For one thing Vinny Vella, who grew up in New York’s Little Italy, portrayed the character Jimmy Petrille in the TV hit The Sopranos. Before that a string of mobster and other quirky characters followed his role as Artie Piscano in the movie Casino directed by Martin Scorsese. He’s been called “one of Hollywood's old standbys for playing imposing, street-smart Italian-American hoods.” But there’s a lot more to Vinny Vella than his celluloid mobster persona.
Lesser known facts:
• Vinny, known as the unofficial “Mayor of Elizabeth Street,” was born Vincent Franco Vellacerra in New York City’s Little Italy.
Mob Speak was curious to see what kind of a guy Vinny Vella really is…
MS: Vinny, many years ago you had a trucking company called “Star Truckers.” How did you snag clients like Madonna, Cindy Crawford and Mariah Carey?
VV: We rented out our vehicles to different fashion industries among other clients. The fashion people used the RVs for makeup and wardrobe. I started working with models like Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and many others who were just starting out in the business. The next thing you know we started renting out the vehicles to MTV and VH1 for music videos. Pretty soon we had stars like Madonna on board. Then word got out and the movie studios found out about us.
MS: I read that you got your first acting gig in an MTV show called House of Style.
VV: Yeah, I became good friends with Cindy Crawford. She was always glad to see me when I drove the RV. “Hey Vinny, how are you?” she’d say. I’d entertain everyone, not like the other drivers who would just stand around and try to see the girls without any clothes on…bunch of perverts. If it was a nice day I’d step outside and give the girls their privacy. If it was rainy I’d sit in the front seat and look straight ahead. I respected them and they appreciated that. Well, Cindy Crawford launched House of Style and offered me a spot on the show. Every time I saw a new model I said, “She’s the most beautiful.” The next model I saw I said, “No, this is the most beautiful one.” I tell you I had the best dreams.
MS: How did you happen to land the role of Artie Piscano, a stool pigeon in Casino? Any good stories?
VV: When I was just a driver for the fashion industry I began putting together head shots and submitted them to different NY agents. Got some work as an extra for $100 a day. I took these jobs just to get my feet wet. The next thing you know I heard about auditions for Casino. I auditioned and was offered a very small part. Then they upgraded my role to the Kansas City underboss, Artie Piscano, because they liked what they saw. They asked if that was a problem. “No, no problem,” I said, thinking how lucky I was. Everything started to snowball.
The woman who played my mother in the movie I knew from Elizabeth Street. She happened to be Marty Scorsese’s mother. I spent time with her on the set since nobody wanted to hang out with her. I took her to a casino for fun. Marty saw how well we got along and told me he was going to try something in our next scene. Every time I swore, he was going to have her hit me and make some comment. It's hard to keep your concentration when you’re trying to remember your lines. It wasn’t working out too well so Marty came up to me and took my lines and threw them in the garbage. I had no idea what he was going to tell me. He asked me what I’d do to someone who owed me a lot of money and didn’t pay. I told him I’d do this and that and I'd break their f---ing heads. He stopped me and said, “That’s perfect.”
So I improvised the whole thing. I was waiting for him to say cut because I was running out of stuff. After maybe 2 or 3 minutes he finally said cut and walked over. “Vinny, that was excellent…exactly what I want…now do it over again.” We ended up doing about 20 takes with 3 cameras. I guess it worked out. Some people are shy when the camera starts rolling. Me, I make love to that camera.
Now 16 years later people still come up to me and say, “Hey you’re the guy that screwed up in Casino.” It was a memorable part that started me on a roll.
MS: What about your role in The Sopranos?
VV: They called me down and said I’d be reading with someone else. It ended up that I got the part of Jimmy Petrille with the New York mob. I was in several episodes.
MS: You had a part in director Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog and Coffee and Cigarettes. Jarmusch allegedly said, “The beauty of having a guy like Vinny in your film is that he’s real…he didn’t come out of an acting academy.” How tough is it for you to play a mob guy? Are you afraid of being typecast?
VV: I pretty much play myself. No, I don’t worry about becoming typecast. People seem to like what I do. I’ve also branched out into comedy in movies like Analyze This and Analyze That. I’ve done a comedy called The Last Days of Limbo where I play a bishop. There’s a scene in the movie where I’m cooking sausages and one of the characters asks if I know what I’m doing. “Of course I know what I’m doing,” I say. “I’ve been cooking all my life.” At that exact moment a lot of smoke comes up out of the grill...it turns out very funny.
MS: You portrayed real life mobster Frank Brancato in the recently released movie, Kill the Irishman, based on Rick Porrello’s book To Kill the Irishman, The War that Crippled the Mafia. How did that gig come about?
VV: I think I was watching The Price is Right and I get a phone call from Jonathan Hensleigh, the director, who told me he wanted to get me on board. I said, “So when are guys going to start filming?” “Next week,” he said. “When you’re ready, call me,” I said. You could waste a lot of time sitting around waiting for stuff to happen. Here's what I believe in: When I’m actually in front of the camera. Jonathan told me who was in it and asked if he could send me a script. It sounded like it was on the up-and-up, so I said yeah. We worked out a contract. It was great what they offered me. I was in Detroit (which doubled for Cleveland) like 5 weeks.
Ray Stevenson not only looked like The Irishman Danny Greene, he was one of the greatest guys you’d ever want to meet. We hung out and played pool and drank in a bar across the street. Well, Danny Greene always wore a gold chain with a gold cross on it. So at the end of the shoot Ray gave all the principal actors, 10 to 15 people, a gold chain and cross. Must have cost at least a couple hundred a piece.
MS: You’ve been in something like 50 movies, Vinny. Do you remember them all?
VV: It’s not that I’m losing it…it’s that I’ve already lost it. I’ve done so many movies and TV shows that I lose track.
MS: Okay, you opened a pizzeria in Brooklyn called Vinny Vella’s Pizza that attracted a colorful assortment of characters many of whom are ex-wiseguys and actor buddies of yours including Robert De Niro, Danny Aiello and many of The Sopranos crew. (Does that make them friends of yours or friends of ours?) Then you renamed it Better Fellas in 2009. Is it still going?
VV: I got rid of it because of my partner who had “slippery fingers.” He’s lucky he still has his fingers because if this was years ago his hands would have been in the oven. But that’s another story…