Unlike the brutal mobster he plays on HBO's The Sopranos, Joe Pantoliano can get skittish when strangers sneak up on him. Last month, as the actor was window-shopping on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, "somebody touched my arm, and I jumped out of my skin!" says Pantoliano. "I went, 'Oh, my God!' And there's this little old lady standing there. She says, 'I just wanted to say hello. I guess you only play tough guys on television.' "

Of course, Pantoliano's character, Ralph Cifaretto, is way beyond tough—he's psychopathic. Last month a coked-up Ralphie viciously beat his pregnant stripper girlfriend, killing her. "This is disgusting!" Pantoliano recalls his 15-year-old stepdaughter, Melody, saying as he and her mother, Nancy, 40, Pantoliano's wife of seven years, sat watching the episode in their five-bedroom colonial in suburban Connecticut.

Mind you, his family knows the 49-year-old actor is nothing like the pimps, hustlers and shady types he has played in many of his 70-odd films (Risky Business, The Matrix and his twisty new thriller Memento among them). Still, Nancy admits she had "mixed feelings" about seeing him as Ralphie, a role created for Pantoliano by his friend, Sopranos executive producer David Chase. "That character is such a nasty man. In real life," she says, "Joe's a softie" with their kids—Melody, Daniella, 9, and Isabella, 2½. (He's also close to his son from his first marriage, Marco, 20, an L.A.-based aspiring actor.) "He kids with them all the time."

Plus, Pantoliano (now directing his first film, a dark comedy called Wildlife, Inc.) "can laugh at himself," says his friend Marcia Gay Harden, an Oscar winner for Pollock, who recalls pulling a few pranks on him on the set of 1992's Used People. Kidding aside, she says, "Joey Pants"—the childhood nickname his friends call him by—"has been very supportive. About six years ago, he and his family let me stay in their California home for a couple of months [they moved to Connecticut last year] when I didn't have money to live anywhere else."

Pantoliano could empathize. Growing up in Hoboken, N.J., he lived on welfare with his father, Dominic Pantoliano, a factory worker, his mother, Mary, a bookie, and younger sister Maryann, now 43 and a Tupperware manager. "My family was hugely dysfunctional," he recalls. "I think that was one reason I was attracted to The Sopranos. My mom was a control freak. She beat up my dad emotionally."

When Joey was about 12, his mother's second cousin Florio, who had done time for truck hijacking, came to live with the family. Mary took up with Florio, and a few months later, says Pantoliano, "Mommy threw Daddy out. They never got divorced, but Mommy lived with Cousin Florio for 20 years." (All three are now deceased.)

In time Florio became Pantoliano's mentor. After he won a part in Up the Down Staircase, the senior-class play at Cliffside Park (N.J.) High School, he says, Florio "encouraged me to go into acting." Pantoliano, who had been diagnosed with dyslexia, juggled acting classes with remedial reading courses. Then, between shifts as a waiter in Manhattan, he went on auditions. In 1976 he moved to L.A., where he eventually made his film debut as a music arranger in 1980's The Idolmaker.

By then he had been wed a year to aspiring actress Morgan Kester, "the first woman I ever loved," he says. They divorced in 1985, with Kester taking young Marco to Seattle.

Four years later, on a blind date, Pantoliano met model Nancy Sheppard. Divorced and raising Melody alone, she was wary. "Joey wasn't really my type, but he was very funny," she recalls. Soon the three were living together in L.A. Daughter Daniella arrived in 1992, and two years later, she, Melody and Marco were in the wedding party as their parents tied the knot.

As for his TV Mob family ties, Pantoliano won't say if Ralphie gets whacked in the May 20 season ender. What he will confirm is that "women find me more attractive now, which is weird. They say, 'You're so bad, I love you!' " Maybe it's Ralphie's red hair. "I probably have 30 wigs," says the actor, who shaves his head, "all in boxes named after [my] characters." The downside-to playing this one: "There's not a boy in Melody's school who will ask her out on a date. They say, 'Oh, you're Ralphie's daughter.' "

Michael A. Lipton
Sue Miller in Connecticut

  • Contributors:
  • Sue Miller.