How Gay Is Vito from The Sopranos?

052206 article vilkomerson How Gay Is Vito from The Sopranos?Last week, the actor Joseph Gannascoli—who, as Vito on The Sopranos, is living out this television season’s only great tragic love story—was tooling around Lynbrook, Long Island, in a new silver Mercedes R350 with a back seat filled with flowering plants. He was wearing a Giants sweatshirt and sneakers, and was taking a reporter on a tour through his neighborhood’s quiet maze of split-level houses and manicured, postage-stamp lawns. He pulled up in front of an unassuming two-story white house, which he and his wife, Diana, moved into last August—the first house the actor has owned, after letting go of a rent-controlled apartment in his old stomping ground of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, after 25 years.

Mr. Gannascoli, who at 47 is still a large man even after losing 160 pounds, removed the plants from the back of the Mercedes and hung them carefully off the branches of a tree on the front lawn. He was stepping gingerly after undergoing hip surgery five weeks earlier. He proudly pointed out some yard work: a mosaic-tiled bird bath and, plunked down in the grass, a large boulder that he thinks looks like a bear. Looking at the boulder, he paused and said, “How long till they write ‘fag’ on it?”

For these days, Mr. Gannascoli is known to Sopranos watchers as “Gay Vito” (or even GaVito, in certain exotic circles). Vito’s reluctant coming-out story line has locked up more Monday-morning chatter than all of Bill Paxton’s polygamist wives and Desperate Housewives shenanigans combined. He is, simply put, a sensation.

There’s something about the sight of Mr. Gannascoli dancing gleefully in a biker’s cap in a leather bar, or going on the lam to a gay Shangri-La (in this case, “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire) and falling in love with the handsome mustached cook from the diner—“Johnny Cakes”—that have given TV viewers that rare feeling that they are watching something new. In the hyper-masculine world of organized crime, with its intricately nuanced male taboos—it’s O.K. to get misty-eyed at your daughter’s wedding, but it’s not O.K. to cry if the Feds are bundling you back to prison—Sopranos creator David Chase has introduced a character whose outsized vulnerability will surely force a defining choice for the gentler, back-from-a-coma Tony Soprano.

Sure, there have been plenty of gay characters on television before: wacky Jack from Will & Grace, or David, the fussy undertaker with the hot cop boyfriend on Six Feet Under. But the plight of Gay Vito has stirred up similar feelings to those viewers felt when they first tuned in on Sunday nights in 1999 to see a Prozac-popping Mafia boss spill his guts to his therapist. Now, seven years later, it’s a different big guy with a wife and kids—this one with a natural eye for antiques—that allows Mr. Chase to devilishly tickle the big underbelly of male bravado.

Mr. Gannascoli’s character, Vito Spatafore, was revealed as a closeted gay man when, at the end of last season, viewers spied his head come bobbing up from the lap of a security guard. The scene was more shocking than the stream of murders that pepper the show.

“I was on the wrong end of that blowjob,” Mr. Gannascoli laughed. He remembered when he first found out his character’s new sexual orientation. “They told me, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not dying … but you are blowin’ a guy.’ I was like, ‘Get the fuck outta here—stop breakin’ balls!’”

IN FACT, IT WAS MR. GANNASCOLI who had initially brought up the idea of a gay mobster to the show’s writers during the filming of season three, after he’d read Murder Machine by Gene Mustain and Jerry Capeci, about an openly gay member of the Gambino crime family who was allowed to live because he was a good earner. The writers didn’t bite, but then, in 2003, newspapers reported that “Johnny Boy” D’Amato—a mob boss of the New Jersey DeCavalcante family—had been murdered because he was having sex with men. The writers contacted Mr. Gannascoli. “Then they were like, ‘What’s the name of that book?’ And I knew they were thinking about it,” he said.

When the cast gathered for the read-through of the episode in which Mr. Gannascoli would be fellating the security guard, his fellow cast members were a bit edgy.

“[Tony] Sirico [Paulie Walnuts] said, ‘Man, I wouldn’t do it. And Jimmy [Gandolfini] was like, ‘You want me to talk to Chase? You don’t have to do this,’” said Mr. Gannascoli. “I thought about it, because I had seen the character different. I thought he’d be in self-denial, self-loathing, sadistic: a cross between Mike Tyson and Liberace. I thought I’d get blown and then kick the shit out of the guy.”

But approaching David Chase wasn’t really an option. “I approached one of the writers—I don’t think I’d have the balls to do it to David,” said Mr. Gannascoli. “He’s really nice, but he’d look at me like, Why are you talking to me?

The blowjob proceeded as planned, and suddenly Mr. Gannascoli’s character broke out of the shadowy pack of husky-shouldered background mooks (previously his character was best known for carrying out the hit on Meadow’s boyfriend, Jackie Aprile Jr.). Early this season, the stage for tragedy was set when Vito was spotted by mobsters as he gallivanted in full leather regalia in a gay bar. (“It’s a joke!” he shouted to them when he realized he’d been spotted, and thus most likely marked for elimination.)

Before shooting resumed for the current season, Mr. Chase called Mr. Gannascoli to find out how much weight he had lost (through a combination of surgery, pills and Celebrity Fit Club) so as to work it into the script. “He said, ‘Get ready, it’s going to be a big year,’” Mr. Gannascoli said. “I lost my breath, you know? To have this big of a role on the greatest show … ever. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

And so viewers grew cozily attached to Vito as he left his wife and fell in love with Johnny Cakes, as documented by scenes of them kissing and grappling, shirtless, in a field next to their parked Harleys. Mr. Gannascoli gamely went with the intimate scenes, though, he noted, “It didn’t help when his fucking moustache was in my mouth.”

Mr. Gannascoli made an appearance during the first season, playing a guy named Gino at a bakery, before the producers decided to bring him back as Vito Spatafore. But the journey getting there was a long one. Born in 1959 in Brooklyn to Italian-American parents, his mother—who passed away when he was 19—was a seamstress and his father a jeweler. Both stressed the importance of education (“You see those guys on the corner—you stay away from them”). Dutifully, Mr. Gannascoli went to Lafayette High School and then two years at St. John’s College, in an attempt to follow in his lawyer brother’s footsteps. “I did well my first year,” he said. “Second year, I sort of wandered …. ” Around the time of the wandering, he has admitted to hustling Quaaludes. Falling into restaurant work, Mr. Gannascoli started doing prep work at the restaurant in Lord & Taylor, and went to New Orleans to cook for a year and a half. He returned to New York at age 24 and settled into being a full-time chef in Brooklyn, when an actor friend named Tim Kelleher suggested that he audition for a play he was producing. Mr. Gannascoli got the part and started selling ice cream out of a cart on Wall Street while studying with acting coach Bob Patterson. But when things didn’t seem to pan out, he opened a restaurant in Bay Ridge. He smoked, drank and gambled. To pay off his debts, he worked as a food fence, which he described as “Brooklyn guys, they get a truck that has food on it and they knew who could move it. I was a guy who could move it.”

ONE FOOTBALL SUNDAY IN 1990, Mr. Gannascoli lost $60,000 on a game between the Houston Oilers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, when the back-up Oilers quarterback helped upset favored Pittsburgh. “I owe Cody Carlson my career,” he joked. He sold his restaurant to pay the debt and went out to L.A. to try his hand at acting. “I was border-line suicidal,” he said. “I don’t think I’d ever do it, but I went to church and I was like, ‘God, you got to show me the way.’ I felt like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life—just at the end of my rope.” He did one-act plays in downtown Los Angeles—“all fucking horrible”—until a guy in his neighborhood agreed to represent him. He only lasted a week in the face of Mr. Gannascoli’s enthusiasm. “I’d be up at 6 a.m., drinking fucking Big Gulps and 32 ounces of coffee, smoking cigarettes and wired up and knocking on this guy’s door, being like, ‘I’m ready to go!’ He would just be waking up and be like, ‘Ready to go where?’”

Undaunted, Mr. Gannascoli came up with a new plan: He started to steal the breakdowns—the sheets from casting agents spelling out what they were looking for—from his former agent’s front stoop. He’d run to Kinko’s, then return the originals to the stoop. He started calling around town, pretending to be a talent manager by the name of James Hoving (“I think Hoving was a curator of one of the museums, and it sort of stuck in my head. It sounded cool”) who was trying to get his “client,” Joe Gannascoli, to be seen. He started to get himself roles—his first, Money for Nothing, starred John Cusack, Philip Seymour Hoffman and future cast mate James Gandolfini.

It was a friendship he struck up with Benicio Del Toro, who would direct him as a lead in a 20-minute short film, Submission, co-starring Matthew McConaughey, that would ultimately lead him to grand doyenne Sopranos casting directors Georgianne Walken and Sheila Jaffe.

Part of the genius in The Sopranos’ casting is that audiences get the sense that the actors inhabiting their roles aren’t too far removed from the real deal. (Who wouldn’t feel a bit daunted if they came across Paulie Walnuts in a dark alley?)

“Yeah, New York guys, New Jersey guys …. Italians …. You grew up around it, you see it,” Mr. Gannascoli said carefully. And while James Gandolfini reportedly was told by some well-informed sources that Mafia dons don’t wear shorts to barbecues, so too has Mr. Gannascoli received some feedback.

“I got guys in my neighborhood who now give me dirty looks,” he said. “I had a guy come after me in a club after doing that [blowjob] scene. And he was yelling stuff like ‘You’re a cocksucker!’ and this and that. I was like, ‘Who the fuck is that?’ And they said, ‘That’s so-and-so’s nephew, he just got out.’ I was like, ‘Well, he’s a moron.’”

Mr. Gannascoli was recently asked to serve as grand marshal at an Atlanta Gay Pride parade, and he’s received letters from openly gay and closeted men applauding his portrayal.

“Being in the restaurant business, you’re with a lot of gays,” he shrugged. “I never had no problem with it—I’m sort of a live-and-let-live kind of guy. I had friends that were like, ‘I’m not meeting you there,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, have a fucking drink at the bar, I’ll be out at 12 and we’ll go out. They’re fucking fun guys, what’s the fucking big deal? And you got hot broads hanging out there—you know, the fag hags.’”

He met his wife at a bar in Brooklyn, and after a seven-week courtship became engaged (“She wouldn’t give it up without the ring,” he said), marrying last June. His cast mates all attended, and he was back at work the following Monday. They plan to have children: “As we speak,” he said with a wink. “I gave her a shot this morning.”

And like some of his cast mates, he’s turned to the book business to enlarge his reach. In January, he published A Meal to Die For, a culinary caper of a novel based loosely on his food-fencing days, and a line of pasta sauces and oils of the same name. He has an idea for a sports cooking show, and he wants to still lose another 80 pounds. Pulling up a picture on his computer of himself as a slimmed-down youth, he sighed, “I used to get more ass than a toilet seat.”

The fate of his character hangs precariously in the balance: As of last Sunday’s episode, Vito fled Johnny Cakes and sped through the New Hampshire back roads, swilling vodka and listening to Sinatra, until he smacked into a parked car and promptly shot dead its owner, who’d insisted on calling the cops to file an accident report.

Mr. Gannascoli insists he doesn’t know Vito’s ultimate fate.

“We filmed four different endings for me,” he said. “They wanted to keep it a secret, even from me. I literally have no idea. But real fans don’t really want to know.” He paused. “We go back to shooting in June, and of course I’m hoping I live. I have a fucking mortgage.”