Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1943, Joe Pesci is most famously known for his frequent collaborations with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, often playing terrifyingly tough characters. Yet the actor has also made a name for himself by starring in many comedic roles, such as playing the fumbling burglar Harry in beloved Christmas film Home Alone, as well as the titular character in My Cousin Vinny.
Pesci started out as a barber, just like his mother, whilst simultaneously dabbling in the musical world. After playing guitar in several bands, such as Joey Dee and the Starliters, he released his debut album Little Joe Sure Can Sing!. However, his most vital contribution to music was through his friendships with Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, and Bob Gaudio, who he introduced to each other, leading to the formation of The Four Seasons, one of the best-selling musical groups of all time.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Pesci became a recognisable figure in showbiz, becoming one half of comedy double act Vincent and Pesci alongside close friend Frank Vincent. The duo lasted six years, performing with an insult-comedy style, even starring in a Broadway show together entitled The New Vaudevillians, however, this only lasted one week.
After starring in his first film, Ralph De Vito’s 1976 movie The Death Collector, a low-budget crime flick, Pesci received a call three years later from none other than Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, asked the newcomer to star as Joey LaMotta in Raging Bull. The pair were impressed with Pesci’s performance in The Death Collector – little did he know that a low-budget movie role would launch a career playing some of cinema’s most recognisable characters.
For his role as Jake LaMotta’s brother and manager, Pesci was nominated for Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, as well as winning the BAFTA Film Award for Newcomer to Leading Film Roles. From that point, he starred in a few relatively small productions, such as Easy Money and Eureka, both in 1983, before reuniting with De Niro for epic crime drama Once Upon a Time in America in 1984.
Pesci’s career has spanned varying genres, proving the actor to be incredibly versatile, capable of being both an intimidating gangster and a loveable comic. His pickiness with roles (“it doesn’t help to get starring roles in something that’s no good”) has worked in his favour, having earned a fair few Oscar nominations. However, the star eventually announced his retirement from the business in 1999, only returning for four films since: The Good Shepard (2006), Love Ranch (2010), A Warrior’s Tale (2016) and The Irishman (2019).
Now though, let’s explore Pesci’s career through his six definitive films.
Joe Pesci’s six definitive films:
Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
Arguably Pesci’s breakout role, leading to further collaborations with Scorsese and De Niro, the actor stars as Joey, the brother and manager of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta. The well-intentioned character guides Jake through his struggles with obsessive rage and jealousy, which ruin his relationships with his wife and family, as well as his career.
Pesci was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his incredible performance, highlighting the relatively unknown actor as an incredible talent. His dynamic with De Niro is perfect, Pesci is effortless in his portrayal of a man whose relationship with his brother slowly disintegrates.
Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
Martin Scorsese’s 1990 biographical crime drama Goodfellas is arguably Pesci at his greatest. The film is known as one of the best gangster movies of all time, and Pesci gets a starring role, playing mobster Tommy DeVito. A lot of Tommy’s memorable lines and scenes are down to Pesci’s improvisation. For example, a scene where Henry (Ray Liotta) responds to Tommy saying “Funny how? Do I amuse you?” is inspired by an encounter Pesci had with a mobster while he was working as a waiter.
Pesci was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, however, his best achievement came in winning his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He accepted the award with one of the shortest speeches in Oscar history, simply saying: “It’s my privilege. Thank you”.
Home Alone (Chris Columbus, 1990)
Enter the comedic roles, but also one of his most recognisable, as Pesci plays burglar Harry, the smarter of the thieving duo which is also made up of Daniel Stern’s character Marv. After attempting to break into the house of Macauley Culkin’s character Kevin McCallister, the duo are subject to the child’s boobytraps, eventually outsmarted and arrested.
Home Alone is arguably the most loved Christmas film of all time, and alongside the phenomenal performance by ten-year-old Culkin, Pesci brings much comedic joy to the film, serving as the shorter and fiery half of the ‘Wet Bandits’. Although the film didn’t generate any nominations for Pesci, his performance is still one of the most memorable aspects of the entire movie.
JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)
Exploring the events that led up to the assassination of American president John F. Kennedy, Oliver Stone’s 1991 epic political thriller stars Pesci as David Ferrie, a pilot that was accused by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) of being complicit in the murder. Wearing an ill-fitting wig and painted on eyebrows, (the real-life Ferrie suffered from hair loss) Pesci’s performance is compelling.
Although Pesci does not play one of the main characters in the film, his onscreen presence plays an integral role, standing out amongst the star-studded cast, which also included Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, and Sissy Spacek.
My Cousin Vinny (Johnathan Lynn, 1992)
Playing the role of Vinny himself, Pesci demonstrates his comedic abilities after a string of significantly more menacing roles in the 1980s. The contrast between Italian-American New Yorkers Vinny Gambini and fiancé Mona Lisa Vito and the rather proper Southern Americans of the courtroom provides much hilarity. Pesci brilliantly embodies the inexperienced attorney, who is ignorant and lacks any understanding of courtroom etiquette.
Marisa Tomei, playing Mona Lisa, won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, alongside a handful of other nominations and wins, however, Pesci failed to garner a nod from them for his starring role. That said, he did win Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture (Leading Role) from the American Comedy Awards.
The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019)
Despite Pesci’s claim that he would retire from acting in 1999, 20 years on, Scorsese managed to get Pesci back in business for The Irishman, his three-and-a-half-hour epic crime drama starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Pesci plays Russell Bufalino, an Italian-American mobster crime-boss, leading the star to receive his third Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Pesci was offered the role 50 times, initially saying that he “did not want to do the gangster thing again,” however Scorsese eventually persuaded him, saying that this would be “different”. Luckily, his acceptance resulted in his phenomenal performance, one of his greatest to date.