I recently chatted with veteran actor Charley Scalies on his career and where he’s headed next. Trivia question: How many actors have appeared in both The Wire and The Sopranos? (answer at bottom of interview)
Matthew Toffolo: You have acted on two iconic shows – The Wire and The Sopranos. How does it feel to know that your performances will be watched for generations to come?
Charlie Scalies: Humbling, very humbling. But the thing that really makes me smile is knowing my great grandkids, and beyond, will get to see what Poppi looked and sounded like.
Matthew: You worked on Season 2 of The Wire. A terrific season about the world of Unions and the decline of the middle-class in our society. It’s personally my favorite season. Did you expect The Wire to be so iconic even 13 years after you filmed your season?
Charlie: During filming, we hoped it would be nominated for an Emmy, especially when one reviewer said he couldn’t catch any of us acting. Highest praise. As for the “stevedores”, we had no doubt since we all hung out together just like a brotherhood on the docks. But David Simon, the show’s creator, felt its ratings were not high enough to even be considered. Of course, he was right.
Not until later, when the show was called out as being one of the ten best written TV shows of all time, did we came to realize that we might have been a part of a show that would not only be watched, over and over, but studied.
In 2014, I received an invitation from my alma mater, St. Joseph’s University, to speak to members of the Richard Johnson Center for Anti-Violence about my experiences on the series. I was gob-smacked to learn they were studying “The Wire” for its sociological implications!
Matthew: The Sopranos was already established as one of the greatest TV shows of all-time when you appeared in Tony’s dream in season 5 as Coach Molinaro. I’ve talked to a few actors who’ve appeared on the show and all of them have said how intense the set was, albeit in a good way. How many days did you work on the show and what do you remember most about those days?
Charlie: I appeared in only one scene in the “Test Dream” episode. It was just James (Jim) Gandolfini and me. The finished version lasts about 3 ½ minutes. We began at noon and wrapped at midnight. I believe there were around 8 to 10 different set-ups which, alone, would account for 5 to 6 hours. (Acting for film/TV is about 85% waiting, 14% eating and 1% working.) I wouldn’t describe the set as intense but it was very business-like, as is the norm based on my experience.
When Jim arrived on set, we ran lines. Usually, actors simply recite them; they don’t act them. I do not. I try to give it the same read as I do when cameras are rolling. Since I had the first line, I bellowed “I know you’re there Soprano! Well come on! You’re gonna do it, do it!” Jim was a bit startled but then smiled. If there was any tension or doubt in his mind, it must have been dispelled.
We didn’t read the whole scene. I don’t recall why. I approached him privately and asked if he had the opportunity to read all of it. He had not. Without comment, I pointed to his final line which, in my opinion, was beyond lame. He thanked me and had it changed. (I don’t think I am permitted to tell you what it was.)
When we were finished, I asked for a photo and he graciously consented.
That smile is the real guy. I like to believe that his last thought was one of sadness that his young son had to witness his father’s death.
Matthew: What is your best memory of working with James Gandolfini?
Charlie: First a little background. The Coach was Tony’s high school football coach: the only man, beside his father, that Tony both feared and respected. In the dream, the Coach represents Tony’s conscience and he is coming to silence it.
Though this may be trite, I don’t know how to put it any better. He gave me everything I needed and I tried to do the same. When he first appeared in my doorway, it was Tony Soprano, not Jim Gandolfini. And I wasn’t Charley Scalies, I was Coach Molinaro. I spoke to him as I would my own son and he answered accordingly. At no time did I feel either of us was acting. It was that easy. He was a pro and I like to think I am, too.
As an aside, I did learn a valuable lesson, much to my embarrassment.
I had a line “You had all the perquisites to be a leader on the field of sport.” What I should have done –other than keep my trap shut – was to point to the word “perquisites” and asked “Is that right?” No. Mr. English Major had to show off his language acumen with, “That’s not the right word. It should be “prerequisites”. The response came back, “The word is correct. Remember whose dream this is.”
Tail between the legs moments are quite effective at bowing one’s head.
Matthew: You jumped back into the acting world 20 years after working a “regular job”. What regular job did you work?
Charlie: I was Director of Sales and Contracts Management covering several divisions of a conglomerate and left to form my own consulting firm.
Matthew: What motivated you to get back into the acting world after so long?
Charlie: During my high school and college years, while South Philly was producing the likes of Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker and Fabian, a friend and I formed the stand-up comedy act and played every Beef and Beer we could find. Like every other comedy duo of the time, we patterned our act after Martin and Lewis. Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People”, would call that “Benchmarking Best Practices”. Einstein would call it research. We called it stealing.
I also got involved in some high school and college productions until, between sophomore and junior years at St. Joes, I was struck by lightning.
I met Angeline, a dark haired beauty from North Philly and, within a matter of weeks, the nesting instinct kicked in. Shortly after graduation, I took a “real job”, married my Angeline, and together we set out to happily create and raise five children. In the meantime, the spot went out and the curtain came down on my acting “career”. At the time, I didn’t know it was only Act One.
Act Two. Fast forward to 1991. Because I purposefully limited the range of my consulting to my immediate area, I was no longer required to travel so I was home every night: not a long trip – my office was adjacent to the family room. The extra time allowed me to go back to some theater work. It ranged from parish shows to community theater to dinner theater. I was Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls, Billy Flynn in Chicago and my favorite, The Cowardly Lion in Wizard of Oz, where we got to perform the original movie score before 400 Hispanic children, between the ages of 5 and 9, none of whom could speak English. It was the greatest, most responsive audience of my life. After the show, we went among them – in costume – and they squealed and climbed all over us. The Tin Man said, “If I die now, I’d be fulfilled” I said, “Me too, but I hope God isn’t listening.”
I also got to bring my Angeline on stage where we performed a two person, one act play called, “American Coffee” by Victor Bumbalo. She was petrified but did a marvelous job!
How did I get her to consent? Simple, I said “I have changed hundreds of diapers, the least you can do is act with me.” I learned guilt from my mother.
Act Three. Tony Scipione was a high school and college classmate and a groom at our wedding. Tony was an even bigger Broadway “freak” than I. Shortly after Tony married Dianne, they decided to move to New York so he could pursue an acting career. Almost thirty years later they returned to Philly where Tony and a partner, Rodney Robb, founded “The Actor’s Center”. When I visited, I told him about my community theater dalliances. What followed was pretty much like this.
“Why don’t you turn pro?”
“I don’t know how to do that.”
”I’ll cast you in a few of our shows. Rodney’s wife, Edie, is a Talent Manager. She’ll see you, she’ll love you, she’ll send you on additions.”
And that is how it began.
Matthew: You have 5 kids. What’s the secret to being a good father?
Charlie: 1. Love their mother.
2. Spend as much time with them as you possibly can. Your work may come first but your hobbies come last.
3. Teach them to respect themselves and others and to work hard for what they want.
4. Listen to them. Don’t be their judge or their critic, be their teacher. Loudly applaud every success. Correct them quietly and privately. Hug them – a lot.
5. Your job as a father is to ultimately make them self-sufficient, i.e. not need you. When you hear, “Don’t worry about this Pop, I got it” and you believe them, you can be pretty sure your job is over.
Matthew: What haven’t you accomplished yet that you need to accomplish in the TV/movie world?
Charlie: I have written the story that I wanted to write. When I read it, and I often do, it makes me remember, smile and laugh – yes at my own jokes. That one is for me, my soul. If it doesn’t get produced, that’s OK. Joe Stefano knows I did it.
From a business perspective, I would like someone with expertise in the business and with adequate funds to turn it into a producible film. One of those folks might spark to the story and decide it needs wholesale changes. I am a business person at heart and I always bow to the one who puts his/her money on the line.
Matthew: If you could work with one director that you haven’t worked with yet, who would that be?
Charlie: That’s tough. I had the privilege of working with Terry Gilliam, who gave me the best direction I ever received. “I want you to act strange, but I don’t know that that means.”
And working with Barry Levinson was akin to getting a PhD in comedic acting.
Since you probably guessed I love comedy and larger than life characters who get to say outrageous things, I’d have to go with Danny DeVito (or Penny Marshall as a very close second)
Matthew: Who is your personal favorite actor of all-time?
Charlie: That’s like asking, “Who is your favorite child?” While I tell each of my five children that he/she is my favorite, you’re probably not going to let me get away with that here.
As a movie/TV fan I have many. But as an actor, there is only one: an actor who can read a line in ways I could never imagine. Christopher Walken. And I never caught him acting.
Matthew: What advice do you have for actors trying to make it in the industry?
Don’t expect that what happened to me will also happen to you.
Charlie: Treat it like your job, your business. Full time. No screwing around. Otherwise, it’s just a hobby.
Plan. Do. Check, Adjust.
· Make a plan with financial needs, goals and a timetable (with the help of your manager or agent).
· Follow the plan (Do it)- Toughen your skin. You are going to hear NO a lot more than YES
· Check/measure your progress against your timetable
· Adjust your Plan if you are not on target to achieve your goals
Break a leg
Trivia question answer: 6 (actors John Doman, Michael K. Williams, J.D. Williams, Brian Anthony Wilson, Joey Perillo, and CHARLEY SCALIES)