It’s definitely been a week for good-byes.
My daughters and I spent the weekend in the beautiful, still somewhat quaint small town of Auburn, California, helping to lay to rest and celebrate the life of my dear aunt Mary Pascuzzi, my fraternal grandmother’s sister, who was the centered matriarch of her own family and a stabilizing force for all of us in her extended family as well. She, and my grandmother, were big fans of classic-era American movies and enthusiastically encouraged my interest, just one reason why they’re both held dear in my heart and in my memory. And being Italian, they both had more than a casual interest in The Godfather when it came out in 1972. I remember my aunt Mary talking to me about having seen it and wondering, me at the ripe old age of 12, if I’d had a chance to go yet. She knew of the campaigning I did to get my parents to assent to my seeing it—I even tried to get my sympathetic grandmother involved—but they would not agree. So I had to settle for my aunt’s accounts of the movie itself and, of course, all the things it made her think of, growing up Italian in small-town America. Once I eventually saw the movie a couple years later I loved it, of course. But maybe not quite as much as the feeling of anticipation that my aunt stoked in me with her stories of Coppola’s movie and, by extension, Mary’s life.
The day after my aunt was interred in a beautiful outdoor mausoleum in Roseville, California, next to her beloved husband Pete, we headed back home to Southern California. That was the day Alex Rocco died.
Rocco was a character actor whose street-tough good looks were familiar to anyone who watched movies and TV in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s– he would later win an Emmy for his comic performance as the slick Hollywood agent Al Floss in the short-lived TV series The Famous Teddy Z. But for most moviegoers he will be remembered—my Aunt Mary certainly would have remembered him—as Moe Greene, the Vegas mobster impresario loosely based on Bugsy Siegel who gets on Michael Corleone’s bad side in The Godfather.
The target of an unwelcome Corleone family buyout, Michael objects to Greene knocking his brother Fredo around in public, but Greene pushes back. “You goddamn guineas really make me laugh,” Greene snorts. “I do you a favor and take Freddie in when you’re having a bad time, and now you’re gonna try and push me out!” Greene’s defiance, which we know will likely get him killed, is heady and nerve-wracking, and Rocco puts the arrogant spin of a lifetime on it. It’s no wonder that for 40-some years after Rocco claimed people would always ask him to repeat lines like “I made my bones while you were going out with cheerleaders!” and the immortal “You don’t buy me out, I buy you out!” And he always complied, with good cheer. Rocco knew how good Moe Greene had been to him, and he certainly wasn’t above giving some of that back.
As it happened, Rocco knew the mobster life all too well. A member of the Winter Hill Gang in Boston’s Somerville district, which had ties to the infamous Whitey Bulger, Rocco, under his given name, Alex Petricone, was criminally charged with making bets in 1959, and in 1961 was arrested along with Winter Hill Gang leader James “Buddy” McLean for the murder of Charlestown crime figure Bernard McLaughlin. (Petricone was the alleged getaway driver, McLean the alleged killer.) One month would pass before a grand jury would decide that the evidence against them was insufficient for an indictment. And after serving time for an earlier arrest over a public brawl in a Somerville diner, Petricone decided enough was enough and decided to head out of town. He told a Boston Globe reporter in 1989, “I had to get out of the Boston area, so I flipped a coin and said, ‘Heads Miami, tails California.’ I was in my mid-20s and came out here with no training. Acting wasn’t even in my mind.”
California won the toss, so Petricone headed west, where he ended up in an acting class with Leonard Nimoy, who advised him to lose the Boston accent, and where he decided that “Petricone” might be a bit much for the casting directors around town. He settled on the only slightly less ethnic-sounding “Rocco” after seeing it emblazoned on the side of a passing bread truck and shortly after landed his first acting job in 1965’s Motorpsycho for Russ Meyer– a character actor’s legend, to say nothing of a legendary character actor, was born.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Three the Hard Way. Detroit 9000. The Outside Man. Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins. Hearts of the West. The Stunt Man. Cannonball Run II. The Entity. Lady in White. Those are just some of the movies Rocco did in his 50-year career—not all of them great, some of them less than good, but all certainly enriched thanks to his presence and his talent. He also did miles and miles of TV work in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and late in his career found a home in the voiceover studio, doing memorable vocal characterizations for A Bug’s Life, Pinky and the Brain, Family Guy and, of course, The Simpsons.
But outside of Moe Greene, if I were to have ever had the opportunity to ask Alex Rocco to repeat one of his best lines from a movie, it might be this one: “Are you insane?!” That’s the quite sincere query Rocco’s San Francisco D.A. puts to detectives James Caan and Alan Arkin, recounting a recent botched investigation and pursuit near the beginning of Richard Rush’s hysterical, and hysterically funny, Freebie and the Bean (1974). (The strangulated inflection Rocco puts on the phrase, and particularly on “insane?!” is apoplectic perfection.)
There are plenty of great stunts in the picture, of course, but nothing in Freebie and the Bean is as chokingly funny as Caan and Arkin pitching the movie’s central plot mechanism—a proposal to protect a local crime boss from an impending hit just long enough so they can get the evidence to arrest him themselves—to Rocco’s brilliantly discombobulated D.A. These two are their own multi-car pile-up, walking all over each other, finishing each other’s sentences, stutter-starting and stopping mid-sentence as they try to weasel the D.A. and avoid yet another in what one suspects is a long line of shout-downs. And Rocco’s stunned demeanor as he witnesses and tries to reason with these two is a master class in the genius of the straight-man-one Rocco eye-roll here is worth pages of dialogue ranted by countless angry superior officers in countless inferior buddy cop movies ever since.
It’s been a long, sad week, and I’m afraid the remembering of what we’ll be missing, in my family and in the vast audience for great American character actors, is going to last a lot longer than that. Addio, zia Maria. Addio, Alex Rocco. Restate in pace e dolcezza.
(Thanks to Brian Marquard, whose obituary for Alex Rocco appeared Tuesday, July 21, in the Boston Globe.)