehearsed in Beverly Hills, California, for three days and Al (Martino) and his lovely wife Judi, were just so gracious to us during the entire time. Judi makes the best lemonade I have ever had in my life. We then brought it back to Absecon, New Jersey, where Marc was able to get a beautiful home to shoot the short movie at. It really was a wonderful shoot about a washed up singer who was playing like Foreign Legions and stuff like that.
He finds out that his son who he has been estranged from for about 30 years, is trying to sell his house. Al finds out and he had built a pool at the home. What he does is gets in the pool and refuses to come out. So between my character and his, we go backand forth which opens up many memories. If it is shown in a local art theater, check it out.
BB: Talk about the play you were involved in called Lamppost Reunion.
I played the character Frank Santora who was based on Frank Sinatra who comes back to his birth home of Hoboken, New Jersey. Vincent Pastore (Big Pussy) from The Sopranos who is a friend of mine, asked me to be part of the read. Years ago, on Broadway, the late actor Gabriel Dell played the part as well.
It was a very enjoyable project for sure.
BB: Let’s now shift our interview to your love for the sport of boxing. How long have you followed the sport?
Since I was a very young kid. I came into this world shortly after Rocky Marciano hung up the gloves, but I used to see tapes of him all the time. I can remember as far back to the fights of guys like Muhammad Ali, Jerry Quarry, and Joe Frazier who when they were boxing, I was always trying to catch them on TV.
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?
I actually used to work at Madison Square Garden and got a chance to watch Buddy McGirt fight Pernell Whitaker back in March of 1993. It was a great fight and very close when the scorecards were announced. Buddy and I became very friendly over the years and I really admire his work as a trainer now.
BB: Being Italian American, would you agree that whenever a fighter comes out that is Italian or Italian American, there is always a huge following. Why do you think this is?
Yes, I agree. I think it’s a family thing. It’s like the Italian’s go crazy over the Italian Soccer Team. Italians, as you know, are very close knit when it comes to family and this is why I think this would explain the following for an Italian or Italian American fighters following.
BB: If you had to pick one fighter in the last 40 years that hands down, was your favorite boxer during that period, who would that be and why?
It would have to be Muhammad Ali. The reason why is because he was the Michael Jordan of boxing in his day. He was a great boxer, took the sport to another level with his showmanship and boxing skills. I was never interested in his personal life, but admired his boxing career.
BB: What fight do you think defined boxing during that same 40 year period and why?
Well, for in the earlier part would have to be Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier I, which was a huge fight that was held at Madison Square Garden. There was a division of people backing each fighter for different reasons. This fight was so big that Life Magazine actually dispatched Frank Sinatra as a photographer whose shot of the fighters actually graced the front cover of Life.
If we talk about modern day, I have to say the three wars between Arturo Gatti versus Micky Ward. They brought hardcore fans and even the casual ones into the sport, which is a great thing.
BB: What is your favorite boxing movie and why?
Raging Bull (1980). I thought the performances, the set, music, and all the minute details that they made sure of were just outstanding.
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. I think it could be done kind of like how we do in the Screen Actors Guild. A lot of the funding is from dues from folks in the acting business and of course the more you make, the more you pay in dues. It helps the others who are not making the big money, but are always working and paying their dues as well.
I think anyone involved with making a profit in boxing, should pay into a fund.
BB: If you had the power right now to change one thing in the sport of boxing, what would that be?
I would get rid of all of these title belts. With so many today, you just don’t know who the champion is. The heavyweight division has always been the one division that even the casual fans knew who the champion was. Today, they could not tell you one if they were standing right in front of them. (Writers Note: In this new series, take notice that Robert Shapiro, Joe Gannascoli, and now Bobby, have said the same exact thing in three consecutive interviews.
BB: Finally, what is the saying you live your life by?
“It’s what you do with what you got, that counts.”