The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Vincent Gardenia

Mother Brain

After the recent passing of the legendary Gene Wilder, I had my mind on writing about other actors from the 1970s and 1980s who have made a mark in cinema, but not so well known by today’s youth. So many names came to mind. Yet, it was hard for me to narrow down a choice of who was the most interesting to explore. Then I purchased the recent Blu-ray release of Death Wish II and found my answer. No, it’s not Charles Bronson. Instead, another underrated actor rarely mentioned today: Vincent Gardenia.

Arguably one of the most prolific New York City actors of his time Vincent Gardenia was a natural born talent since childhood and made a name for himself as a Tony Award winner on the Broadway scene for several decades. Gardenia was also one of those go-to actors for New York-based character parts during the 70s, most notably his roles as Det. Frank Ochoa in 1974’s Death Wish and Archie Bunker’s neighbor Frank Lorenzo on the hit TV series All in the Family. But Gardenia became higher profile later in his career in the 80s following the huge successes of Little Shop of Horrors and Moonstruck. Once named “King of Brooklyn” at the Welcome Back to Brooklyn Festival, Gardenia became the living embodiment of what made a quintessential New York City movie work.

Gardenia was born Vincent Scognamiglio in Naples, Italy in 1920. Two years later, he and his family emigrated to the U.S. and found residence in Brooklyn. Gardenia’s father Gennaro was an actor who ran an Italian-language acting troupe that produced plays about troubled kids running away and seeking forgiveness. Gardenia would get involved with the trope playing a shoeshine boy when he turned age five and took his father’s middle name to use as his official stage name. In his teens, Gardenia moved up to character roles in the trope and eventually left the company to pursue English-speaking productions on Broadway. Among his theater credits during the 1950s included In April Once, The Man With the Golden Arm, A Streetcar Name Desire, and My Three Angels.

Between the early 1960s and early 1970s, Gardenia bounced between award winning performances on Broadway (including a Tony Award win playing Perter Falk’s brother in The Prisoner of Second Avenue) and television guest spots on such hit shows as Naked City, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, Ben Casey, and countless others. When it came to the big screen, however, Gardenia had to work his way up from small parts starting with The House on 92nd Street with William Eythe and The Hustler with Paul Newman. Then in 1973, Gardenia caught a major break in cinema when he played Robert De Niro’s manager in the baseball comedy drama Bang the Drum Slowly. Critics took notice of Gardenia’s comedic, no-nonsense take on a Yankees-like manager kept in the dark about De Niro’s character’s battle with Hodgkin’s Disease. His motivational speech in the film alone earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

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The momentum of Bang the Drum Slowly led to not one but two prolific performances for Gardenia in 1974. One was the role of Sheriff “Honest Pete” Hartman in Billy Wilder’s screwball comedy The Front Page starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. The other was Det. Ochoa in Death Wish. The controversial Charles Bronson thriller started as a novel by Brian Garfield in which the Ochoa character was only mentioned in newspaper articles. Once it was written as a screenplay, the role was made into a fully fleshed antagonist for Bronson’s vigilante Paul Kersey. Gardenia’s presence in the film brought more humor to an otherwise bleak character study about one man’s revenge. As he uncovers clues to the vigilante’s identity, the Ochoa character finds some sympathy to Kersey and is willing to bend the law once he discovers the truth. Having drawn from memories of seeing a NY chief of detectives on the local news, Gardenia had that real world New York City cop attitude that made the character popular enough to return seven years later for the Los Angeles set Death Wish II in which Ochoa meets an unfortunate demise after saving Kersey in a shootout.

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During the period of The Front Page and Death Wish, Gardenia spent a year opposite Betty Garrett as the Bunkers’ liberal neighbors the Lorenzos on All in the Family. The series was already a blockbuster ratings and critical success on CBS when Gardenia arrived on the scene. Unfortunately, he was unhappy with the way he and other recurring actors were treated behind the scenes, resulting in his character getting phased out after one season while Garrett stayed on the show. As the decade moved forward, Gardenia continued to take character roles in films such as Greased Lighting with Richard Pryor, Alan Arkin’s Fire Sale, and Firepower with James Coburn which reunited Gardenia with Death Wish director Michael Winner.

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Because Gardenia’s first love was the theatre, his workload in film was reduced in the early 1980s. Then in 1986, Gardenia found a resurgence when Frank Oz cast him as Rick Moranis’ uptight flower shop boss in the dark comedy musical Little Shop of Horrors. Based on the off-Broadway musical inspired by the original B-movie, Little Shop was the perfect marriage of film and theatre for Gardenia. Between him, Steve Martin, and the Audrey II creature, Gardenia was a perfect stingy but greedy antagonist to Moranis’ meek Seymour. While not a massive success in theaters, Little Shop earned glowing reviews and became a huge hit on VHS as I had discovered it on as a kid and exposed me to Gardenia for the first time.

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The following year, Gardenia earned the best reviews of his film career in the hit romantic comedy Moonstruck. He played Cher’s plumber dad Cosmo Castorini who gets revealed to be having an affair behind her mother’s back. The complexity of Cosmo’s affair and dealing with his daughter’s own romantic issues with Nicholas Cage’s Ronny made Gardenia a standout and part of the reason why Moonstruck became a quintessential New York film classic. The film earned Gardenia his second Oscar nomination and raised his profile in Hollywood once again. He followed up with the HBO movie Age-Old Friends opposite the legendary Hume Cronyn as they play retirement home residents supporting each other as they try to maintain their dignity against the strict home care staff. Gardenia and Cronyn’s chemistry on screen made for some tear jerking and often inspiring moments of acting. It would win Gardenia his only Emmy Award in 1990.

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Gardenia had been keeping busy in films (Cheeese, Skin Deep, The Super), television (L.A. Law, The Tragedy of Flight 103), and theater. At the time of his death from a heart attack at age 71 in December 1992, Gardenia was in the midst of doing a touring production of Breaking Legs. To the very end, he never stopped doing what he loved. His fame as a successful Brooklyn actor resulted in receiving the posthumous honor of having his 16th Avenue residence in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn named Vincent Gardenia Boulevard.

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As he once told an interviewer for the New York Times while promoting Death Wish in 1974, “You play for the truth. Acting is like storage. If you’re touched by something, it stays with you.” That would be the case for the near 500 performances that Vincent Gardenia gave to the big screen, small screen, and the stage.

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