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Gay mobster
turning heads on The Sopranos

Gay mobster
turning heads on The Sopranos

Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, and...Joseph R. Gannascoli? In what Gannascoli cheerfully calls "the year of the queer," when Brokeback Mountain became a phenomenon and Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar playing Truman Capote, Gannascoli's character (spoiler alert: read no further if you haven't seen the episode yet) was outed Sunday night on The Sopranos.

Dressed in appropriate leather bar attire, Vito Spatafore--the heretofore closeted gay mobster--was sighted by a couple of wise guys who came by the sweaty S/M joint to collect their protection money.

"It's a joke," Vito weakly offers them, then begs: "Don't say nothin'!"

By the end of the episode, he's checked into a motel with a gun, looking suicidal.

Fans of the HBO series were stunned last season when Meadow's boyfriend, Finn, saw a security guard sitting in the driver's seat of a truck--and then Vito's head popped up.

This season, Vito has hung around the hospital while Tony Soprano was recovering from a gunshot wound, trying to ingratiate himself with Tony's wife while plotting with Paulie Walnuts to grab her cut of a big score. And he's chomped on carrots while prattling on about all the weight he's losing. (In real life, he's down to 260 from a high of 400 pounds.)

Now that the gay story line is heating up, the 47-year-old Brooklyn-born actor is immensely pleased, in part because it was his idea to make Vito gay.

"I saw him as, like, a cross between Mike Tyson and Liberace," Gannascoli told the Associated Press in an interview at his home. "I wanted to make him sort of in self-denial, self-loathing, a real gay hater."

Gannascoli's suggestion was inspired by the book Murder Machine, about the Gambino family, which had an openly gay member also named Vito.

"They didn't bother him about it, because I guess he was good at what he did, which was chopping up bodies," Gannascoli said.

Gannascoli concedes that he had a self-serving motivation for making the suggestion: Breaking out of the pack.

"I thought that was a way of separating myself from the other actors, because I would have been in the background most of the time. You know, line here, line there, and nothing really substantial," said Gannascoli, whose character previously was best known for whacking Jackie Aprile Jr. "To really make an impact is all I can ask for."

He also thought it would create an interesting acting challenge. But even amid all the recent gay buzz, Gannascoli knows the reaction to Vito won't be all positive.

"I'm a Brooklyn guy. I was just in Brooklyn last night. And, you know, I had some real wise guys that look at me and they give me dirty looks. I've had guys, like, come after me in clubs," he said. He just hopes the "cerebral people" will appreciate his performance.

Gannascoli said The Sopranos has changed his life "in so many ways.... Recognition, I'd say, the most. It allowed me to get married."

It's also allowed Gannascoli to buy his house ("which coming from a rent-controlled apartment all my life was a huge step up"), get his novel published (A Meal to Die For, loosely based on his life in the restaurant business), and develop a signature line of food (olive oil, tomato sauce, barbecue sauce, salsa, and wine).

"While I'm not going to be 'cheffing' anymore, I'm going to be still involved in food. Which is one of my passions."

He considered becoming a lawyer like his older brother but dropped out of St. John's University after two years. He did well the first year but by his second year, "I had a huge Quaalude business" that sidetracked him ("I was hustlin', you know").

He then bounced around, working at various New York restaurants and becoming a "self-taught" kitchen magician. He even headed to New Orleans and learned Cajun cooking in the '80s.

He owned all or part of a few restaurants over the years but disliked the "day-to-day machinations" of keeping it going.

It was during one of his numerous food-service jobs when acting felt like the dish of the day. A waiter-friend (who, like so many in New York, also was an aspiring actor) urged him to audition for a play. He got the role and started taking acting lessons. But he soon found himself pushing an ice-cream cart on Wall Street before eventually opening another eatery. He got burnt out from working 9 a.m. to 2 at night and started gambling heavily.

On the last day of the 1990 pro football regular season he was in a hole. Like any desperate gambler, he tried to win it back fast. "Cody Carlson is responsible for my acting," Gannascoli joked, able to laugh about it now. The backup Houston Oilers quarterback started in place of injured Hall of Famer Warren Moon and had a great game against betting favorite Pittsburgh. The Steelers lost, and Gannascoli was out $60,000.

Gannascoli paid off his debts with equity from his restaurant, thus avoiding a real-life leg-breaking--or worse--and then decided to head to L.A.

On the West Coast, he met Benicio Del Toro, which led to an audition and small role in the 1993 feature Money for Nothing--and a meeting with Georgianne Walken (Christopher Walken's wife) and Sheila Jaffe. Both Jaffe and Walken are casting directors who've chosen actors for roles in scores of films and TV shows--including The Sopranos.

Gannascoli underwent hip-replacement surgery last week and hopes the increased mobility will help him exercise and lose more weight. But while controlling his Falstaffian appetites, he'd loved to develop a hybrid cooking-sports show. He'd have a famous athlete as a guest and they'd cook up one of star's favorite dishes while talking about his career and showing clips. He'd like to call it Food Bowl. (AP)

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