By all accounts, he didn’t want to do it. Joe Pesci was retired, out, forgetaboutit.
His last on-screen role had come almost a decade earlier in a 2010 film called Love Ranch, in which a couple visit “the first legal brothel in Nevada” and for which the term “forgettable” is used more in hope than expectation, and under no circumstances would he be starring in The Irishman.
In fairness, the film had a long gestation. Some ten years had passed between De Niro first reading the book on which it’s based, I Heard You Paint Houses, and shooting finally starting.
And while it had been frustrating for the leading players – the likes of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino – for Pesci it merely gave him more opportunity to say no all the more. In all, according to reports, he turned down the role of mob boss Russell Bufalino some 50 times.
And even when he said yes, according to Empire, he was still saying no.
“In his trailer, he turned it down,” said Scorsese. “As he came out of his trailer, he turned it down. While we were shooting a scene, he turned it down.”
Eventually, at some point, he presumably said yes. And we can all be thankful for that.
In a crowded field it’s Pesci who really steals the show.
Everyone gives career-high performances in The Irishman, Scorsese’s late-career mob masterpiece. De Niro is stoic and forlorn as the mob hitman (Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran) caught up in history. Pacino is a human death rattle as the raging-against-the-machine Teamsters boss (Jimmy Hoffa) trying to shape it. Harvey Keitel is in it for about two scenes but is brilliant in both of them. It’s a beautiful and sad elegy to the death of a certain type of American man and the many inner deaths that such a life entails.
But Pesci... Pesci is one you didn’t see coming, the one who does everything seemingly at once without even trying. Pesci is both father figure and businessman in The Irishman, both wise counsel and cold-blooded killer... just one who leaves the actual killing to others.
Perhaps he stands out because, as Bufalino, Pesci gives a performance so unlike the one we’re used to from him: that coiled spring of crazy forever ready to bing-bang-bong-kapow out of his box. Funny... funny how? Only here he’s not funny, nor even especially menacing. In The Irishman, he’s firmly in the box. There is no spring. And he’s all the more mesmerising for that.
When I interviewed De Niro for this magazine, he made the same point.
“Joe normally does the bigger stuff,” De Niro said. “He’s more contained here. We haven’t seen him do that kind of thing.”
In his most famous roles – a human hyena in Goodfellas, a streetwise savant in My Cousin Vinny, hell, even the guy who takes paint pots to the head in Home Alone – he’s a fast-talking grifter, an uncouth, uneducated hothead, a man for whom the law was just an angle to be worked.
And the problem is, he did those roles so well – each firmly placing him as a yapper with a heart of crime – that the studio system soon wanted him playing little else.
It’s why, more than a decade ago, he decided to retire for good, having first promised to do so a decade before that, so sick was Pesci at Hollywood never giving him the opportunity to break out of it. Have you seen 8 Heads In A Duffel Bag? It’s enough to make anyone give up acting.
So instead he decided to focus on jazz (pseudonym: Joe Doggs) and golf.
It’s an example of how ruinous the old studio system can be: with everything pegged on opening weekends and recognised types – be it the actors known for gangsters or leading men known for heroism with a side of quip – because every time someone is cast against type it becomes a financial risk. It’s telling that it’s with Netflix – a medium that doesn’t care about opening weekends but the long game of subscriber numbers – that he’s finally broken free.
Granted, with The Irishman, he hasn’t entirely escaped his past. It’s a Martin Scorsese film, after all. It’s a gangster movie, again. It’s working with De Niro... for the seventh time.
But it shows how much else he could have done, had someone given him the chance. Short, squat and with a plotting resting face, he was never going to be an old-school leading man. But in another era, the one that allowed Jack Nicholson’s face on posters, he could have been a contender.
His role in The Irishman isn’t just one in which he’s finally, aged 76, broken free from the niche that became a straitjacket, but one that slyly subverts it.
Here the mafia aren’t the hotheads of Goodfellas, but the establishment. The two true gangsters in the film – Pesci as the mob boss, De Niro as the mob hitman – are calmly efficient and coolly watchful. Yes, sure, they kill people, but they do so with the mournful regret of businessmen having to let someone go. If killing in Goodfellas is done with reckless abandon, killing in The Irishman is done with regret – and seemingly the knowledge of the price to be paid. They are, against all odds, the adults in the room. It’s Pacino – the man with many fingers in many pies but nonetheless very much the insider – who’s the real loose cannon.
For Pesci, it shows the silent economy he can put into a performance if the performance asks it of him; it shows, frankly, that this supporting player could have been every bit as good as De Niro himself (it probably won’t shock you to learn that it was De Niro himself who discovered Pesci, having seen him in a small 1976 film called The Death Collector, in which Pesci played a neighbourhood kid working as a debt collector for the mob, and recommending him to Scorsese to play his younger brother in the 1980 classic Raging Bull, a role that would see Pesci pick up his first Oscar nomination).
It maybe shouldn’t come as a shock that the role saw him play the restrained brother – the voice of reason to his brother’s inner demons.
The roles wouldn’t stay that way, but for a while at least they did, and it’s a leading role he played in the afterglow of his Academy recognition – a mostly forgotten film called Dear Mr Wonderful in 1982 – that really showed what Pesci can do. In it he played a wannabe crooner who performed at his own bowling alley. One night, a real singing superstar – Tony Martin, playing himself – appears in the audience and Pesci, singing on stage, singles him out.
“Mr Tony Martin is here,” he says. “Thank you for coming.”
As the people clap we see Martin bow, but behind him we see the bowling lanes. And in honour of his special guest, he adds, he’s going to sing a song he wrote himself, one he’s never sang publicly.
It’s not long, though, until Martin is urged to leave.
“Tony,” says a woman at his table, the clonk-clank of the lanes subtly getting louder. “We only have time for two shots bowling. The plane is going to leave very soon.”
And just as Pesci starts to get into his groove, removing his bow tie, Martin is up and on his way out. He gives a tip to the waiter: “Tell the kid I like him. He’ll understand.”
Pesci doesn’t overplay this moment, but the crushing disappointment is all there in his eyes: it’s like he’s suddenly had the life drain out of him. You can almost feel the sinking feeling in his stomach.
It’s a look that returns with even more nuance and depth in The Irishman, when he sits down with De Niro’s hitman at a deserted roadside diner, in the middle of a road trip, and informs him about the awful deed he must do. It’s a deed the entire film revolves around, a heinous act of betrayal, but one delivered with mournful efficiency.
He tells De Niro’s Sheeran they did everything they could. What more could they have done?
But thinking back to that scene, there’s surely something else in it too: a deeper mournfulness for the career he should have had, and one that was now at an end.
Now read: You're a Legend for This One, Joe Pesci
He did everything he could. What more could he have done?
The Irishman arrives on Netflix on 27 November.