Joe Pesci has been enjoying semi-retirement for most of this century, but he triumphantly reunited with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro for “The Irishman,” which brought him an Oscar bid as Best Supporting Actor.
Pesci started his career at a very young age, appearing on the New York Stage before he even turned five. By the time he was ten years old, he was a regular on a television show called “Startime Kids.” In his teen years he lost interest in acting and instead started trying to launch a career as a musician. Despite releasing a record of his own his musical career didn’t really take off but he did play an instrumental part in the creation of the highly successful musical act Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. Pesci was friends with Valli and other members of the group and he introduced them to the person that would launch their success.
He then teamed with another actor and tried the stand-up comedy circuit. The duo would also co-star in a low budget film that somehow attracted the attention of Scorsese and De Niro. Those two cast him in “Raging Bull” (1980) which would land all three of them Oscar nominations. Pesci would lose that award but would win 10 years later for his work in another Scorsese/De Niro film, “Goodfellas” (1990).
He would go on to have a highly successful run for the next 20 years in films but then around 1998, he unofficially seemed to retire from the movie business. In those years he only appeared in one less than successful film with Helen Mirren, “Love Ranch” (2010), and in a cameo in a film directed by De Niro, “The Good Shepard” (2006). He returned to work with De Niro and Scorsese in another Mafia film about the murder of union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the Netflix release “The Irishman” (2019), which earned him rave reviews and a third Oscar nomination.
Tour our photo gallery of his 11 greatest film performances, ranked from worst to best. In addition to the movies mentioned above, we include “Home Alone,” “My Cousin Vinny” and more.
11. EASY MONEY (1983)
Director: James Signorelli. Writers: Rodney Dangerfield, Michael Endler, P.J. O’Rourke, Dennis Blair. Starring Rodney Dangerfield, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Jennifer Jason Leigh.
After famed stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield broke into films in a big way with “Caddyshack” he followed that film up with this comedy. Dangerfield plays a hard-living drinker and compulsive gambler whose mother-in-law leaves him a great deal of money with the stipulation that he clean up his ways in order to inherit it. Pesci plays his best friend and sidekick in the film.
10. LETHAL WEAPON 2 (1989)
Director: Richard Donner. Writer: Jeffrey Boam. Starring Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Patsy Kensit.
The Lethal Weapon franchise has been going for nearly 30 years with four films already released and a TV series version currently airing. A fifth film with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover returning is supposed to be in the works. Pesci appeared in the three sequels to the original, most prominently in this one, the second of the series. He plays a highly uncooperative and obnoxious federal witness Gibson and Glover are assigned to protect.
9. WITH HONORS (1994)
Director: Alek Keshishian. Writer: William Mastrosimone. Starring Brendan Fraser, Moira Kelly, Patrick Dempsey.
Pesci plays a homeless man who finds a Harvard student’s thesis in the street and blackmails the student by giving him back one page at a time in exchange for the student performing favors for him. Over the course of the film the pair grow to appreciate each other and an unlikely friendship is formed. The film was written by acclaimed playwright William Mastrosimone and directed by Alek Keshishian, who is best known for directing videos for Madonna.
8. JFK (1991)
Director: Oliver Stone. Writers: Oliver Stone, Zachary Sklar. Starring Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Jack Lemmon.
This highly controversial film from director Oliver Stone tries to make the case that President John F. Kennedy was really murdered by a large government conspiracy and not just the lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald. The movie features a huge all-star cast led by Kevin Costner as District Attorney Jim Garrison (who had famously proclaimed in “Bull Durham” that he believed Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.) Pesci plays a pilot who Garrison accuses of being a part of the assassination.
7. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)
Director: Sergio Leone. Writers: Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone. Starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern.
Pesci reunited with his “Raging Bull” co-star for the first of what would be numerous film pairings in this tale of a Prohibition era gangster who returns to his old home to deal with his past. The film was directed by famed western helmer Sergio Leone. The film only received limited release and acclaim at first due to disputes over the its running time. Leone wanted to release it in two parts, each running three hours. The studio balked at that idea and instead released it in a two-hour version which with Leone was unhappy.
6. CASINO (1995)
Director: Martin Scorsese. Writers: Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi. Starring Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, James Woods.
Pesci, De Niro, and Scorsese returned to the subject of organized crime with this story that casts De Niro as a man running a Vegas casino and Pesci as the Chicago based Mafia operative who makes sure that the mob gets their share of the profits from the casino’s operations. The film was only met with mixed reviews and neither Scorsese, De Niro, or Pesci made it to the Oscars as they had on some of their previous collaborations. Instead it was Best Actress nominee Sharon Stone who received the film’s only Oscar nomination as well as a Golden Globe win for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama.
5. HOME ALONE (1990)
Director: Chris Columbus. Writer: John Hughes. Starring Macaulay Culkin, Daniel Stern, Catherine O’Hara.
This surprise box office blockbuster has become a Christmas classic that plays frequently during the holiday season. Macaulay Culkin stars as a kid whose family accidentally leave him at home when they take a trip to Paris. Pesci plays one of the robbers who are breaking into homes in the affluent area where Culkin lives. The kid proves quite capable of fighting off the robbers and subjects Pesci and Daniel Stern to a variety of cartoon-like battles resulting in a great deal of physical comedy.
4. MY COUSIN VINNY (1992)
Director: Jonathan Lynn. Writer: Dale Launer. Starring Marisa Tomei, Ralph Macchio, Fred Gwynne.
Pesci stars in this comedy about a low-level New York lawyer who travels to rural Alabama to help his cousin who has been falsely accused of murder. Marisa Tomei scored one of the biggest surprises in Oscar history when she won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Pesci’s tempestuous girlfriend. The film’s courtroom scenes are quite humorous with Pesci often offending the proper Southern judge. The final courtroom confrontation where Pesci calls Tomei as a hostile witness is just wonderfully well written and performed.
3. THE IRISHMAN (2019)
Director: Martin Scorsese. Writer: Steven Zaillian, based on the book by Charles Brandt. Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Ray Romano.
Pesci came out of semi-retirement to reunite with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro for this intimate mob epic. “The Irishman” finds the actor dialing back his hair-trigger, live-wire screen persona to play the quietly menacing Russell Bufalino, a Mafia boss who takes low-level truck driver Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) under his wing. He trains Sheeran to become a hitman for Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), eventually turning his protege against the bombastic Teamsters leader when things turn sour. Pesci’s surprisingly subdued performance earned him critical raves and a third Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor.
2. RAGING BULL (1980)
Director: Martin Scorsese. Writers: Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin. Starring Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Frank Vincent.
Pesci caught the eye of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro with his appearance in the obscure film “The Death Collector” before being cast as De Niro’s brother and manager in this biopic of boxer Jake LaMotta. He gave a highly acclaimed performance and earned his first Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. He would also receive recognition from various film critic’s groups, most notably winning the Best Supporting Actor prizes from the New York and National Society of Film Critics.
1. GOODFELLAS (1991)
Director: Martin Scorsese. Writers: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese. Starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco.
Ten years after the Oscar alluded him for “Raging Bull,” Pesci would once again team with Scorsese and De Niro and this time he would win the award as Best Supporting Actor. He plays a vicious killer in this true-life story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a mafia member who agreed to testify for the FBI against his fellow criminals. Pesci gave what is probably the shortest Oscar speech on record when he shyly accepted the trophy with just “um, ah it’s my privilege, thank you.”