Joe Gannascoli Discusses His Life During And Since Playing Gay Mobster Vito Spatafore On ‘The Sopranos’



The Sopranos was a show with some wild twists, but arguably its most shocking revelation was that Vito Spatafore, the portly capo of the Aprile crew and one of Tony’s best earners, was actually a closeted homosexual. Initially spotted by Meadow’s boyfriend Finn DeTrolio going down on a security guard, Vito’s proclivities remained a secret to the rest of the crew from season five until a few episodes into season six. Vito gets spotted at a leather bar, mid lasso dance, and is forced to flee his closeted life, building up to a sort of “lost weekend” in New Hampshire in possibly my favorite episode, “Johnny Cakes.”


We’ve been discussing all of these episodes in-depth on our Sopranos podcast, Pod Yourself A Gun. Recently, we got in touch with Joe Gannascoli, the actor who played Vito. Actually, he emailed us out of the blue. As it turns out, Gannascoli’s story is as compelling as his character’s. Gannascoli, who had originally appeared as a bakery customer named “Gino” in season one (one of only three actors to play more than one speaking character on the show, the other two having both played twins), was partly responsible for the entire Vito storyline. He’d pitched it to one of the writers after learning about a real-life gay mobster from a book he was reading, called Murder Machine.


Gannascoli managed to parlay that anecdote into one of the show’s most memorable storylines. Of course, Gannascoli wasn’t always an actor. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he originally trained as a chef, working in Manhattan and New Orleans, dabbling in theater along the way. He says it was actually a gambling debt that spurred him to pursue acting full time. “Cody Carlson is responsible for my acting,” Gannascoli told the AP back in 2006. Carlson had started in place of injured Hall of Famer Warren Moon back in 1990, in a game that cost Gannascoli $60,000. Gannascoli ended up selling his stake in a restaurant to pay back his bookie and he moved to LA.


Since finding fame on The Sopranos, Gannascoli has published a novel, gotten married (“I got married late, and I said ‘I gotta get married quick here because people are really going to think that I’m gay,’ so it was a rush job.”), cooked for frontline workers, and hosted $125-a-head private dinners in New York. After his hip replacement surgery in 2006 (which was his real life, not just a Vito storyline) Gannascoli says he golfs every day (walking) and when we caught up with him, was just about to cook dinner for his 12-year-old daughter.


We enjoyed talking to Joe on the podcast so much we wanted to share the interview in print as well, so below is a written version of our conversation/interview. Enjoy.



JOE GANNASCOLI: How are you? What a pleasure. I’m so glad *I* made it happen.


UPROXX: You did. You did the legwork. We did nothing. But we have an email address, so that’s something.


That’s true…. I can’t tell you how many podcasts I get asked to do and I don’t do them…. There was another one by cast members that seemed to be pretty popular but I didn’t do that. I wouldn’t do it. I refused.


Is there a reason why you won’t do the other Sopranos podcast, with Steve [Schirripa] and Michael [Imperioli]?


Well, first of all, it’s over. Second of all, I had a falling out with one of them. It got nasty and then they seem to have forgotten and they asked me to come on. I’m thinking to myself, “Are you kidding me?” So I said, “No, I’m not interested. Thanks.”


So the first question that I always ask every guest of this podcast is, are you a fan of The Sopranos?


The show?


Yeah.


Yeah, I became a fan. I don’t watch it now like so many people watch. People email me and direct message me all the time that they’re rewatching it. I don’t, for several reasons, but when it was on I watched it like millions of others.


Do you not watch it now because it’s hard to see an other version of yourself or…


Two reasons, one is… Well, maybe three. I don’t like seeing Jimmy [James Gandolfini] on the screen. And my hips, that walk, it brings back painful memories. As soon as they killed me I had my double hip replacement done.


In the show, you said multiple times as Vito, “I was supposed to have hip surgery.” That was a real thing? You actually had that hip surgery?


Yes. And many times, if something was happening in your private life they would incorporate it into the show.


So are the hips good now?


Well, that happened in maybe ’06. And I play golf almost every morning now and I walk the course. I carry my clubs. Before I couldn’t take a step without unbelievable pain so compared to that and now where I am it was the best move ever.


You mentioned Jim Gandolfini, I never had seen him in real life, just in the show. But I’ve noticed that he has these giant catcher’s mitts for hands. What was his presence like in person?


He was just a big bear of a guy, 6’3″. I don’t know what his weight was, I’d venture to say 240, 260 maybe. I’m not even sure. He was pretty much in shape. He was just a big man. He was very low-key. He didn’t come off as imposing. He was funny. He was affable. He didn’t come off as intimidating off camera.


You talked about them incorporating real-life things with the actors into the show, but the whole Vito arc where he’s gay, that was your idea, right? That was something that you’d pitched to David Chase?


I didn’t suggest it to David Chase himself because I never really interacted with him. But one of the writers was always on set and probably the writer that wrote that episode — you gotta do it sort of on the down-low. You don’t want to show like, “Hey, I got this idea and I think it’d be great so I could get more acting in scenes in stuff.” You don’t want to come off like a douchebag.


Right, like you don’t want to go in there and be like, “What if I killed Tony and then now the show’s about me?”


That’s exactly right. So I had to do it on the down-low and I was reading a book called Murder Machine, a true story about a crew in Brooklyn and I’m from Brooklyn. And one of the characters in it was gay and I thought that was… I was like, “Wow, it was a gay mobster.” And I said, I’m in a mob show and that’d be kind of interesting. Maybe I’ll bring it to their attention and say I’d be willing to do it. Well, it took them about two years for it to come to fruition but it changed my life. Thank God they did it. It’s not what I had in mind, the way they portrayed it, but I’m glad they did. It made him a little more sympathetic. And the scene with the security guard, I was on the wrong end of that scene.



Is that how you found out, they passed out the script and then all of a sudden you read that scene?


No, no. They stopped giving the scripts to the actors. One of the actors got a little tipsy, so to speak, left the script in a cab and they freaked out because everything was so highly secretive. So they just gave us our sides. I’m sure Jimmy and Edie got their scripts but they just gave us our sides, the ones that we were in the scenes. And the crew got the scripts because they had to prepare for it, hair, makeup, props, and so forth. So we all had our little moles and we’d ask them, “Hey, what’s going on next episode? Am I in it? Do I have some good stuff?” And my guy would say, “No. You’re in it. You’re not in it.”


So this one time I ask him and I said, “What’s going on?” And he said, “Oh, you got some good stuff going on.” “You read it? Do I get killed?” “No, you don’t get killed.” I said, “Oh, good. I can’t wait to read it.” He goes, “Oh, but by the way, you’re going to be blowin a guy.” So I go, “Are you fuckin’ kidding me?” I go, “What?” Because now I’m thinking 1), “Holy shit, they’re doing it.” And 2) “My fuckin’ friends are going to torture me in Brooklyn.”


Yeah.


I get the sides and sure enough I am. I get to the studio for the read-through and everybody was waiting downstairs and Sirico, Paulie Walnuts, says, “Hey, you guys know my friend? Joe, the cocksucker.” And Stevie Van Zandt says, “Joe, they’re going to break your balls in the neighborhood.” And Jimmy took me aside and says, “Listen, if you’re not comfortable with this, we don’t have to do it. We’ll go talk to David.” So I said, “I kind of asked for it. Not what I had in mind but as long as they don’t treat it like the Russian, I’m okay.” And so they said, “Look, we’re going to do that scene, nothing else on it, but the next year’s going to be a big year for you.” So that’s how that all came about.


Later, towards this arc that we’ve been talking about in these latest episodes, when you’re actually in a relationship with this guy, did they audition different guys for that firefighter role?


So John Costelloe, as you know, passed. May he rest in peace. He was a well-known New York actor. He was a firefighter and I actually knew him through a mutual friend and we actually worked together on something small and he was really respected. And we figured that (casting directors) Georgianne Walken and even Sheila Jaffe would know him because they knew the New York actors. So when I walked in they told me, “At lunch we want you to come upstairs and read with who’s going to be whoever it is.” I was relieved to see it was John Costelloe. It was someone I knew so it wasn’t sort of awkward and stuff.


I will say that there was one scene when we are rolling around in the hay, with the bikes, and I said, “Johnny, you got to do something with the f*ckin’ mustache because it’s going in my mouth and I’m about to vomit.” So hair and makeup fixed that. They tried to f*ckin’ brush it up as much as they could. I said, “Just let’s f*ckin’ do this and let’s get it over with.”


Did you tell them you have to shampoo it or something because I can taste last night’s dinner on it and it’s just too much?


It had a funky taste, I’ll tell you…


Did you end up getting as much shit from the guys in your neighborhood as you imagined that you would after these episodes aired?


You know, guys in Brooklyn, just like The Sopranos, just like Italians in the neighborhood, they like to break balls. If I had a f*ckin’ argument with somebody they’d say, “So what are you going to do now, blow me?” But for the most part, they knew it was acting.


Sure.


And I had some “real guys” [connected guys] in the neighborhood, but I know real guys, and they started giving me dirty looks when I was in a club or a restaurant. I was like, “What the f*ck is up with them?” They go, “Ah, the part. [They] don’t like the part you’re playing.” I go, “What the f*ck, it’s acting.” … And then they go, “Yeah, but they don’t like it.” And I go, “Ah, what the f*ck do they want me to do? It is what it is.” And so those are the guys that are knuckleheads but they were real guys and so yeah, they broke balls for a while, but for the most part it was good fun.


They’re so homophobic that even the portrayal of a gay man on TV they’re like, “I don’t like it. I just don’t. I don’t agree with this.”


Yeah. Sometimes if it really bothers them, I think they’re maybe… I mean I’m not f*ckin’ Freud here but I think they’re on the fence. Now, as far as me, I was in the restaurant business. I lived in New Orleans. I worked in a gay restaurant. I worked in Manhattan restaurants. If you have a problem with gays you shouldn’t be in the restaurant business. So I’m the type of guy who lives and let lives as long as it doesn’t interfere with me.


So since you were someone who was familiar with the world of gambling and whatnot, and you’re someone who grew up in Brooklyn, did you actually have run-ins with a lot of these mafioso characters? Were you able to look at The Sopranos and go, “Oh, this is true to the people I knew,” or kind of an exaggeration?


No, it was true in a lot of ways. Like I said, I grew up in Brooklyn, I know real guys. I’m talking about sons of heads of families, the real five families and who they’re with and you read about them and you know about them. And you know how it works. Not that I was around killings and stuff like that, but guys I know were these loan sharks and these shylocks, guys that are made, and guys that are connected, guys that wannabe. Guys that caught beatings or even killed for messing with someone’s daughter or wife. That happened growing up.


The show was pretty much on the money and certainly the lines — like sometimes I read so many things that people have said I’m doing a mob thing and I go, “Nobody talks like that. Nobody says ‘Capiche.'”


Right. Nobody actually goes around saying, “That’s-a spicy meatball.” That’s just not something that the mafia says.


Yeah, exactly. They didn’t go with the old contrived dialogue.


You talked about the secrecy of the scripts and them trying to keep those under wraps. Was there a lot of trepidation among the cast when you’d get the new scripts? Were people always sort of worried about their characters getting killed off and losing out on the future paydays?


Oh, 100%. That was everybody’s biggest fear. You’re in a mob show. What’s a mob show without guys getting killed? You’d know it was someone at the end of the year and it was Pussy, it was Jackie Junior, and I guess that was the big hit. Richie Aprile got it.


Were you ever around any of the actors when they found out that their character was getting killed off?


No, I think that David might’ve called them in and told them, depending on the actor. I know when I found out I went in and talked to him. I was trying to get to season six, the second part… and I said… “it’d be great if he could live and still earn, that Tony has evolved, you live and let live.” He let me speak for about five minutes and when I was done he said, “You’re going.” And I said, “Okay, thank you.”


Has anyone ever successfully talked themselves out of getting script whacked?


I don’t know. I think that once it was set, it was set. And because in his mind he’s got a way things are going to happen and fall into place.


One thing that we noticed or maybe suspected about David Chase in the course of making this podcast is that he seems to really like fat jokes, even to the point of, you wonder whether certain people were cast specifically so that he could write more fat jokes into the script. And then you ended up losing a bunch of weight towards the later seasons. When you’re reading scripts and there are fat jokes about your character, did you ever get your feelings hurt or was that ever a thing?


Yeah, it bothered me. It actually bothered me. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s why he kept me around… That’s a fuckin’ good point. I never fuckin’ thought about it. Good job there, Vince. I was always breaking the chair, that was one.



Ginny Sack, there was a whole arc about her being fat. Bobby [Baccala] being forced to do Santa Claus.


Yeah, now that I think about it, that’s a good point. I wonder. But yeah, it bothered me because I was always in shape. I had pictures when I was younger with my wife and I was an in-shape kind of guy and I took pride on that. Then when I became a chef, I stopped going to the gym and you start eating like an animal, drinking. That’s the lifestyle, for me anyway. Gambling. I’m just living like a real animal. So yeah, it just went all downhill after that.


In the episode where they discover that Vito’s gay at the leather bar, do you remember what you were thinking the first time that they came in and showed you the wardrobe that you were going to have for that?


I had to go up for a fitting and I said, “I’m wearing that?” They said, “Yeah.” And I said, “I’m not doing this without dungarees on. Nobody wants to see me in assless chaps.” And those people in that scene were real guys that they went out and got from the West Village, or the East Village, so that was interesting.



Did you improvise that move where you were doing like, a cowboy with a lasso?


Yeah, yeah. I don’t know how to dance. I’m very happy that I have my own GIF. When someone’s happy that they got a raise, they send them that GIF.


That a great GIF.


That was a move like I didn’t know what to do, so I did the old lasso move.


It’s a great move. It’s iconic.


And I think it was Buscemi directing or maybe Terry Winters. They said this is the last take, you do what you want to do. And I didn’t know what they were implying… but I gave him a kiss just because I said, let me just go for it, you know what I mean? And he was a real guy. He was a personal shopper at Barneys.


Sopranos Joe Gannascoli Vito Spatafore gay bar lasso gif
HBO

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.