- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2002

NEW YORK
What a sweetheart, Ralphie Cifaretto. He's the wiseguy on HBO's "The Sopranos" who ordered a hit on the son of the woman with whom he was living, then solemnly escorted the grieving mother to the funeral.
He viciously beat to death his pregnant stripper girlfriend, then shrugged off the deed with a sneering, "It was an accident."
He made a joke about the obese wife of another family's underboss that almost got him (and the underboss) whacked. It was just another example of his inflammatory outbursts, voiced with no concern for mob protocol or even his own health.
"They're gonna find this piece of [dirt] in a trunk someday," one of Ralphie's associates grumbles to another.
Even his boss, Tony Soprano, despises him. Good thing Ralphie proved to be a top earner for the family.
"He loves his job," declares Joe Pantoliano, who plays Ralphie with leering, maniacal abandon on the show, which airs Sundays at 9 p.m.
During this recent interview, Mr. Pantoliano looks jaunty in jeans and an Ivy Leaguish wool blazer. What remains of his graying hair is closely shaved, in striking contrast to Ralphie's unruly red hairpiece.
"Ralphie needs pain in his life in order to thrive," Mr. Pantoliano says. "He pushes people to a violent reaction, and then he gets permission to be violent back at them." Now a grin. "I play a character you love to hate, so I have to defend that character as Johnnie Cochran would defend some clients he's had in a court of law."

As "Sopranos" viewers know, it's a persuasive performance by the veteran actor, who, at age 52, has had more than 70 movie roles, beginning with Guido the Killer Pimp in the movie "Risky Business" and, more recently, "Midnight Run," "The Fugitive," "The Matrix" and "Memento."
He also has written a just-published memoir, "Who's Sorry Now: The True Story of a Stand-up Guy," which takes readers back to his old neighborhood in Hoboken, N.J. a world Ralphie Cifaretto might recognize.
Mr. Pantoliano (who early on acquired the nickname "Joey Pants") grew up on Hoboken's mean streets in a hurly-burly household where his mother was a bookie, his father was a gambler who worked in a funeral home, and his stepfather spent much of his life in prison.
"You're 12 years old, and you're sneaking out of the apartment at 2 o'clock in the morning 'cause you can't pay your [darn] rent. And your mother tells you your father's not your father anymore, that her cousin is your stepfather. And he's a gangster, but he's also the mentor who saves your life. It all takes a toll on you."
It's not as if he's complaining. Joey Pants tells a colorful, often funny tale that even comes with a happy ending after all, he made it across the river to Manhattan and the acting career he saw as his way out.
These days, he lives comfortably with his second wife and three daughters in suburban Connecticut. He also keeps a place in Hoboken and says with a laugh that rather than those personal appearances at Barnes & Noble superstores, he would feel more like himself selling copies of his book from the trunk of his car.
Mr. Pantoliano joined "The Sopranos" early last season, introducing a character reminiscent of Jimmy Murtha, the excitable young mobster he played in 1996-97 on the splendid but short-lived CBS drama "EZ Streets."
Disenchanted with the failure of "EZ Streets" to draw an audience, he turned down an inquiry from "Sopranos" creator David Chase before the series premiered.
"I said, 'Not interested; it won't work. Television is not ready for this kind of show, and I've got "EZ Streets" to prove it.'"
Events would prove otherwise, and when Mr. Chase asked him again, Mr. Pantoliano changed his tune: "Absolutely. Whattaya got?"

As with everyone in the huge "Sopranos" ensemble other than James Gandolfini, who plays Tony, Mr. Pantoliano is seen much more some weeks than others.
"Gandolfini is the sun, and we are the planets that revolve around him," Mr. Pantoliano explains. "Sometimes you're Pluto, and sometimes you're Mars; you know what I mean?"
Even when Ralphie is absent from a scene, or a whole episode, his presence is felt nonetheless: Wily and divisive, he's turning the family against itself. Meanwhile, he offers viewers a new slant on things, exposing his fellow mobsters for what they are: like him.
Says Mr. Pantoliano with clear satisfaction, "I think David Chase created Ralphie because the audience was starting to love all those other guys too much."


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