Michael Imperioli sat down with CNN’s Chris Wallace to discuss the iconic actors he met while working on the sets of ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘The Sopranos’ – and the scene that sent him to the ER.
Imperioli, 56, got his chance after being cast in Martin Scorsese’s classic mob film ‘Goodfellas’ at the age of 23.
Working with Scorsese was a dream come true for the young actor, he said. “It’s like going from college to play the Yankees in the World Series or something.”
And working with actors Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta was more “exciting” than intimidating for Imperioli.
“For some strange reason. I really like it when the stakes are high,” he explained. “I like to be under a lot of pressure, in terms of work.”
He credits Scorsese for his comfort on set. “Marty made me feel comfortable,” he said. “From the moment I met him, from the moment I got there, he made me feel like I belonged there. And I was an actor. And the very first job I got in the cinema, the director didn’t make me feel that way.
Scorsese “was very, very nice, and I think I knew that – how important that was to me. Because I had been trying, studying and trying to get a job for, at that time , six years, you know?” he said.
“Most of what you see is completely improvised, which is even more of a testament to the trust he has in actors, especially young actors,” he said. “Working with legends here, you know, and allowing them to just be free to say what they want and respond however they want is pretty, pretty amazing.”
Imperioli also recalled a time when he was injured while filming the scene where he is shot by Tommy, played by Joe Pesci.
“I’m supposed to go back into the bar and hit the ground with three bullet holes,” he said. “They have a stunt double. I said no, I want to do my own stunt.
But when he hit the bar, the glass he was holding shattered, splitting two fingers open. “I look up and see Robert De Niro looking at me,” he recalled. The injury was “rather serious”.
A production assistant drove Imperioli to the hospital – where, seeing the fake blood and fake bullet holes on his chest, nurses thought he was seriously injured.
“Three bullet holes in my chest and it’s Queens, New York. They think I’m about to die,” he said. He tried to explain that he was making a movie but “they think I’m delirious talking about Robert De Niro”.
“So they put me on a stretcher, traumatized me and told them what was going on. They won’t listen to me.
“Eventually they start to get into my shirt and see all the crackers, the wires,” which are connected to the fake blood packets. “I said, I told you, I’m making a movie. I cut my fingers.
It wasn’t until two hours later that staff stitched up his wound and returned him to set, where they filmed three more takes of the death scene.
Imperioli said he focused on work and didn’t “chat much” with the older “Goodfellas” cast.
“The last thing I wanted to do was talk to them about acting, because I knew that wasn’t what they wanted to hear.”
But he made a suggestion for the movie that “really took a lot of bullets,” he said. “I just trusted my instincts, because of Marty, because he made me feel that way.”
He asked the props manager to allow him to reset the poker table where the gangsters are playing. His character, Spider, acted as their “errand boy”, carrying drinks and cleaning ashtrays. Imperioli’s idea was to move the bottles around so he could face the mobsters while he made their drinks instead of facing them, so he could better monitor who needed refills.
Making that kind of suggestion is “something an actor would really never do,” Imperioli said. “Because it is primarily union work. And you don’t mess with union workers, do you? Or you could really get shot.
Plus, “accessories are very specific,” he said. “They have these continuity issues, depending on how they move the camera, and everything has to be the same.”
But Scorsese liked the idea – and they moved the bottles.
“When I think about it now, I think I’d probably never even think about doing this now because I just assume the prop guy is going to do it right. I don’t need to do this,” Imperioli said.
“But there was something instinctive about it. And Marty made you feel like he really wanted you to experience that.