Although known best for his roles as a mobster, actor Frank Vincent got his start as a musician at St. Peter’s Prep. Vincent, a Jersey City native who lived in Bayonne for a while, died at age 78 on Sept. 13.
Moviegoers may remember Vincent as the guy who got doused with a water hydrant in director Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” or the character whom Joe Pesci beat up in Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” — or the character Pesci again beat up and killed in Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.”
He was also known for his mobster roles in Casino. He also appeared in a number of prominent films and shows including: Jungle Fever, Copland, Witness to the Mob, and NYPD Blue.
Vincent, who in some ways has modeled his career after classic tough-guy actors such as James Cagney, has played tough-guy roles in more than 30 films. He was a crafted actor who has also left his mark as a musician playing the legendary New York Honkytonk scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Not a 9-5 kind of guy
In 2002, Vincent received a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from Hoboken’s Back East Picture Show. The awards ceremony, held at a Liberty State Park banquet hall in Jersey City, recognized the actor’s long and successful career.
Despite the award and his many film and TV appearances, Vincent seemed out of the limelight. His daughter, Maria Lynn Pomponio, at a local resident at the time, launched a website in 2004 to promote her father.
“My father is not one of those nine-to-five kind of guys,” Pomponio said. “He was never going to settle for anything less than he wanted, and he has his art on his mind all the time.”
Calling Vincent “a dedicated actor” who has worked hard over the years to achieve his success, Pomponio — a graduate of Bayonne High School — said she decided to use her marketing skills to help her father become better-known.
“I’ve been very fortunate and blessed.” — Frank Vincent
Music was his first passion
Although born in Massachusetts in 1943, Vincent’s family moved to the Greenville section of Jersey City.
As grand marshal of the Columbus Day Parade in Belleville in 2003, Vincent was cast back into his own roots as a member of a drum and bugle corps as he watched marching bands pass the grandstand where he stood.
“It was something he could relate to,” Pomponio said.
Vincent made his initial foray into the world of arts through music, taking up piano, trumpet, and drums while attending St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City.
“My first interest was music,” Vincent told the Hudson Reporter in an interview in 2004. “I pursued it as a young man as I progressed, developed a personality by playing music.”
He eventually settled into drumming and played the clubs at night while recording as a studio musician by day. He was an incredibly successful studio musician, backing such talents as Paul Anka, Del Shannon, Trini Lopez, and others.
His band “Frank Vincent and the Aristocrats” were the favorites among area nightclubs. And during their prime, the band would wear coordinated outfits like red tuxedos with black bowties. They were sharp and loved the nightlife, he said.
“We played all over Hudson County,” Vincent said.. “Music came very easy to me. It’s my first passion.”
During these days, Vincent got to meet some of the icons of cool, such as Frank Sinatra – and despite his own professional credentials, Vincent was awed.
From music to comedy
While he performed with his band, the charismatic and good-looking Vincent would mesmerize audiences with his talents. In the late ’60s, during a gig in Seaside Heights, Vincent met actor Joe Pesci, another charismatic young musician. The two immediately hit it off and they started a two-man comedy/music act. They toured the United States from 1969 to 1975. The show eventually became very popular and word got around that the duo was winning audiences wherever they went.
“We had great chemistry. It was fun working with Joe,” Vincent said. “The music situation was changing. Disco was coming in; it was time to find something else.”
His success in music helped him raise and support his family, and he moved to Bayonne while still performing as a studio musician. The family moved into a duplex at 17th Street and the bay.
“His comedy performances,” Vincent’s daughter said, “became more important than drumming.”
The comic routines helped him develop the stage personality as well as improved his timing and his discipline.
The comedy routines were good, but Vincent said they sometimes ran into some tough crowds. The challenge with comedy is making the jokes work, Vincent admitted, and night after night, that was not always the case.
“Even though I did it for a long time, I’ve had my share of sweatshops,” Vincent said.
In the mid-1970s, Pesci and Vincent got large supporting roles in a low-budget gangster film called “The Death Collector.”
“The writer of the film saw one of our routines and asked us to audition for his film,” Vincent said, calling this the first step in his career as an actor.
Their success in that film led to a role in Raging Bull, one of the Martin Scorsese’s masterpieces.
“We were in a very fortunate position,” Vincent said.
When the movie’s casting director was looking for someone to play the role of “Salvi,” through the support of his friend Pesci, Vincent got the call. The movie was a hit, and it helped launch the careers of several actors, including Vincent.
“The movie was great because it gave me immediate exposure,” he said.
Since then, he had a number of roles, although when asked which was most difficult, he said Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” challenged him. He also performed in several television projects that include Law and Order, Young Indiana Jones, and Tom Clancy’s Netforce. His voice has been used in a Play Station game and an animated DreamWorks film.
Although he was not trained as an actor, Vincent said he learned the craft by watching other actors and taking instructions from directors, and his performing background also helped. He would eventually get a reputation as a good working actor, and in Hollywood that’s important, he said.
After “Raging Bull,” Vincent’s acting career took off. In addition to big roles in popular Scorsese movies like “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” throughout the ’80s and ’90s, he would have roles in other films like “The Grind,” “Gotti,” “Honeymoon in Vegas,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Pope of Greenwich Village,” “Federal Hill,” “Easy Money,” “Belly” and “The Deli.”
“I’ve been very fortunate and blessed,” Vincent said. “With every movie role your technique gets better.”
Vincent was a versatile, very professional hardworking actor who has cemented his place in modern cinema. Acting can be challenging at times for Vincent, even though he made it look easy.
“With every role there is a new challenge,” he said, when talking about his career. “Success is enjoying life.”
Vincent eventually moved from Jersey City to a home in Nutley.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.