Some actors are pigeonholed for a reason, and Frank Vincent was born to play a mobster. Standing five-foot-nine, and owning an immovable crown of hair (that turned to a regal silver as he grew older), Vincent was the consummate made man. His beautiful olive skin and Atlantic City pit boss smile perfectly accented his steely glare. This was a dude not to be fucked with, and if you happened to be on the receiving end of that thick, New Jersey accent, you best get your shit together.
Vincent's family told the AP the actor was 80; other sources have listed his age as 78, saying he was born in 1939. His official bio page does not provide a birth year (though corresponding obits have listed his birthday as August 4, 1939 in North Adams, Massachusetts). The actor passed Wednesday while undergoing heart surgery. But why don’t we all mind our fucking business and discuss his lengthy career instead?
Vincent made his film debut in Death Collector (a/k/a Family Enforcer) (’76), alongside longtime friend and nightclub collaborator, Joe Pesci (the two had a band together called “The Arist-O-Cats”). Death Collector is a blunt, no budget mafia movie about a low-level hood (Joseph Cortese), who discovers he’s got a penchant for knee-capping in the name of obtaining his employers’ money. His day-to-day puts him in contact with a thug (Pesci) whom he has to team with to help squeeze a few dimes from loudmouth crank, Bernie Feldshuh (Vincent). The movie’s rather unmemorable – the American equivalent of scummy Italian poliziotteschi pictures that were popular in that country’s exploitation circuit. But Vincent and Pesci both possessed an undeniable authenticity that caught the eye of Robert De Niro, and landed them both in Martin Scorsese’s boxing biopic masterpiece, Raging Bull (’80).
It’s funny; as stellar as Raging Bull is (and Frank Vincent is in it, playing Mafioso Salvy Batts), it’d be another decade before he received his first truly iconic role in Scorsese’s Goodfellas (’90), as object of much destruction, Billy Batts. With a single scene, Vincent cemented himself in the memories of cinephiles everywhere, screaming at volatile scumbag Tommy DeVito (Pesci) and receiving a second ass-whipping at the hands of his tiny best pal (who also unleashed hell on him in Bull). But the inciting insult is one of the most quotable in the history of filmed douchebaggery. “Now go get your fuckin’ shinebox Tommy!” Batts hollers, and the pint-sized maniac makes sure he never talks down to another one of his friends again, bludgeoning the freshly freed crewmember and stuffing him in the back of Henry Hill’s (Ray Liotta) car.
Vincent made lasting impressions on other NYC directors, such as Spike Lee, who cast him in small parts in Do the Right Thing (’89) and Jungle Fever (’91). Scorsese kept the actor close in his crime family, letting Vincent finally get his much due comeuppance on Pesci in the Goodfellas companion piece, Casino (’95), where the actor leads a baseball bat-wielding collection of goons who leave bodies buried in neatly manicured cornfields. Every time his face appears on screen in Casino, a grey cloud of intimidation and violence arrives with it. The actor had taken his “type” and transformed it into an apocalyptic “brand”, complete with the ability to sell audiences on his capacity for brutality.
Vincent would parlay this ownership into a decades-spanning resume, that included parodies of himself, as well as video game voice work in Grand Theft Auto, and guest starring roles in television series like NYPD Blue, Law & Order and New York Undercover. One of his last great turns was as Phil Leotardo in HBO’s greatest series, The Sopranos, who goes to war with the titular family’s anxiety-riddled boss. In that role, he took all the work he’d done with Scorsese and boiled it down to its essence, while injecting a healthy dose of humanity into the proud, stubborn foil to James Gandolfini’s brilliant lead.
It’s tough to watch the best character actors pass on, as they were the color you showed up for in your favorite movies. Frank Vincent may have worn the same gruff Italo alpha mask again and again, but each time he put a slightly different spin on the caricature. His hearty laugh and quick comedic reactions were talents to be savored, and knowing he won’t appear onscreen with De Niro, Pesci and Al Pacino in Scorsese’s The Irishman hurts a bit just thinking on it. You will be missed, Mr. Vincent. Now go tell God to get his fuckin’ shinebox.