NEW YORK -- Joe Pantoliano, an actor who made his bones playing mobster Ralphie Cifaretto on "The Sopranos," gets to be a good guy for his CBS series "The Handler."
He stars as Joe Renato, a Los Angeles-based FBI agent who coaches and counsels a team of undercover agents, and often goes undercover with them.
Roaring hither and yon in his beat-up Bonneville, Renato plays "let's pretend" with operatives including a rookie (Anna Belknap), a veteran ill Harper), an assistant (Tanya Wright) and a newly arrived transfer (Lola Glaudini, whom "Sopranos" fans will fondly remember as the FBI agent who went undercover to get chummy with mob moll Adriana).
"The Handler" can get gritty when it penetrates the squalid side of L.A. life. But it also has a certain lighthearted tone: Renato's team masquerades as a wide range of characters (from junkies and hookers to rare-book dealers) and sets up stings that are fun to see unfold. (The pilot episode for the series, which premiered in September, re-airs 10 p.m. EST Friday.)
Pantoliano sees his show as a combination of "Columbo" - where the audience knows whodunit, but delights in watching how the scoundrel gets nabbed - and TV's "Mission: Impossible," with Renato a twist on Mr. Phelps.
"He's the puppetmaster," grins Pantoliano, "creating the scenario, writing the script and casting it with FBI agents and informants: 'You're gonna be this, I'm gonna be that.' But then we don't tell the audience how it's gonna happen. We show 'em."
At 52, the actor nicknamed Joey Pants has had more than 40 movie roles, beginning with Guido the Killer Pimp in the movie "Risky Business," then "Midnight Run," "The Fugitive," "The Matrix" and "Memento." Last winter he returned to Broadway in the romantic drama "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune." A few years back, he was a TV series regular on CBS' brilliant, short-lived "EZ Streets."
But nothing earned him the riotous reception of his role as Ralphie, the baddest man in Tony Soprano's crew. Ralphie was maniacal, divisive and roundly despised - except by viewers, who rooted for him as much as they were sickened by his depravity. Striking that balance with the unbalanced Ralphie was a neat trick for the actor who portrayed him.
"I lived in the dark side a long time," explains Pantoliano, a street kid from Hoboken, N.J., whose mother was a bookie and whose stepfather spent much of his life in prison. "One of the reasons why I've been able to give really bad guys a twinkle in their eye and make them likable is because I understand that side."
Ralphie met his inevitable but still shocking end in a "Sopranos" episode that first aired last November. He was strangled in his kitchen after a bloody brawl with Tony that included cookware and an aerosol can of Raid.
Then Tony faced the messy chore of "disappearing" the body - hacking it up in the bath tub. Ralphie's severed head was stashed in his own bowling bag. (For viewers who haven't seen that episode, or just can't get enough, it repeats at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO.)
"This was a secret I had to keep for three years," says Pantoliano. "When ('Sopranos' creator) David Chase hired me in August 1999 he said, 'It's a two-year job. Then you're gonna go up against Tony, and you're gonna lose out to him in the end.' So I always knew.
"Then one day David calls me up and tells me when. But he didn't tell me how. And I said, 'Just let me go out with a bang.' And he laughed and said, 'Don't worry."'
The scene, which would be shot in April 2002, took two full days, Pantoliano recalls. "And then all of the stuff in the bathroom once I was dead" - with Tony and Christopher (James Gandolfini and Michael Imperioli) dismembering the corpse - "I think that was another half-a-day. But I wasn't there."
Decapitation is a heady way for any actor to exit a role (and it won Pantoliano an Emmy in September). Even so, he knew two years ago he had to put the word out - VERY discreetly - that with his character scheduled to get offed, he was on the market again.
Then he ran into CBS boss Leslie Moonves, who had championed his series "EZ Streets" in 1996-97, "and I said, 'Don't tell anybody, but I'm available to do a pilot next year.' And he gave me a look that was more like a fan of 'The Sopranos,' like: 'No! Don't TELL me they're gonna kill Ralphie!"'
Last May, Moonves bought his series, which, despite so-so ratings in a dismal time slot, has won a full-season order. For Pantoliano - who insists "great actors are a dime a dozen and I'm one lucky guy just to have a job" - this is a job he's thrilled to be handling.
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