It also didn't hurt that the actor and his character, Furio Giunta, share a common heritage. Like Furio—the cold-blooded enforcer whom New Jersey Mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) imported from Naples in the HBO series' second season—"I was born right in the city of Naples," says Castelluccio, 38, whose family emigrated when he was 3. "My parents wanted us to speak only Italian in the house. I thank them for it to this day."
His rough-hewn good looks—he has sworn a vow of otmertá about the future of his character's flirtation with Tony's wife, Carmela (Falco)—don't hurt either. "He brought a little sex appeal," says Gandolfini. "I mean, Michael Imperioli [Christopher] is a pretty good-looking guy, but the rest of us are fat and bald."
What he didn't bring is a sizable acting résumé. In fact, Castelluccio's main métier has long been painting. His still lifes, many juxtaposing historical and modern themes, sell for $3,500 to $65,000. One customer: Sopranos costar Joe Pantoliano, who bought an image of a paint-splashed stool flanked by reproductions of two Vermeer paintings. "I saw his work, and I just dropped dead," says veteran character actor and painter Geoffrey Holder, a pal. "He's somebody from the Renaissance who came back."
Castelluccio was 24 and working as a freelance illustrator when he first turned an eye toward acting—a dream that "was in the back of my mind since I was a child." After a decade of regional theater and small soap-opera roles, he watched the first episode of The Sopranos and knew he wanted in. "I couldn't sleep that night," he says. "The show was just beautifully done—like a classically composed painting."
He first tried out for the part of New York City crime boss Johnny Sack, but "I didn't have the right look," he says. Furio fit like a glove. "When I first heard the accent, I chuckled," says Castelluccio's longtime pal Gino Pesci. "It's his mother's accent, although she doesn't use those words because she's very much a lady."
Castelluccio's mother, Teresa, 70, and father, Leonzio, 74, live down the street from him in Morris County, N.J. The family (including older siblings Ines, Antonio and Marco) came to the U.S. because "my father wanted a better life for us," says Castelluccio. Leonzio, a factory worker, painted as a hobby. "Even in kindergarten, they saw I had a talent for it," Castelluccio says. His acting debut—as Joseph in a first-grade Christmas pageant—was less auspicious: "I was attracted to the girl playing Mary, and I was too embarrassed to touch her."
Castelluccio, who graduated from Manhattan's prestigious School of Visual Arts in 1986, was evidently suaver when he met Michele Santopietro at the Sopranos Christmas party last year. He and the actress (who returns this season as the widow of Soprano henchman Mikey Palmice, who got whacked in season one) have been dating ever since. The couple nosh at Attilio's Pasta Kitchen, a New Brunswick, N.J., restaurant that Castelluccio and four partners opened in July.
Sundays are usually reserved for dinner with his parents—but not followed by The Sopranos at 9. "I prefer not to watch it with my folks, because there's some stuff in there that's embarrassing," he says. Such as Furio's bursts of violence, which still shock Castelluccio's friends. "I've never seen him lose his temper," says Pesci. "He doesn't curse. He's a perfect gentleman." So that hairdresser was right? Yup, says Pesci: "He really is a great actor."
• Samantha Miller
• Liza Hamm in Morris County