The Godfather

Why Did Joe Pesci Return to Acting for ‘Bupkis’?

Pete Davidson pulled off the impossible by luring Joe Pesci out of retirement.

Now streaming on Peacock, the new comedy series starring and co-created by Pete Davidson, Bupkis, comes packed with a loaded cast of recognizable faces and acclaimed actors. With the support of Edie Falco, Bobby Cannavale, Brad Garrett, Ray Romano, and various other one-episode turns, Davidson plays himself in a heavily autobiographical show that grapples with his upbringing and relationship with the public. The most prominent name in this cast, and the one that causes the most surprise and befuddlement for his appearance alone, is none other than Joe Pesci. Isn’t he retired? Or at least, wasn’t The Irishman a proper last dance for him? As it turned out, like the rest of pop culture, Pesci was allured by Davidson, and his involvement in Bupkis opens a window for continued work for the actor in his elder years.

In Bupkis, Pesci plays Joe Larocca, the grandfather of the Davidson character. Now more reserved relative to the livewire force the 80-year-old actor used to bring, Pesci still brings a familiar energy to his performance. Acting closer to a surrogate father to Davidson, he tries to teach his grandson the ways of life in a no-nonsense manner. Reminiscent of his various wiseguy characters of before, he often comes equipped with a wisecrack remark towards Davidson or his surroundings. Through sometimes cliché demonstrations, Joe is baffled by the quirky lifestyle and celebrity persona that Davidson enacts. Representing the Italian-American origins of Davidson’s background, Pesci playing this role is quality casting. Having said that, all this still begs the question of why he chose to return to his profession again for this part.

RELATED:‘Bupkis’ Review: Pete Davidson And Joe Pesci Are A Riot In Peacock Comedy Series

Joe Pesci’s Career and His Initial Retirement

Joe Pesci in a scene from Casino
Image via Universal Pictures

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Pesci’s initial retirement in the late 1990s was partially motivated by his pursuit of a musical career. This is how he got his start in the creative field–singing and playing guitar throughout various lounges in New York City in the ’60s. By the ’70s, he formed a friendship and creative partnership with Frank Vincent, a frequent portrayer of mobsters best known for Billy Batts in Goodfellas and Phil Leotardo in The Sopranos. It wasn’t until Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro saw The Death Collector, Pesci’s on-screen debut that the star was given the ultimate breakthrough. Also starring Vincent, who he continued his fruitful partnership with across three Scorsese films, Raging Bull introduced Pesci to a mass audience. His performance as Joey LaMotta, the brother of the titular Raging Bull who demonstrated similar violent tendencies as the world champion boxer, garnered him an Oscar nomination–his first of three in his career.

Pesci’s career soared to excellence in the ’90s, kicked off by a groundbreaking 1990 for the actor. He won an Academy Award for playing the iconic, ruthlessly hilarious, and vicious mobster Tommy Devito in Martin Scorsese‘s Goodfellas. In addition, he carved out a new corner of his career in his turn toward comedies, starring as Harry, one-half of the Wet Bandits in Home Alone in the same year. He also became a mainstay in the Lethal Weapon franchise, playing the comic sidekick to Riggs and Murtaugh, Leo Getz. Pesci’s stardom “heat check” came in 1992 when he was the lead star vehicle of the comedy My Cousin Vinny. He is seamless as Vincent Gambini, a fish-out-of-water Yankee lawyer transported to the deep south to defend his cousin wrongfully accused of murder. Out of nowhere, this 5″3 supporting actor destined to play mobsters throughout his entire career became a bankable comedic and romantic lead–a four-quadrant star loved by all ages and demographics. Pesci was a consistent workforce in the ’90s, reuniting with Scorsese again in Casino, and giving a maximalist performance as David Ferrie in Oliver Stone‘s controversial feverish conspiracy thriller, JFK.

Joe Pesci’s Return to Acting in ‘The Irishman’ Was the Fitting Capstone to His Career

Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) sits beside a pool in 'The Irishman' (2019)

Once he announced his retirement in 1999, Pesci was rarely seen, only appearing in a cameo in The Good Shepherd, a film directed by Robert De Niro, and Love Ranch, a 2010 dramedy starring Helen Mirren. Averse to celebrity life and the media spotlight, audiences would long for the actor’s return to the big screen. Around the time of his retirement, Pesci curiously released the album Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just For You, a collection of humorous and serious jazz tunes often performed as his portrayed movie characters, with none more bizarre than the track “Wise Guy,” which tests the actor’s versatility as he takes on the genre of hip-hop.

While it was a difficult ordeal, which included 50 offers ending in rejection, Pesci made a triumphant return to Martin Scorsese’s revisionist swan song of the gangster picture, The Irishman. Scorsese persuaded him by insisting that this would be a different take on the mob films that have come to define their respective careers. This was all well worth the wait, as Pesci gave a performance of a lifetime in the film as Russell Bufalino, dialing back his fiery hostility into an internal menace. Pesci’s performance was a fitting walk off into the sunset, along with the gangster genre and the legendary collaboration between Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Who would have thought, the eccentric Saturday Night Live cast member with a peculiar face would be the one to compromise this capstone?

Pesci’s Draw Towards Pete Davidson and the Future of His Career

Image via Peacock

If Martin Scorsese did everything but physically drag Joe Pesci out of retirement in order to fulfill his magnum opus, it was most likely understood among the public that he would certainly never work again after The Irishman. This did not stop the creative team behind Bupkis from venturing out for Pesci’s collaboration with the series. According to Pete Davidson’s testimony on The Tonight ShowLorne Michaels, the head of SNL and Bupkis executive producer, proposed the idea of Pesci starring as his on-screen grandfather in the semi-autobiographical series. After a few meetings, the two stars developed an immediate chemistry and Pesci subsequently signed on. Between his fortunate history of romantic partners and unexpected rise as a celebrity icon, Davidson has an inexplicable majestic charm to him. Judah Miller, one of the creators of Bupkis, described the series as “a fever dream of Pete’s life, and what it feels like to be in Pete’s orbit.” Miller praised Davidson for his ambition regarding the casting process, stating that “When it comes to casting someone like Joe Pesci, you’re told that it’s impossible. You’re told it’s not going to happen and Pete is a dreamer. But somehow he’s able to make things that seem impossible, happen. It’s unbelievable.”

Because Joe Pesci is press-shy, audiences will likely never receive the clearest answer as to why Pesci signed on while still in retirement. The actor’s agreement to star was seen as validation of the show’s worth, according to Davidson as a guest on Jon Bernthal‘s podcast, Real Ones. Feeling insecure over vitriolic comments made by random people online and celebrity figures, he felt emotionally uplifted by Pesci’s casting, explaining that “I got the guy no one can get. And that changed my life. I owe him everything.” From what is evident from Davidson’s praise of the actor, Pesci felt an inextricable link towards him, much like a large portion of American audiences.

Despite his often intimidating presence, Pesci has proven to be gifted as a comedic actor and appears to be fond of the genre based on his participation in that field. His performance as Davidson’s grandfather is a bright spot in the 8-episode series, carrying over his reserved energy from The Irishman, only with a comic sentiment. If Pesci and Daniel-Day Lewis have proven anything, it is that retirement is tentative. The right project can come along and reinvigorate a star’s passion. If he can maintain a corner as a premiere elder lighthearted comic force, Pesci may never officially retire.

Bupkis is now streaming on Peacock.

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