Oscar-winning actor Joe Pesci, out for a rare day of relaxation recently at his local golf course, marched up to the first tee and prepared to whack the ball down the fairway.
He drew back his golf club, hesitated in midswing and then slowly lowered his club. With a dazed expression on his face, he stepped back from the tee and began shaking his head, as if to clear it of mental cobwebs. His puzzled golfing partner asked him what was wrong.
"I didn't know who the hell was about to hit that golf ball," Mr. Pesci told him. "Was it Leo Getz or David Ferry or Tommy or Harry or Joe. I've spent so much time as somebody else, and so little time as myself, I lost sight of who I was for an instant.
"People don't realize that you give up your life for success; some mornings I look in the mirror and say, 'Who is that old guy?' "
Such is the down side of being one of the hottest actors in the business. It's 12-hour days, six-day weeks and one movie project after another. But the payoff of working continuously for 2 1/2 years without a lengthy break is that you get showered with acclaim, your pockets get filled with money and your name appears on movie marquees no less than five times in 1992.
"Did I say I was complaining?" Mr. Pesci said with a shrug of his shoulders during an interview last week in his Los Angeles hotel suite. "I wasn't complaining; I was just telling you that when you work at a job too long without a break, it eats your life up.
"And that's not just acting; that's any job. You go to work every day, come home, eat and go to bed. Then you get up and do it again. You've got to spend some time with yourself."
Mr. Pesci is taking that long-awaited break right now, having just completed filming "Public Eye" with Barbara Hershey, which is scheduled for a fall release. That will follow the release this summer of two other Pesci films: "Lethal Weapon 3" and "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York."
He's already in the nation's theaters playing the notorious David Ferry in Oliver Stone's controversial "JFK," and his newest film, TC "My Cousin Vinny."
Those fans accustomed to savoring Mr. Pesci's memorable supporting performances will love his new leading-man status in "My Cousin Vinny," in which he plays a streetwise but fledgling Brooklyn attorney who travels to Alabama to defend his younger cousin and a friend, who are accused of murder.
Vinny has been an attorney for all of six weeks and has never tried a case. He also dresses badly and speaks in a manner considered a foreign language in that part of the South.
"Joe's an extraordinary character actor and he has no problem carrying the whole movie as a leading man," said the film's director, Jonathan Lynn.
"He has no trouble making that transition from supporting player to leading man because he has that one quality that all leading men possess, and that quality is called talent. Look at all of the leading men who have ever lasted in this business and that's the one thing they all have -- talent."
Mr. Pesci, a native of Newark, N.J., is that rare actor who not only can shift between supporting and leading roles but between drama and comedy.
Name one other actor who, in the same year, could have played the bumbling burglar in the biggest comedy hit of all time ("Home Alone") and the chilling, murderous gangster Tommy in "GoodFellas," for which he won the Oscar.
Mr. Pesci started in show business as a singer at age 5, and continued working as a nightclub entertainer into his 20s.
During that time, he also sang and played guitar on a local TV show called "Star Time Kids."
After recording some albums under a variety of aliases, Mr. Pesci briefly tried acting but gave it up to manage a friend's restaurant in the Bronx. Then he got a fateful, late-night phone call from Robert De Niro, who had seen his work in an earlier film and wanted him to play his brother in "Raging Bull."
Mr. Pesci thought the call was a prank, but Mr. De Niro, with the help of director Martin Scorsese, convinced him that it was on the level. Mr. Pesci was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for "Raging Bull."
It would be almost a decade later (1989) before audiences would notice him again as the irritating accountant Leo Getz in "Lethal Weapon 2." He doesn't like doing sequels, but said he has agreed to appear in the third installment of the successful cop series as a payback to the film's producers, whom he credits for reviving his career in 1989.
The comeback was complete with last year's Oscar win, which Mr. Pesci said was a shock.
"I had come up with a perfect reason for everybody else in my category to win. I didn't even want to vote for myself when the form came, but my sister slapped me and told me that I'd better vote for myself or else.
"I figured they'd give it to the Indian [Graham Greene in 'Dances With Wolves'] and then Marlon Brando would come up and refuse it. Then I figured they'd give it to Al Pacino for his body of work. Then I figured they'd give it to Bruce Davidson ['Longtime Companion'] because the AIDS issue was very hot, and then I figured they'd give it to Andy Garcia ['Godfather III'] because he's new, handsome and the studio loves him.
"I was excited to be at the Oscars just to find out which of my predictions were right. When they announced my name, I was stunned."
Mr. Pesci attributes his career success to luck -- "Anybody who makes it in this business is lucky in the roles they get and the roles they turn down" -- but he's not putting down his talent, or making light of his new leading-man stature.
He says he has as much right to be a leading man as anybody.
"They always want to put the young, tall, handsome guy in the leading-man roles, but that isn't what real life is all about. This is what real life is all about. We know who gets the girls. It's guys like me."