One of our great character actors, John Turturro, is equally adept at at drama, comedy and tough-guy roles. A New York stage veteran, he made his way to Hollywood following a character actor’s path, but thanks to several influential mentors (Spike Lee and the Coen Brothers, in particular), his career soared as he appeared in film after film that would prove to become classics.
Although he continues to have a successful career in television — he is an Emmy winner from two nominations and has earned a Golden Globe nod and three Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for his TV work — I suspect that it will be for his work in film for which he will be most remembered, from small indelible roles in “Do the Right Thing” and “The Big Lebowski” to great leading parts, such as in the Coens’ “Barton Fink” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
So let’s raise a glass to Turturro by counting down his 10 best films and ranking them, worst to best. Tour our photo gallery above for the films already mentioned, plus “Quiz Show,” “Miller’s Crossing,” “Clockers” and even the “Transformers” franchise.
10. TRANSFORMERS (2007)
Director: Michael Bay. Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tyrese Gibson, Josh Duhamel, Anthony Anderson. John Turturro.
In what is certainly the most lucrative franchise of which Turturro has ever been a part ($4.3 billion worldwide), his role as Seymour Rutherford Simmons, an ex-Sector 7 agent who just might be a wee bit paranoid, in the first film gives Turturro enough room to develop a real character. Is Simmons a good guy or a bad guy? Turturro keeps us guessing in a rare bit of characterization in a franchise that is primarily known for its CGI robots. Turturro also appeared as Simmons in three later “Transformers” sequels — “Revenge of the Fallen” (2009), “Dark of the Moon” (2011), and “The Last Knight” (2017).
9. FADING GIGOLO (2013)
Writer/Director: John Turturro. Starring John Turturro, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara.
Turturro both wrote and directed this romantic comedy which featured Woody Allen (in a rare acting gig outside of his own films) as failed bookstore owner Murray Schwartz who is is presented with the opportunity of providing a man for a dermatologist (Sharon Stone) to fill the third spot in a ménage à trois. Allen’s nebbishy pimp selects ex-employee Fioravante (Turturro), who is not sure what to make of what turns out to be a new career, but he’s certainly enjoying it. Turturro the director certainly knows the strengths of Turturro the actor, and after his experiences in Coen Brothers comedies, he knows how to hit just the right hilarious note.
8. HE GOT GAME (1998)
Writer/Director: Spike Lee. Starring Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Milla Jovovich, John Turturro.
Turturro enjoyed his sixth collaboration with Spike Lee in the drama “He Got Game” in the small but hilarious role of basketball coach Billy Sunday, who tries to recruit a high school phenom Jesus (Ray Allen) to come play at Tech U. However, Jesus’ convict father Jake (Denzel Washington), is promised early release from prison by the governor if he persuades his son to play for a different college, which happens to be the governor’s alma mater. Just like his character’s evangelist namesake, Turturro’s Billy Sunday laces his recruitment pitch and team’s pep talk with multiple references to the Lord as part of his sales pitch. Turturro is clearly having a great time with the part, and it’s fun to see Lee allow Turturro to let loose with the character.
7. CLOCKERS (1995)
Director: Spike Lee. Writers: Richard Price, Spike Lee, based on Price’s novel. Starring Harvey Keitel, John Turturro, Delroy Lindo, Mekhi Phifer.
In Spike Lee’s crime drama based on the novel by Richard Price, Turturro plays Larry Mazilli, an NYPD homicide detective who, along with his partner Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel), is investigating the murder of a local “clocker,” a street-level drug dealer. As Larry and Rocco begin to dig deeper into the crime, they discover a complex web of relationships and rivalries within the world of the clockers that the cops simply know will repeat themselves over and over again. Among Turturro’s best kind of roles are tough guys, and his working relationship with Lee brings out so many of the actor’s strengths. And it doesn’t hurt to be working alongside Keitel, with whom Turturro displays tremendous chemistry.
6. THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)
Director: Joel Coen. Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro.
In the Coen Brothers’ beloved classic, Turturro landed a plum of a role as Jesus Martinez, an extremely cocky bowler who is also a sometime pederast. (Now there’s a character description!) Actually the Coens conceived the Jesus character based on Turturro’s work in another stage production and let the actor run loose to improvise as much as he wanted. And did he! Just get a look at how Jesus meticulously shines his bowling ball or does his backward dance as if he is training for a fight. It’s all Turturro, and it’s all wonderful.
5. DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)
Writer/Director: Spike Lee. Starring Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Spike Lee. Bill Nunn, John Turturro.
As “Do the Right Thing” lore has it, Spike Lee first spotted Turturro in a 1987 indie film “Five Corners” and thought he would be perfect fit to play Pino, the eldest son of pizzeria owner Sal (Danny Aiello) in Lee’s modern classic. Pino clearly loves his family, but he hates African-Americans, particularly Mookie (Lee) who works for his father. Pino’s virulent racism clearly makes him a bad guy in the film, but Turturro brings such complexity to what could have merely been a stereotypical villain that it’s little wonder that Lee wanted to work with him again. To date, Lee and Turturro have done nine films together, and the actor’s associations with both Lee and the Coen Brothers have provided Turturro with opportunities that has seriously deepened his craft.
4. MILLER’S CROSSING (1990)
Director: Joel Coen. Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Starring Gabirel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Albert Finney.
After first working with Spike Lee, Turturro went on to his first collaboration with the Coen Brothers, the other filmmakers that helped to propel his film career to a higher plane. Set during the Prohibition era, “Miller’s Crossing” focuses on Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), henchman to an Irish gangster (Albert Finney) who is protecting bookie Bernie Bernbaum (Turturro) from a rival mob boss’ execution order. When Tom has to fake Bernie’s killing, it unleashes a series of events that leads to a series of genuine killings that threatens to tear both gangs apart. Turturro is particularly terrific in this, clearly demonstrating that he is an actor who is right on the Coens’ wavelength.
3. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000)
Director: Joel Coen. Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, based on “The Odyssey” by Homer. Starring George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman.
Loosely based on Homer’s classic “The Odyssey” and with a title taken from the 1941 Preston Sturges movie “Sullivan’s Travels,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one wild ride. During the Great Depression, three convicts in a chain gang — Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), a crooked conman trying to get home; Pete Hogwallop (Turturro), who has only two weeks left on his sentence; and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), a supermarket thief — escape together, aiming to get Everett home so that the trio can divide a stack of cash that he has hidden. In a career of creating colorful characters, the Coens have outdone themselves here, particularly in the detailed characterizations of the convicts, masterfully portrayed by Clooney, Turturro and Nelson.
2. QUIZ SHOW (1994)
Director: Robert Redford. Writer: Paul Attanasio. Starring Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, David Paymer.
Turturro earned his first Golden Globe nomination, as well as his first Screen Actors Guild Award nod for his performance as Herb Stempel, a real-life Queens resident in the 1950s who became a television sensation when he appeared on the prime-time NBC quiz show, “Twenty-One,” answering question after question with correct answers every time. But as Turturro plays him, Stempel is a bit of a schlub with a personality that the network feels isn’t attractive enough for prime time. Enter Charles van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a Columbia University instructor with the kind of matinee idol looks that would make their ratings soar. Van Doren is basically fed the correct answers, but would Stempel be willing to throw the contest? History can tell us the answer, but it’s Turturro’s dilemma that still keeps us on the edge of our seats.
1. BARTON FINK (1991)
Director: Joel Coen. Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Starring John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy David, Michael Lerner.
After a career of being a character actor or a co-star, Turturro finally stood front and center in the title role of the Coens’ “Barton Fink” with a performance that won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Set in the early 1940s, Barton Fink is one of a number of successful New York-based playwrights who relocate to Hollywood to write for the movies. But his experience in Hollywood is not at all the same as, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald or William Faulkner. After checking in to eerie hotel, his life instead becomes closer to a horror movie than a Hollywood dream. The Coens create a continuing sense of dread in this genre-defying film, and Turturro’s performance evokes such sympathy and concern in the audience that we go from hoping that Barton will find success in Hollywood to wondering whether he’s even going to survive.