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A tribute to Frank Vincent: the master of onscreen dislikability

The 'Goodfellas' and 'Sopranos' star has sadly passed away, but not before a career defining the archetypal mob villain

A tribute to Frank Vincent: the master of onscreen dislikability
14 September 2017

On the long, sordid scale of Sopranos cash-ins, a few scream out with particular force. Steven R. Shirripa’s Goomba’s Guide to Life. The almost magical realist cover sheen of The Sopranos Family Cookbook(“compiled by Artie Bucco”.) Joseph R. Gannascoli, aka Vito Spatafore, hawking homemade catchphrase t-shirts from the back of a saloon car at the start of the ‘Official Sopranos Bus Tour’. Things at once both endearing and desperately sad, like catching a favorite uncle queuing overnight in the pissing rain for the latest Supreme drop. The offal salvaged from the corpse of a genius television show.

Of all the ephemera, there’s one that rises above, both somehow more perfect and perfectly self-aware. Frank Vincent’s 2006 ‘masculine self help guide’ A Guy’s Guide to Being a Man’s Man is exactly what it looks like. A ridiculous compendium of half-baked truisms and cliches wrapped in layers of competing ironies. Frank’s right there on the cover, heavily ringed index finger stuffed in your face, comedy-sized cigar clamped in hand. All enamel smile, pomaded hair and ready made lament.

“These days, it’s harder than ever to know how to act like a real man. We’re not talking about the touchy-feely, ultra-sensitive, emotion-sharing, not-afraid-to-cry version of manhood that Oprah and Dr. Phil have been spouting for years. We’re talking about the tough, smart, confident, charming, classy, all-around good fella that upholds the true ideal of what is known as ‘a man’s man.’”

It’s difficult to think of a more pitch-perfect distillation of an entire career. Frank Vincent, the odd faced Mafia hood par excellence sadly claimed by complications arising from heart surgery last night at the ripe old age of 78. The Scorsese darling and Pesci foil with a niche in gruesome deaths and film-stealing dialogue. As with so many Italian-American talents of a certain era, typecasting came easy and it came early. From his film debut in 1975’s The Death Collector (legs blown to pieces and throat slit while doing a shit), to his infamous portrayal of unceremoniously welcomed home Gambino family hood Billy Batts in Goodfellas (shot, sliced, and dismembered in a Cadillac boot) and the cartoonish end of New York mob boss Phil Leotardo in The Sopranos (head crushed by an SUV in front of his squealing wife and gurgling grandchildren), his was a screen presence marked by extreme set-piece violence.

Rarely, if ever, was his role as that of leading man. His domain was the supercharged cameo or tightly-coiled supporting role. You don’t have to have seen Goodfellas to know the immortal, t-shirt spawning, internet shorthand line. You know it. The one about going to get “your fuckin’ shinebox”. (One which he readily admitted “made me a lot of money.”) It’s testament to Vincent’s capacity for imbuing his roles with a repulsive magnetism that a character with less than 20 minutes’ screen time dominates popular memory of one of the most lauded films of the 1990s. 

Asked about the line’s transcendence into reaction meme territory, he provided ready confirmation of its benefits. “I gotta tell you something real quick about that,” he tells a bemused chat show interviewer in 2006, “what I did, I got a picture of Billy Batts made up and you can buy it on my website. Guess what? We sell thousands. It’s amazing.”

Yet it wasn’t a catchphrase that made his career extraordinary. In comparison to many actors with double the screen time, there was something special to his malice. An unrivalled capacity for boutique squalor. A sort of rampant anti-charisma, radiated through dead eyes, natty mob period clothing, and a perpetual curl of disdain around the lips. While Joe Pesci stole the award nominations and accolades in Casino, it was Vincent that provided some of the truest horror. His grey blazered side-kick, taciturn and disarmingly grandfatherly, yet glibly capable of the most genuinely shocking violence in a film chocked full of ugliness and corrupted glamour. If Pesci is a demented mini-Cagney, then Vincent is a perverse Frankenstein’s monster movie mafioso, stitched together from all the worst of the worst. The Pesci death scene is stuff of genuine nightmares, as anyone of a certain age who illicitly-rented the DVD might well remember, though they rather forget. This writer was certainly among their number. 

However, it was with Phil Leotardo that he reached his highest pitch. In a show that did everything to demystify the stacked-up horrors of mafia life, here was a villain of such charmless sociopathy that he made ones of previous series dissipate into relative meekness. Dave Proval’s Richie Aprile had a Mean Streets callousness, Ralph Cifaretto gave his amoral devil impishness, but it was with Leotardo that The Sopranos found its greatest antagonist. In his gracelessness and blunt-force unpleasantness, he acted as a corrective to the manifold charming sociopaths viewers were so accustomed to. A brutalist gargoyle, a hideous melding of evils. You can’t imagine another actor doing the job with anything like even half the clarity. 

Though too much clarity is like too much of any good thing. His brilliance fulfilling a certain kind of role meant that those roles were almost everything he was ever offered. Asked about typecasting, he hit a note of resignation, or maybe even casual acceptance. “Hollywood has a tendency to do that to,” he said. They don’t want to give you a chance to stretch. But as a working actor, you have to work, you do what you can do…”

Frank Vincent’s work was testimony to the fact that there’s a dignity in being typecast and the qualifying condition is simple, if not easy to achieve. You have to own the type.

By Francisco Garcia