In my almost-two decades of service to the hospitality industry I’ve seen the best and worst celebrity has to offer.
O.J. Simpson appeared to be unbelievably-grateful for the smallest amount of attention. To be fair to The Juice, he was kind, generous and super-friendly during the two separate occasions he stayed at the hotel. And now he’s languishing in a prison cell.
Pink gave strict orders to management: keep staff away, so as not to alienate the husband she had just reconciled with at the time. Sweet, when you think about it, though I didn’t feel that way at the time.
DJ Jazzy Jeff was a douche. Period. I’m usually fine with being ignored. And I’m usually fine with being stiffed. (Mostly.) But when you ignore me and stiff me? Well then, you’re on my list.
The Air Supply guys aren’t the greatest conversationalists (or tippers), but much like their music, they’re okay.
And then there’s Vincent Pastore. Yeah, he brought Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, one of the roughest, toughest Made Men in all of Jersey, to life on The Sopranos, but in real life he’s one of the nicest, most accessible actors you could ever hope to encounter.
I first met Vinnie (as he prefers to be called) last year at Big B Comics in Niagara Falls, of all places. He was there signing autographs and posing for pictures to raise money for Light of Day Canada, an annual benefit concert for Parkinson’s Disease Research and Patient Care. My daughter wanted to get his autograph for her grandfather, John, a huge Sopranos fan. John, as longtime readers will recall, suffered from emphysema in the last five years of his life which restricted his mobility terribly. A proud man, John, was self-conscious about venturing outside with an oxygen tank so my daughter took it upon herself to secure a picture and autograph for her grandfather.
Vinnie was so touched by her act of kindness he posed for a picture with the entire family – for free.
“Hey, let’s gather round here, folks! We’ll take a Christmas card photo with Big Pussy and the family!”
Not only was Vinnie quick on his feet, he was damn generous; I’ve seen celebrities charge over a hundred dollars for posed photos.
So as you can imagine, I was overjoyed when I ran into Vinnie on a recent Thursday night in front of the hotel’s North Tower elevators. He was in town to emcee another benefit concert. Vinnie’s a helluva humanitarian – for a Wise Guy.
VINNIE: Hey! How do I get to room 3434, buddy?
His Bronx accent was as thick as a New York pizza (whatever that means), and it was glorious.
ME: You can’t get to room 3434, sir!
In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a good idea to tell a Made Man what he can and can’t do…
VINNIE: Oh yeah? Why?
For a brief-but-ridiculously-uncomfortable-moment, I honestly thought I was in trouble.
ME: Because it doesn’t exist! You must mean room 3454.
Big Pussy didn’t look impressed by my humor. Not one bit.
VINNIE’S TRAVELING BUDDY: Hey, Vinnie! I’m in room 3455… so you gotta be next door in 3454!
Satisfied with that logic, Vinnie moved on.
VINNIE: So how the hell do we get there?
I decided to play it straight this time.
ME: I’ll be happy to take you up there myself!
And so we rode up to the thirty-fourth floor while Vinnie admired the poster for the hotel’s Brazilian steak house, that we keep enclosed under glass – to keep people from drooling on it, of course. I took it upon myself to break protocol and engage Vinnie man-to-man rather than man-to-bellman.
I told him about my daughter’s gift to her grandfather.
I told him how it brought tears to his eyes.
I told him just how much that picture meant to him in his final months of life.
And I told him that he wasn’t just an actor on a television drama.
“The work you do affects some people on a deeply personal level. There are people who for one reason or another, can’t get out of bed or their easy chair. To those people, television is their only conduit to the outside world. To those people, their favorite programs are lifelines.”
By the time I was done, I was verklempt. He was verklempt. (Which may be more embarrassing for an Italian.) His buddy was verklempt. We were all done for.
VINNIE: Hey, Robert, you come to my room and I’ll give you some pictures!
ME: Well, I’m on a call right now… and I don’t want to bother you –
VINNIE: Don’t worry about it! I’m here for a few days, so come by! And listen, you tell your wife ‘Vinnie says hello and he sends his deepest condolences.’ You’ll do that right?
One simply doesn’t say no to Big Pussy. Not more than once anyway.
But I didn’t drop by his room. The last thing I wanted to do was bother such a kind and generous guy – from the Bronx.
But on the last day Vinnie was with us, our paths crossed again after his concert ended. He had to rush back to New York for a film shoot but he found the time to stop and chat again. I thanked him once more and he insisted I take a picture.
“For yourself this time, Robert.”
And so I watched him drive off, my admiration and respect for him growing by the minute. And then a thought occurred to me:
“Dad would have loved to hear about this.”
See you in the lobby, kids…