I guess it wasn’t too much of a surprise when NoHo Hank, an unsavory character from the hit HBO series Barry, was revealed to be gay. Hank, played by actor Anthony Carrigan, is the eclectic, naïve, and over-the-top leader of the Chechen mob in Los Angeles. He is also a ruthless killer, and while he comes across fun-lovingly, he’s anything but.
The revelation that he was gay was treated as no big deal by title character Barry, played brilliantly by Bill Hader, who also co-created the show. Hader’s Barry is a hired hit man, so his interactions with Hank are not only comedic but violent, or rooted in violence.
Hank confirmed my suspicions — my gaydar went off with him in season 1 — that he was gay when he was outed in the season 3 opener. His sexuality is presented with a touch of flamboyance and silliness, just like the other attributes of his character.
The mob boss being gay got me thinking about other mob, cartel, or gang members on other hit television shows who are gay too and how their sexuality is more matter-of-fact and not sensationalized. Being gay is treated in a way that does not diminish their menacing conduct or their masculinity.
Another recent example is the characterization of the real-life Hélmer “Pacho” Herrera from the Netflix series Narcos. Pacho, a Colombian portrayed in the show by Argentinian actor Alberto Ammann, was head of distribution and security for the Cali drug cartel.
Pacho also happened to be gay. The subject of his sexuality is rarely, if ever, brought up as a plotline in the series, but when it is, he uses it to show his power — over men, often much younger men. Pacho is just another calculating and vicious drug lord who prizes money over human life.
Just like Mickey Milkovich from Showtime’s Shameless. Mickey is the show’s foremost brute, who spent time in “juvie” and was raised by a family notorious and feared in their South Side Chicago neighborhood for guns and violence.
Mickey, played by Canadian actor Noel Fisher, ends up marrying Ian Gallagher, one of the sons of the show’s lead character William H. Macy’s Frank Gallagher. The fact that Mickey is an obnoxious, cruel jerk who, again, happens to be gay, was part of what made him so — well, I’ll just say it, shameless. His sexuality mirrored his raw and rough facade.
Another gay neighborhood criminal was from HBO’s blood-soaked series The Wire. Omar Little, depicted by the late Michael K. Williams, was a thief who regularly robbed street-level drug dealers. In the series, he instilled fear. When people saw or heard him approaching, they ran away and warned others that "Omar comin'.” He eventually ended up in prison for robbing a jewelry store. Omar’s identity and sexuality were often touching, as he showed a sensitive side that was nothing like his jagged public-facing exterior.
Just like Hank, Pacho and Mickey, Omar was also sympathetically portrayed in the series. The fact that all these men were gay was treated as a given. They were villains first, and yes, some episodes of each series devoted storylines to the fact that they were gay, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t a big deal. And by the way, all these actors, in real life, were straight.
So is the actor Joseph R. Gannascoli, who played the queer character Vito Spatafore in HBO’s biggest hit, The Sopranos. However, what sets Gannascoli’s character apart from the others is that when Vito was outed as gay in the series almost 20 years ago, it was not only a major twist on the show but was also big news in pop culture. A mob character who was gay? Now, that was salacious.
You could say that Vito was the “Godfather” of gay mafiosi on television. His character was also played sympathetically via Gannascoli’s honest, gruff, and eventually sensitive portrayal. Vito, who was married with children, was a groundbreaker on television, and his character’s sexuality was one of the series' top storylines in season 6 of the equally groundbreaking show.
I had a chance to catch up with Gannascoli, who has become a highly successful personal chef who does Sopranos-themed private parties all over the world. When I spoke with him, he had just returned from Europe, where he hosted parties in eight cities, including Dublin, Dundalk, and London.
“I started out as a chef and worked in a bunch of restaurants in New York City almost 30 years ago, and I worked with a lot of gay people, and it never bothered me at all,” Gannascoli reminisced. “In fact, I worked at an all-gay restaurant called Company, which was in Chelsea. I was one of only two straight people. It was a great job.”
Gannascoli said he did the restaurant circuit in Manhattan and New Orleans and eventually gambled all his money away. “I thought, what the [hell] [true to Vito, he didn’t use the word hell — at all, actually, during our conversation], I’ll move to Los Angeles and try to become an actor. I got cast in season 1 of The Sopranos but as a different character. I returned in season 3 as Vito, and my big scene was that I got to kill Jackie Jr. at the end of that season.”
“Vito then became a part of Tony’s clan and murder machine. I was just one of his crew, so my part was in the background, and hey, I wanted more screen time, just like any other actor, so I was trying to figure out ways to make that happen,” he continued.
During a break from the series, Gannascoli read a book that included a gay mob character, so he had an idea. “I took the book to one of the writers on the show, and I said, ‘Read this. wouldn't it be interesting to make Vito gay? It's really never been done and would be interesting because obviously it's happened. There are gay mobsters, Turns out that that idea completely changed my life.”
Gannascoli and the production team of The Sopranos eventually realized that creating a gay mob character would be revolutionary. “It was something that you never heard about or saw on television,” Gannascoli pointed out. “I was willing to do it, and they wrote a scene where Vito gets caught getting some ... relief ... from a well-built male security guard in his truck on a construction site. I like to joke that I was on the wrong end of that blow job.”
It was also important for Gannascoli, personally, for Vito to be gay since it presented him an opportunity to stretch his character beyond a mobster. "I am self taught actor, as well as self taught chef by the way. But the point is, I wanted to prove to myself that I could act and what better way to do it than to portray someone totally opposite of who I am."
As a result of his idea, Vito’s character and his struggle with his sexuality became one of the main plotlines in season 6 of the series. “Remember, this was around 2005, 2006, so this was a big deal,” Gannascoli recalled. “Everybody was talking about it. Howard Stern was talking about it, and I spent a weekend with him in Las Vegas. And I remember walking into restaurants in New York City and getting standing ovations. Well, most everyone stood. Some of my friends thought I was crazy to make Vito gay, but that was their problem.”
For Gannascoli, the role altered his life in ways he never dreamed. “I wrote a cookbook that became a best seller, and more importantly, I met my wife during that time. And I am so very proud of playing Vito.”
“Look, we all know now that being gay is commonplace, and gay people are in every walk of life, from firemen to police to mobsters,” Gannascoli said. “If you recall, Tony wanted Vito to live, and the fact that Vito was gay didn’t bother him. Tony said something like ‘I’m a live and let live kind of guy.’ Vito was Tony’s biggest earner, and when Vito started losing money for Tony, that’s what did him in. It had nothing to do with Vito being gay and everything to do with that fact that Vito was hurting Tony where he felt it the most, in his wallet.”
Gannascoli added insight into something that viewers may not have picked up on when Vito was killed. “Vito was in a hotel room, and Tony’s rival Phil was waiting for him in the closet, so Phil’s goons started beating Vito when he entered his room, Phil is shown dramatically coming out of the closet to watch. There was irony there, and that is a proof point to how brilliant the show’s writers were.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.