In contrast to the pugnacious extroverts he’s so often played, off-screen Joe Pesci has been a man of relative reserve. In 1990, he gave a shudderingly violent and foul-mouthed turn as an amoral gangster in Martin Scorsese’s mob epic GoodFellas; a year later, when Pesci picked up a best supporting actor Oscar for the performance, he delivered one of the briefest speeches in Academy Award history before quietly exiting stage-left. As well as his savage charisma as a performer, the surrounding mystique – since 1998, Pesci has appeared in just three films (and a Snickers ad), and has all but disappeared from the public eye – is a major reason why Pesci has endured as the unlikeliest of screen icons.
Raging Bull (1980)
Director Martin Scorsese
Before he found his calling as a film star, Joe Pesci spent much of his life pursuing a career in the music industry (incredibly, his connections as a New Jerseyite led to the formation of The Four Seasons). His first collaboration with Martin Scorsese, 1980’s pugilist bio Raging Bull, put a decisive end to that. With his Oscar-nominated role as the only comparatively level-headed brother to Robert De Niro’s self-destructive prizefighter Jake LaMotta, Pesci kicked off a run of ever more combustible performances. As Joey LaMotta, casually wisecracking one minute and explosive the next, Pesci set his own template.
Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
Director Richard Donner
With minimal screen-time, in a ‘no small roles, only small actors’ masterclass, Pesci stole Richard Donner’s action-comedy Lethal Weapon 2 from under its two stars and immediately established himself as a franchise fixture. To the role of money launderer-turned-federal witness Leo Getz, Pesci brings a shrill, obsequious quality that’s at odds with his signature tough guy persona; while Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s Riggs and Murtaugh dish out the pain, Pesci hangs back and provides yappy comic relief.
Director Martin Scorsese
The Lethal Weapon and Home Alone movies might have been the most lucrative of Pesci’s career, but it was GoodFellas that cemented his legend, in bottling his particular brand of livewire volatility better than no other film. As hot-headed Mafioso Tommy DeVito, Pesci constantly oscillates between darkly humorous and downright terrifying, often within the same scene. It’s a testament to Pesci’s unique ability to be both entertaining and frightening that, when Tommy buys it at the end of the second act, we feel simultaneous remorse and relief that he won’t be around to cause trouble any longer.
Home Alone (1990)
Director Chris Columbus
Pesci’s filmography is hardly the most family-friendly, though a few notable outliers have shown off a less profane side of the actor. In 1997, Pesci made angling comedy Gone Fishin’ with his Lethal Weapon co-star Danny Glover, and he voiced a mosquito in 2015 animation A Warrior’s Tail, but you’d have to go all the way back to the early 90s to find a Joe Pesci movie general audiences flocked to see. 1992 sequel Lost in New York was, like its predecessor, an enormous box office hit, but 1990’s Home Alone remains the family classic, with Pesci combining boo-hiss nastiness and a surprising panache for slapstick to play child-terrorising burglar Harry Lime.
Director Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone’s cameo-rich JFK is full of eye-popping supporting turns, but the most enjoyably gonzo of the lot might be Pesci’s. Proving in just a few foul-mouthed exchanges that he may curse with more acid-tongued enthusiasm than any other actor, when Pesci blows up as the fidgety, bewigged David Ferrie he overshadows even a brilliantly flamboyant Tommy Lee Jones. The scene where Pesci’s paranoid New Orleans pilot regales to the feds his role in the JFK ‘conspiracy’ is a lesson in how to escalate a scene until it boils over into mania.
My Cousin Vinny (1992)
Director Jonathan Lynn
A bit of counter-casting now, as Pesci finds himself on the right side of the law for a change in Jonathan Lynn’s courtroom comedy My Cousin Vinny. As Vinny Gambini, a fish-out-of-water New York attorney fixing to get his wrongly accused cousin off a murder charge in rural Alabama, Pesci coasts on wiseguy charm, in a part that could have gone to a more obvious romcom lead: in a rare instance where he’s not asked to play sinister or sleazy, Pesci is instead endearingly bumbling and warm, sharing ample chemistry with an Oscar-winning Marisa Tomei (playing his fiancée) to boot.
Director Martin Scorsese
On Casino, a kind of GoodFellas XXL set in Las Vegas, Martin Scorsese – for better and worse – takes what made his 1990 classic great and amplifies it. And so, here Pesci dials his rage levels all the way up to 11 as Nicky Santoro, a murder-happy mob enforcer whose psychology might actually be more unsettling than that of GoodFellas’ Tommy: where the psychopathic Tommy had no conscience, loving family man Nicky is – through all the senseless executions and torture – somehow simply able to ignore his. To date, Casino is the last movie Pesci made with De Niro and Scorsese, though the pair have been diligently trying to tempt Pesci back to the screen for their upcoming hitman drama The Irishman. Here’s hoping – if anyone can engineer a Joe Pesci comeback, it’s them.