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Joe Pesci

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Biography

A consummate character actor, Joe Pesci rose to success on the strength of a series of Martin Scorsese films which took full advantage of his gift for outlandishly menacing supporting performances. Born February 9, 1943 in Newark, NJ, Pesci was a child actor who began his radio career at the age of four. Broadway beckoned just a year later, and by 1953 he was a regular on the television variety program Star Time Kids. His acting career stalled during his teen years, however, and by the mid-'60s he mounted a musical career under the name Joe Ritchie, recording an LP titled Little Joe Sure Can Sing, and later playing guitar in the pop band Joey Dee & the Starliters. He also formed a vaudeville-style nightclub comedy act with Frank Vincent. Outside of 1961's Hey, Let's Twist, Pesci did not appear in films prior to the little-seen 1975 feature The Death Collector; the film earned virtually no notice upon its release and he dropped out of acting, dejectedly returning to New York to run an Italian restaurant.

While few people saw The Death Collector, one of those who did was actor Robert DeNiro, who was so impressed by Pesci's performance that he brought the film to the attention of Scorsese, who cast Pesci in his 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull. The performance earned Pesci an Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category, and he became one of the busiest character actors in the business, steadily appearing in films ranging from the 1983 Rodney Dangerfield comedy Easy Money to the 1984 Sergio Leone epic Once Upon a Time in America. After starring in a failed 1985 sitcom, Half Nelson, Pesci's onscreen visibility diminished, and over the next four years, he appeared in only one film, 1987's Man on Fire. In 1989, however, he co-starred opposite Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the hit Lethal Weapon 2, a performance which put his talent for comic relief to such fine use that he later reappeared in the third chapter of the franchise, issued in 1992.

By that point, Pesci had already become a star; 1990 was his breakthrough year, as he appeared in the family comedy blockbuster Home Alone and Scorsese's brilliant GoodFellas, winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his vivid portrayal of a psychotic mobster. While his first major starring role in 1991's The Super proved disastrous, he won good notices for his supporting turn in Oliver Stone's JFK and in 1992 starred in the hit comedy My Cousin Vinny. While neither 1994's Jimmy Hollywood nor With Honors performed well, in 1995 he reunited with Scorsese and DeNiro for the epic Casino, However, a pair of poorly received 1997 comedies — Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag and the execrable Gone Fishin' — called Pesci's capabilities as a lead actor into question, and in 1998 he again played second banana in Lethal Weapon 4. That same year he also made an unexpected return to music, issuing the novelty album Vincent Laguardia Gambini Sings Just for You.

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