Season six of ``The Sopranos" belonged to Joseph R. Gannascoli.
As closeted gay mobster Vito Spatafore, Gannascoli was equally convincing in portraying cold-eyed menace and yearning vulnerability. Once he was outed, Vito fled to New Hampshire and began a relationship with a short-order cook he called ``Johnny Cakes." But the pull of mob life was strong, and Vito returned to New Jersey. Bad move. Crime boss Phil Leotardo had Vito beaten to death with pool cues.
It was Gannascoli who suggested the gay story line to ``Sopranos" writers, based on a book he read about a real-life mobster. He then made the most of it. ``When the bell rings, you've got to answer it," he says. ``I had the greatest year on the greatest show." His performance last season was all the more impressive because Vito's limp was no act: Gannascoli was in constant pain because of a bum hip that eventually required double-hip replacement surgery.
Now, Gannascoli is moving quickly to capitalize on the buzz surrounding his performance. A onetime chef, he recently published a novel about a Mafia chef titled "A Meal to Die For," and he is selling a line of pasta sauce and spices under the label "To Die For." The next product in that line, he says, will be . . . a pool cue.
Q. You came up with the idea to give Vito a secret gay identity, and it gave you a breakout role, but it also led to your character's demise. A double-edged sword, no?
A. I didn't know which way it was going to go. But if I had to do it over again, I'd do it this way, because it brings closure and it made Vito a lot more sympathetic.
Q. Are you more recognized in public now?
A. Wherever I go, to the Deep South, to NASCAR, I'm instantly recognizable now. People really felt for the character. I'm proud of that, because I'm really self-taught as an actor, like I was as a chef.
Q. Some ``Sopranos" fans grumbled that the Vito story line and the whole excursion to New Hampshire took the focus off more compelling action in New Jersey.
A. Well, what can you say? Here is a guy who was tormented, who didn't know what to do. And he took off and ended up in New Hampshire. It probably happens in real life. These people who just want mob stuff and killing: There's more to it than that.
Q. As far as you know, are you the only member of the cast who has played two roles on the show? (Gannascoli appeared in a brief but memorable scene in season one as a bakery patron who asks ``What about my bread?" after Christopher Moltisanti shoots a baker in the foot).
A.Yes. Then they created Vito for me. (Laughs.) They needed a fat (expletive) back then.
Q. Any thoughts on how ``The Sopranos" is going to end?
A. I couldn't find out, but I want to speculate on my own. I think that Johnny Sack may be a rat. I think the cancer will get Paulie Walnuts. I think Christopher will be back on the junk. Actually, he already is.
Q. What about Tony?
A. I think that he's going to go away.
FROM WIRE REPORTS