Joe Pesci is known for volatile, explosive performances in such films as Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” along with more antic, comic turns in the “Lethal Weapon” and “Home Alone” movies and “My Cousin Vinny.”
So, the still menace of Pesci’s performance in Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” playing Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino as a man confident in the illicit power he wields, has struck many as revelatory, all the more so coming as Pesci’s first movie role in nearly 10 years.
The role in “The Irishman” has earned Pesci his third Oscar nod for supporting actor; he was also nominated by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. for the Golden Globe Awards, SAG-AFTRA for the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for the BAFTA Awards. “The Irishman” earned 10 Oscar nominations overall.
In a recent interview on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” Scorsese credited Pesci with really discovering the character for everyone while working on the scene where Pesci’s Bufalino and Frank Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro) first met. Bufalino eventually draws Sheeran into the plot to kill Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), sealing all their fates.
Born in Newark, N.J., the 76-year-old Pesci began performing as a child but struggled as an adult actor. He was managing an Italian restaurant in the Bronx when Scorsese and De Niro sought him out after seeing the little-known 1976 film “The Death Collector,” wanting him for the role of Jake LaMotta’s put-upon younger brother Joey in 1980’s “Raging Bull,” for which Pesci earned his first Oscar nomination.
Pesci quietly retired in 1999 — although in a recent interview, Scorsese said Pesci now disputes whether he retired or simply stopped getting roles — and has since appeared only in “The Good Shepherd,” directed by De Niro, “Love Ranch” and as a voice performer in the animated “A Warrior’s Tale.”
When Pesci won the supporting actor Oscar in 1991 for “Goodfellas,” his acceptance speech was simply, “It’s my privilege. Thank you.” After the premiere of “The Irishman” at the New York Film Festival, he was asked during an onstage Q&A alongside Scorsese, De Niro and Pacino to talk about coming on board the project after such a long time away. Pesci politely declined to answer, saying: “I don’t know what to say.”
On Monday, Pesci continued with his understated public comments. He released a statement following the nomination that said, “I’m honored but as usual I’m humbled into speechlessness. I’m grateful to the academy, our cast and crew and extend my sincere congratulations to the rest of the nominees.”
De Niro has said that he and Scorsese had to ask Pesci 40 or so times to play the part in “The Irishman” before he agreed. So if it seems unlikely that “The Irishman” is the beginning of some renaissance for Pesci, that makes the cold finality of his performance something to savor all the more.