Joe Pantoliano makes no bones about why he's in the acting business -- it's for the money.
"If I could figure out a way to make this much money as a waiter, I'd do it in a second," says the New Jersey-born actor who currently stars in NBC's "The Fanelli Boys."
"I was a good waiter. I liked being a waiter. And then you wouldn't be bothered by 2,000 people coming up to you on the street. They wouldn't be going, 'What a great waiter. Every time I asked for my steak medium rare, it comes exactly like I ordered!'"
Pantoliano has a specific reason for his mercenary stance: a couple of years he spent living in the projects in Hoboken, N.J.
"When I was 10 years old my father had a heart attack and had to quit his job," Pantoliano said over the phone from Los Angeles. "It wasn't like we were living in the lap of luxury then, but we had to move to the projects.
"I just remember thinking then that, one way or another, I was going to find a way to get out."
Though a divorce and his mother's remarriage eventually did get Joe out of the projects -- still far from that lap of luxury, you understand -- that drive never left him. However, it was going to be a tough road to the top for someone who even now chronicles his growing-up years by listing the succession of gangs that he hung out with.
"In high school, I acted in a couple of plays, and two of my teachers told me that I could do this as a profession, but I had to work on my reading if I was going to be able to read scripts and learn my lines."
As a senior, Pantoliano was reading on the third-grade level. "I was never any good at reading," he said. "It turns out I was a little dyslexic. I had a teacher early on who called on me, heard I couldn't read, and told me to shut up and sit down.
"After that, on the first few days of school I'd always sit in the front row. The teacher would call on me to read something, see how bad I was, and I'd never get called on for the rest of the year. That's the way I went through school."
This time, though, Pantoliano applied himself and learned to read. When he graduated high school in the early '70s, he went to work waiting tables in New York and taking acting classes.
"There was no real work for me," he said. "That was back when guys in their 30s like Al Pacino were playing all the roles of characters in their early 20s. So I took classes. It turned out to be great training for making movies because in class you do things one scene at a time, and that's the way you make a movie."
After a variety of regional theater and off-Broadway work, Pantoliano headed for Hollywood in 1976. He played the Frank Sinatra role of Maggio in the miniseries of "From Here to Eternity." His style, which combines a straightforward, street-smart approach with some very delicate craftsmanship, then landed him a variety of interesting character parts in movies.
He was Doc in "Eddie and the Cruisers," the unforgettable Guido the pimp in "Risky Business," Gino in "The Idolmaker," a punk rocker named Snake in "Running Scared," Richie Valens' manager in "La Bamba," and bail bondsman Eddie Moscone in "Midnight Run" among other roles.
"The Fanelli Boys," which was created by a group of writers from "The Golden Girls," centers on a Brooklyn Italian family. It's currently running Saturdays at 8:30 on Channel 2 (WMAR), though it's slated for hiatus after it runs out of originals next month.
The role of Dominic, the smooth-talking shyster of the clan, the guy who's got a deal for everyone and a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow just around the corner, is Pantoliano's first foray into situation comedy.
"I know this is a good one because we've got good writers and a great cast," he said. "But it's an impossible form. I don't think you can do it right, you just have to make of it what you can.
"If you took the scripts from 'The Honeymooners' and read them, they probably wouldn't seem funny. It was what Jackie Gleason did with them that made them funny. So that's what you try to do.
"But I can't watch them. I can't watch our show, I can't watch 'Cheers,' I can't watch any of them. There's no way to do it right, but it's interesting to try every week."
Despite such inherent difficulties, Pantoliano had a compelling reason to take this role. His stepfather was in the funeral business, which is the Fanelli family business. And his father was named Dominic.
"I felt like my parents were talking to me," he said. "What could I do?"