Tony Sirico loves his neighborhood. "I'd take this place over Beverly Hills any day," says the 45-year-old actor, driving his Chevy Malibu past the storefront pizzerias and candy stores in the sleepy district of Bensonhurst. "It's a good Italian neighborhood. You're part of something here."
Just what you're part of isn't exactly clear, especially when a Times photographer asks Sirico to stop the car so she can take his picture by a charming neighborhood bistro.
"Oooh, I don't know about that!" says Sirico, looking aghast. "Very important people hang out there. The most important people. You have to ask permission to take pictures."
He laughs, a little nervously. "If you don't--they'll eat your cameras."
Sirico navigates a few blocks further and double parks his Malibu in front of Cafe Italia, another local eatery. "It's very Sicilian here," he explains mysteriously. " Very Sicilian. But I know the owner. Maybe he'll let us take pictures outside. Let me ask first. You gotta show respect. It means a lot around here."
Even if the New York press has exaggerated the amount of underworld figures who reside here, Bensonhurst remains a tough, insular community. It gained more notoriety for the events surrounding the death of black teen-ager Yusuf Hawkins, who was killed in August by an angry white mob.
Having lived here most of his life, after a childhood in nearby East Flatbush, Sirico knows the rugged nature of these isolated, clannish neighborhoods. "Where I grew up, every guy was trying to prove himself. You either had to have a tattoo or a bullet hole."
Sirico grinned. "I had both."
A handsome, olive-skinned man who has made a living for the past dozen years playing thugs and wise guys in small movie roles, Sirico had the perfect resume for a Hollywood gangster.
He was a hoodlum.
Arrested 28 times, first at the age of 7 for stealing nickels from the newsstand, Sirico built a formidable neighborhood reputation as a stick-up artist. He spent two stretches in prison, once on an illegal-weapon charge, once for armed robbery--and was nabbed on innumerable occasions for disorderly conduct, robbery and other criminal offenses.
"After all the times I was pinched, I knew every judge in town," says Sirico, immaculately dressed in a gray, pinstriped suit with a black silk shirt, black handkerchief and a pinkie ring the size of a walnut. "I was a tough kid. I always had that itch in my britches to find out who I was. I tested my (courage) every night.
"I was a pistol-packing guy. The first time I went away to prison, they searched me to see if I had a gun--and I had three of 'em on me. They'd ask why I was carrying and I'd say I live in a bad neighborhood. It was true. In our neighborhood, if you weren't carrying a gun, it was like you were the rabbit during rabbit-hunting season."
During his last prison stay in the early 1970s, Sirico saw a performance by a group of ex-con actors. Having already honed his thespian skills standing in police lineups and chatting up precinct captains ("I got 28 arrests and only two convictions, so you gotta admit I have a pretty good acting record"), the event inspired him.
"I watched 'em and I thought, 'I can do that.' I knew I wasn't bad looking. And I knew I had the (guts) to stand up and (bull) people. You get a lot of practice in prison. I used to stand up in front of these cold-blooded murderers and kidnapers--and make 'em laugh."
He wagged his finger. "It wasn't easy. The only way you could make most of these guys laugh was to stick a gun in their ribs and tell 'em, 'Laugh or I'll kill you.' "
With the help of a photographer pal at the New York Daily News, Sirico got work as a model and quickly graduated to small-time acting gigs. His first speaking role was in "Godfather II," where he and then-unknown Danny Aiello played the Rosato Brothers ("The first words I said on screen were, 'There's a cop!' "). Since then, Sirico has acted in 27 movies (including "Cookie" and "Love and Money"), assorted TV episodes, a Coke commercial and appeared as a model in such magazines as Cosmopolitan, Oui and True Detective.
In Martin Scorsese's upcoming "Good Fellas," he plays Frankie (The Wop) Basil, a stylish enforcer who punishes rival mobsters by sticking their heads in ovens. In James Toback's "The Pick-Up Artist," he was partners with Harvey Keitel in an Atlantic City casino. And in the Coen Brothers' forthcoming "Miller's Crossing," he's Patsy Ketti, a demolition man who takes special pleasure in blowing up saloons.
"Tony is really one of a kind," says writer-director James Toback, who has made him part of his stock company. "I look at him as being George Raft--but with a little more menace. He has that great combination of real-life authenticity and acting craft. And a very mischievous smile. Everything I write seems real when he speaks the lines. Now when I start a new movie I automatically think, 'What do I have for Tony?' "
Relaxing in his home, which he shares with his mother, Sirico is a zestful storyteller with the smooth patter of a card shark and the irresistible charm of a reformed wise guy. Sipping chilled wine ("My brother, the priest, brought it by"), he keeps some of his best tales off-the-record, no doubt because many of his unsavory old pals are still on the prowl.
Eager to emphasize the confidential nature of these anecdotes, he cheerily warns: "You write about that and I'll have to come looking for you in California. As a matter of fact, I'll make a phone call and have someone bring you back here."
In his neighborhood, Sirico is a celebrity. To the rest of the world, he's still a minor character actor, even if he's shared scenes with everyone from Dennis Hopper to Harvey Keitel and Gabriel Byrne. As he succinctly puts it: "I'm no (obscenity) Laurence Olivier, OK?"
By Sirico's own estimate, he's died in 13 of his 27 films ("and that's not counting the ones I was wounded in"). At his home, he has a fuzzy videotape of his climactic demise in Toback's cult-favorite film, "Fingers." It's a brutal scene where Sirico and Keitel, stabbing and pulverizing each other in a blood fury, go tumbling down 40 feet of stairs before Keitel finishes off Sirico for good.
Sirico wagged his head. "Yeh, when my mother saw that stuff, she had enough. She walked out of the theater." He shrugged. "I make a pretty good living because I die well. I get hired to get killed."
If Olivier was unrivaled as a master of the soliloquy, then Sirico is an expert in the art of death throes. "The most important thing is you gotta know how to sell it," he says. "I can walk on my knees, hit the floor and then get back up and die. Or I can weave around and then go down. I did this one movie with Ruben Blades called 'The Last Fight.' When I got shot in the head, I went down, down on my knees and as the camera pulled in close to me, I crossed my eyes and then I died."
Sirico flashes that mischievous smile. "Oh, it was wonderful. The effect, just for that moment, was wonderful."
As a wise guy, Sirico drew on various acting skills, dressing up for his armed robberies the way an actor gets made-up for a new part.
"When I would rob a place I'd be mustached up, wigged up--everything," he explains, pouring another glass of wine. "I'd wear brown wigs. Blond wigs. In fact, I got busted 'cause I was wearing the wrong wig.
"I stuck up this place in a blond wig and blond mustache. I got 30 grand, 'cause they were making great money. So I come back the next week--and I'm such an idiot that I forgot what wig I'd been wearing. So I come in wearing the same blond wig and-- boom-- they welcomed me with open arms and open handcuffs!"
Sirico's obsession with style almost got him killed. One night, resplendent in a new white suit, he was smooching with a girl on a local church steps when a rival hood spotted him and shot Sirico--once in the leg, once in the back. It wasn't an entirely unprovoked attack.
"I was kissing his girl," Sirico sheepishly acknowledges. "These three guys from the Bronx drive up and said, 'Hey Junior!,' which was my nickname. And I was in no position to do anything, because I have my tongue deep down in her soul. So they go, 'Boom!' And shoot me in the leg. When I saw the blood all over my new white suit, I just went crazy. So instead of running away, I start running toward their car!
"All I could think of was how they ruined my suit. Luckily, they stepped on the gas and pulled away. But as soon as I turned around, they shot me again, this time in the back."
It should come as no surprise that one of Sirico's heroes was James Cagney, the actor who lent his sleek style to decades of gangster myths.
"Listen, Junior was a genuine tough guy," says James Caan, who's known Sirico for nearly a decade and shares many "mutual friends" from his old neighborhood. "But in a funny way, now that he's straight, he can behave like a wise guy. He's been able to romanticize his past, throw in a few bangles and sparkles and use it as an actor. What you see is really him--he just adds a little pepper, a little cayenne, to spice it up."
As an example, Caan cites his first meeting with Sirico, who came to watch the actor coach his son's Little League team. "It was 105 degrees and everyone was in cut-offs," recalls Caan. "And here's this guy dressed in a three-piece suit, with these fancy kickers (expensive shoes) and a year's supply of VO-5 on his head. He was so formal and proper it was hilarious. He actually told me he'd come to pay his respects. Junior turned out to be a genuinely good guy, but at the time all I could think was, 'This guy is right out of 'The Godfather!' "
So how did Sirico fall into a life of crime--and finally find redemption? He traces his troubles to the wild impulses of an unstable youth--and to the temptations of the opposite sex. In his early 20s, married and already a father, he fell for a beautiful neighborhood girl.
"My life was wrecked," he says softly, massaging his temples. "I mean wrecked. I forgot I had a wife. A pregnant wife. I forgot I had kids. All I could see was this girl's face. And what a face. I was madly in love."
Eager to impress his paramour, he started to cut corners. "I was very unstable. I wasn't thinking right. So I hooked up with these guys and all of a sudden I'm a stick-up artist. I stuck up every nightclub in New York."
He fingered the cross around his neck. "I keep this thing on, just in case." He smiled. "I'm no angel. I'm a little tarnished, but I'm no low-life. Whatever I did, I was always a stand-up guy. If you had a problem, at 5 a.m., you could call me and I'd come down, give you a hand and say, 'OK, who's bothering you? I'll help you take care of it.' "
Still, when Sirico broke the law, he went to prison. After six months, and no visits from his girlfriend, the spell was broken. "I deserved the punishment I went through," he says. "For what I did--and for leaving my wife--I deserved more than that. But finally I got her out of my head. I just woke up and wasn't thinking about her anymore."
Sirico says he's found satisfaction--and self-respect--as an actor. "I like myself," he says. "I feel good about what I've accomplished. I came from another world--and now I'm an actor. Not a big-shot star, but a legitimate actor."
But memories of his old life die hard. "I gotta admit I feel funny when somebody will spot me and ask for an autograph," he says. "I think it's that old guilt. Maybe I feel like I don't deserve the attention."
Sirico takes a final sip of wine and shows off pictures of his brothers, one who's the priest, the other who's a stockbroker. "I'm proud of what I do. I remember when I got that first part in 'The Godfather,' and Coppola told me I was a real character, with a line of dialogue and everything."
He grins, ferociously. "Oh, let me tell you. I was strutting. I was thinking, 'I got a name. I got a name!' "