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As an outed wise guy, he's on his way up

'Sopranos' actor gets recognized for gay role

NEW YORK -- Now the question for viewers of ''The Sopranos" is: Will Vito eat the barrel of his gun? Or will he lack the guts, then get whacked by his appalled paisans?

Fans could be overheard waging bets this week outside Manhattan buildings.

''Five bucks, he doesn't have another line," said one.

''Not counting flashbacks?" wondered another.

Wearing leather-bar attire, Vito Spatafore -- the heretofore closeted gay mobster -- was sighted in last Sunday night's episode by a couple of wise guys who came by the sweaty S&M joint to collect their protection money.

''It's a joke," Vito tries to explain to the duo. Finally he begs: ''Don't say nothin'!"

By the end of the show, the crestfallen Vito -- played by Joseph R. Gannascoli -- has checked into a motel, looking suicidally at his gun on the nightstand.

This season, Vito has hung around the hospital while Tony Soprano was recovering from a gunshot wound, trying to ingratiate himself with Tony's wife while plotting with Paulie Walnuts to grab her cut of a big score. And he's chomped on carrots while prattling on about all the weight he's losing. (In real life, he's down to 260 from a high of 400 pounds.)

Now that the gay story line is heating up, Gannascoli is immensely pleased, in part because it was his idea to make Vito homosexual.

''I saw him as, like, a cross between Mike Tyson and Liberace," the 47-year-old Brooklyn-born actor said at his home. ''I wanted to make him sort of in self-denial, self-loathing, a real gay hater."

Gannascoli's suggestion was inspired by the book ''Murder Machine," about the Gambino family, which had an openly gay member also named Vito.

''They didn't bother him about it, because I guess he was good at what he did, which was chopping up bodies," Gannascoli said.

He concedes that he had a self-serving motivation for making the suggestion: Breaking out of the pack.

''I thought that was a way of separating myself from the other actors, because I would have been in the background most of the time. You know, line here, line there, and nothing really substantial," said Gannascoli, whose character previously was best known for whacking Jackie Aprile Jr. ''To really make an impact is all I can ask for."

He also thought it would create an interesting acting challenge. But even in a year that has seen ''Brokeback Mountain" become a cultural phenomenon and Philip Seymour Hoffman win an Oscar playing Truman Capote, Gannascoli knows the reaction to Vito won't be all positive.

''I'm a Brooklyn guy. I was just in Brooklyn last night. And, you know, I had some real wise guys that look at me and they give me dirty looks. I've had guys, like, come after me in clubs," he said.

He just hopes the ''cerebral people" will appreciate his performance.

Gannascoli said ''The Sopranos" has changed his life ''in so many ways."

''Recognition, I'd say, the most. It allowed me to get married."

The show has also allowed Gannascoli to buy his house (''which coming from a rent-controlled apartment all my life was a huge step up"), get his novel published (''A Meal to Die For," loosely based on his life in the restaurant business), and develop a signature line of food (olive oil, tomato sauce, barbecue sauce, salsa, and wine).

He considered becoming a lawyer like his older brother but dropped out of St. John's University after two years. He did well the first year, but by his second year, ''I had a huge Quaalude business" that sidetracked him. ''I was hustlin', you know."

He then bounced around, working at various New York restaurants and becoming a ''self-taught" kitchen magician. He even headed to New Orleans and learned Cajun cooking in the '80s.

He owned all or part of a few restaurants over the years but disliked the ''day-to-day machinations" of keeping them going.

It was during one of his numerous food-service jobs when acting felt like the dish of the day. A waiter friend (who, like so many in New York, also was an aspiring actor) urged him to audition for a play. He got the role and started taking acting lessons.

But he soon found himself pushing an ice-cream cart on Wall Street before eventually opening another eatery. He got burnt out from working 9 a.m. to 2 in the morning and started gambling heavily.

On the last day of the 1990 NFL regular season, he was in a hole. Like any desperate gambler, he tried to win it back fast.

''Cody Carlson is responsible for my acting," Gannascoli joked, able to laugh about it now.

The backup Houston Oilers quarterback started in place of injured starter Warren Moon and had a great game against betting favorite Pittsburgh. The Steelers lost, and Gannascoli was out $60,000.

Gannascoli paid off his debts with equity from his restaurant, thus avoiding a real-life leg-breaking -- or worse -- and then decided to head to LA.

On the West Coast, he met Benicio Del Toro, which led to an audition and small role in the 1993 feature ''Money for Nothing" -- and a meeting with Georgianne Walken (Christopher Walken's wife) and Sheila Jaffe. Both Jaffe and Walken are casting directors who've chosen actors for roles in scores of films and TV shows -- including ''The Sopranos."

Gannascoli underwent hip-replacement surgery last week and hopes the increased mobility will help him exercise and lose more weight. But while controlling his Falstaffian appetites, he'd loved to develop a hybrid cooking/sports show. He'd have a famous athlete as a guest, and they'd cook up one of the player's favorite dishes while talking about his career and showing clips.

He'd like to call it ''Food Bowl."

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