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After an indelicate death, actor makes a career move

Stoneham's Fiore is producer as well as star of 'Johnny Slade'

TEWKSBURY -- When the call came five years ago it was bad, real bad.

''I took it like a death," said actor John Fiore. ''I begged him, I did, I pleaded for my life."

On the other end of the phone was David Chase, writer and executive producer of ''The Sopranos." Fiore's character, Gigi Cestone, was going to die, Chase said. Shortly and ignominiously. A heart attack on the toilet.

''He told me it was a call he hated to make but he'd vowed not to sacrifice the master plan for a character, no matter how much he liked him," Fiore said. ''I didn't believe him, but that's what he said."

Fiore sighs. He's sitting on a balcony at the Tewksbury Country Club where his soon-to-premiere ''Johnny Slade's Greatest Hits" was filmed. He's wearing a white short-sleeved shirt, blue jeans, and black boots. He's 50, looks 40, and has been married 25 years.

Coulda, shoulda, woulda. If Gigi had lived past season three, Fiore would have been a made man. Supporting actors can make $10,000 a pop just for showing up at a casino to press the flesh and sign a few autographs. The big guys, Tony, Carmela, Christopher? Six figures, easy. Fagetaboutit.

So when Chase called, Fiore took the news hard. A Somerville guy with movie-star hair and movie-star teeth, he'd been close to the A-list before. Fifteen films, a nine-year stint on ''Law and Order." So close so many times, and here he was, again. On the edge of it. One step away and he has a heart attack on the toilet.

''The thing about this career is that you're the thing. You're what you sell," Fiore said. ''You start feeling stepped over and climbed over. You're like Sisyphus, you get knocked down and you have to just say 'Oh God, got to start climbing again.' "

Fiore started acting in college, fell in love with the applause, the approval, the feeling of being good at something. Success came quickly. He could play the archetypical Italian tough guy with his eyes closed. He landed a role as Detective Tony Profaci on the ''Law and Order" pilot and figured he didn't even need to move to New York. In retrospect, it was a mistake, he said. There's no networking in Boston, no shoulders to rub.

It didn't catch up to him until after ''The Sopranos," when things started drying up. Finally, he landed a decent gig in a Roger Paradiso production of ''Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding" but the film has yet to be released (and Fiore said he isn't holding his breath). Then he ended up as crime kingpin Vince Salerno on ''A Guiding Light." Not his dream job, but it paid the mortgage on his Stoneham home. Then Salerno was sent away on drug charges. Game over.

Fiore checked his appointment book one day not long after Salerno had been put on the shelf and saw a working actor's worst nightmare. It was empty.

So John Fiore, actor, decided to reinvent himself. He'd become John Fiore, producer.

''I realized if I was going to stay in the business I couldn't wait around any longer and wait for lightning to strike," he said. ''I had to branch out."

He'd been sitting on a screenplay he'd started a year before. He showed it to a writer friend who liked it, but who saw it going a different way. Johnny Slade wasn't a skinny strung-out heroin addict with a couple of hits back in the day. He was a happy-go-lucky, self-delusional lounge singer.

And the story wasn't morose. It was funny. Kitschy almost. Slade gets hired by the mob to open a nightclub. Unbeknownst to him, the lyrics of the songs he sings, written by mob boss and fellow ''Law and Order" alum Vince Curatola, are instructions for some nasty ''family business."

Before he knows it, Slade is in the middle of a mob war all the while insisting that he's got to maintain his artistic integrity.

Not long after Fiore made the decision to produce it, the pieces started to come together. One day at the fights at the Roxy in Boston, he met a guy who knew a guy and all of sudden the budding producer had $100,000 in seed money and a location to film -- the Tewksbury Country Club.

A few months later, bada bing bada boom, 200 extras are milling around the ballroom and Johnny Slade is in business.

The film will premier at 9 p.m. on Sunday at The Boston Film Festival at Loews Boston Common. It's Fiore's first run at producing, and like most things in his life, it's the shortcomings that loom largest in his mind's eye. It was harder than he anticipated, he said. He'd be selling the film to potential investors one minute, shooting a scene the next, conferring with his director about a camera angle a minute later. A lot to concentrate on.

''It could have been more polished, there are a lot of things I'd do differently, but it's good," he said. ''Do I like it? Yeah, I do. I'm proud of it."

And will it take him where he wants to go? ''It has to," Fiore said. ''I'm done with being a crapped-out Soprano. I'm ready for the next step."

Douglas Belkin can be reached at dbelkin@globe.com.

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