Soft Touch

Upper Saddle River’s Vincent Curatola (a.k.a. Johnny Sack) can’t escape his Sopranos persona.

Before auditioning for Sopranos creator David Chase, Curatola decided that, if Johnny Sack—the character he was trying out for—were really as powerful as described, he wouldn’t need to raise his voice. Speaking softly, Curatola won the part.
Courtesy of Vincent Curatola.

On a recent Sunday morning, actor Vincent Curatola was about to receive the Holy Sacrament at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. He looked up at the priest, who spoke these words: “The body of Christ, Johnny.”

Johnny?

Did the clergyman really think the person kneeling before him was fictional mobster Johnny “Sack” Sacramoni?  

It seems like a simple case of mistaken identity, but for Curatola, who portrayed the head of the Lupertazzi crime family so convincingly during seven seasons on the HBO series The Sopranos, such moments are a nagging fact of life. 

Hardly a week goes by without a stranger aiming a cell phone at the Upper Saddle River resident and instructing, “Say hello to my girlfriend. She doesn’t believe me.” Curatola chalks up such intrusions to “the price of fame.” 

The actor predicts, however, that his public persona will take a detour on October 19. That’s when director Andrew Dominik’s latest dark comedy-thriller, Killing Them Softly, is due to open on more than 2,500 screens worldwide.

The film, an adaptation of the George V. Higgins novel Cogan’s Trade, reunites Dominik with Brad Pitt, the protagonist of his critically acclaimed western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Curatola plays a schemer named Johnny Amato, who sets the story in motion.

“This Johnny’s a down-and-out guy, and he has a little dry-cleaning business that’s probably worth 10 bucks, but he messed up and went to prison,” Curatola explains. “Now he’s out of prison and he wants to do one more good score. A big score to him is $20,000, $30,000.”

The heist will target a Mob-protected, high-stakes poker game run by a character named Markie Trattman. But Trattman, played by Newark native Ray Liotta, hires a hit man to go after Amato. The would-be hit man is played by Sopranos star and Jersey guy James Gandolfini, whose character “couldn’t kill an ant with an elephant gun,” Curatola says. That’s when Pitt enters the picture as a cool-hand sociopath.

Usually an animated storyteller, Curatola abruptly halts the synopsis, saying, “We have to leave it at that.” Further coaxed, he concedes, “It doesn’t end up good for Johnny, but it takes the whole movie to get there, which is good.” 

Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in early summer, Killing Them Softly sparked a 10-minute standing ovation, along with some early Oscar buzz.

As a kid growing up on North Woodland Street in Englewood, Curatola could easily have chosen music as a career. Delivering the Record newspaper, his customers were music royalty: Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Wilson Pickett, Jerry Vale, and just around the corner, Tony Bennett and Lesley Gore. “I was marinated in this,” he quips.

Curatola briefly flirted with the idea, forming a group called the Young Republic in the late 1960s. “We played venues like the Cheetah in Manhattan and every university within a 50- to 100-mile radius. I’m still in touch with one of the guitar players.” Don’t expect a reunion tour, but Curatola, who sings and plays guitar, can occasionally be spotted on stage with the rock group Chicago.

“I’m their shill,” he says. “You know, the guy they pick out of the audience to sing with them.”

A masonry contractor like his father, Curatola packed away his youthful fantasies after marrying and starting a family. Curatola would probably still be pouring concrete if wife Maureen hadn’t nudged him in a different direction.

“When I was 39—I’m 59 now—my wife said to me, ‘Michael Moriarty teaches acting in Manhattan. Why don’t you go audit an acting class?’” Curatola told her that he was too busy with his business. “Some days I thought about it,” he recalls, “but the whole thing seemed ridiculous.”

But Maureen didn’t let the thought go. “She pleaded, ‘Do it for me. Just go for one time,’” says Curatola. “I relented and went to this gorgeous prewar apartment directly across from Carnegie Hall. I didn’t think I got anything from the class, but for some strange reason, I returned that second week.”

Curatola sat “like a statue for an entire month and a half,” failing to utter a single word. Finally, Moriarty’s glare spurred him into action. “I figured, let me try something. And that’s how I began.”

Juggling his masonry business and the occasional TV role, Curatola plugged away, eventually winning supporting roles in movies such as the 1996 release Gotti: The Rise and Fall of a Real Life Mafia Don and on TV’s Law & Order. Then in 1998, he landed a starring role in an NBC-TV Movie of the Week titled Exiled, as well as a recurring role on Third Watch.

It had been a long day on the set of Exiled when Curatola’s agent instructed him to head to Manhattan’s West 72nd Street to audition for an unknown new series titled The Sopranos. To Curatola, it sounded like an odd cross between A Bronx Tale and Saturday Night Fever.  “Who knew that the writing was going to be at the level it was, along with the acting?”

He lingered outside the doorway, smoked a cigarette, lit another and began walking around the block. He finally entered the audition 50 minutes late. Everyone had left, except one woman leaning over a solitary desk. Without looking up, she chastised him: “Oops, you’re late. Thank you, but I’m going outside to catch a cab.”

Glancing up briefly, the woman was taken aback by the tall, imposing figure who loomed before her. Her voice softening, she asked him to read a scene as Johnny Sack.

The callback came a few days later to read for creator David Chase. Sitting in an outer office at Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, Queens, Curatola heard screaming and hollering. Pondering his take on Sack, he reasoned, “When I go in I’m going to whisper. I felt that if he was that powerful, everyone would stop and listen when he spoke.”

This approach—reminiscent of Marlon Brando in The Godfather—would prove effective, from the way Sack answered the phone with a simple, “Speak,” to his ruthless elimination of rivals and final demise from cancer. In this regard, Curatola confesses he doesn’t share Sack’s level of restraint: “When something’s wrong, I’m going to scream until someone hears me. Years ago, some guy said, ‘You must really think you’re Johnny Sack.’ No, but I will go right to the wall to defend and speak up for someone who is suffering or neglected. I wish I could back down, but once I’ve launched, that’s it. Whoever’s fault it is will remember me.”

Being a series regular on The Sopranos earned Curatola professional respect and entrance into a close-knit, real-life family. “James Gandolfini, that’s my soul mate,” says Curatola. “The cast is still extremely tight. I have to say we do weddings, funerals, barbecues and christenings together.”

Curatola also is a respected figure in his community and beyond. He is on the board of commissioners of the New Jersey Hall of Fame and a trustee of the Hackensack University Medical Center Foundation. In 2007, he offered himself and other cast members for an auction benefiting the HUMC Foundation. The auction raised $50,000 for the privilege of dining with the make-believe mobsters.

Having turned over the masonry business to his only son, Ryan, Curatola now has extra hours to indulge his young grandsons, Blake and Grayson. “I’m absolutely over the moon. They own my heart.”

In true grandfatherly fashion, he can’t resist sharing an amusing anecdote. “Blake, who is almost four, loves watching Turner Classics with me, hour after hour. Why just today, he learned a new phrase: ‘Hey doll, how about a cup of joe?”

For a fleeting moment, Curatola’s alter ego flashes into view. “I’ve decided,” he says conspiratorially, “that on the first day of kindergarten, I’m going to walk him into the classroom. I’ll just say, ‘Hello,’ stand there silently for a few minutes, then leave. I think they’ll get the message to treat him well.”

Winnie Bonelli has profiled actors Jesse Eisenberg and Vera Farmiga for New Jersey Monthly.

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