The Journeyman - Dan Grimaldi
Dedicated fans of The Sopranos will never forget where they were on June 10, 2007 when their television screens cut to black in the iconic final scene of HBO’s record-breaking series. A nation of viewers had a difficult time moving on from the immensely popular show, and critics and fans alike would debate the show’s ending for years to come.
Actor Dan Grimaldi, a mainstay of the show’s cast in its final six seasons, found it equally as difficult to leave behind the show and the rewards of consistent work. After decades as a journeyman actor, taking on any role he could in off-Broadway plays, movies, network television series, and a sprinkling of commercial appearances, Dan considered his roles as twins Patsy and Philly Parisi on The Sopranos to be a dream job he spent more than 20 years chasing.
But to say he was an actor who relentlessly pursued every gig he could to make a name for himself doesn’t even tell half of his story. Dan’s dedication to the profession is even more remarkable when you consider he already had a well-established career as a college professor.
The Bay Ridge, Brooklyn native holds a Ph.D. in data processing from City University of New York and once worked for Bell Labs in Holmdel before walking away from his blossoming computer science career because he didn’t enjoy the 9 to 5 corporate environment. All it took was one improv session at a New York City acting school to ignite his interest in the acting profession.
But all the while, in-between pursuing his dream on the silver screen and becoming a tenured professor at Kingsborough Community College, Dan still considered being a father to his two sons and a grandfather to be his greatest role in life. Even when he spent time looking for work in Los Angeles, he regularly flew home to New York to have the chance to be a parent.
Dan moved to Old Bridge around the same time The Sopranos ended, but has continued to live by his ‘never say no’ attitude when an acting gig presents itself, even on the local level. In 2014, Monmouth County residents had the chance to see him perform in the play “Lucky Me,” at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Dan gave Living in Media a backstage pass to learn about the man behind the gangster persona he portrayed for seven years. In addition to talking about the many hats he’s worn as an actor, he revealed himself to be a dedicated professional who is able to juggle two full-time careers, and a caring family man eagerly awaiting the birth of his seventh grandchild.
LIM: Thank you for taking the time today to talk to us. Are there any projects you’re working on that we’ll be seeing you in soon?
DG: I’ll be working on a short independent film called Pasquale’s Magic Veal, where I play a Catholic priest. Hopefully it’ll be at a festival in Venice and Toronto, but I’m not sure about one here in the United States. I’m also doing a play at a festival in New York City from August 10th to the 24th.
LIM: So are you still always open to working as many different types of jobs as you can?
DG: As jobs come in, you do whatever you can. Acting is a tough business. I’ve taught at Kingsborough Community College for more than 30 years, but I’m something more than a person pursuing acting and a teacher. I have a life, and being a father is my top priority in life, and a grandfather is more important than anything. I have two beautiful sons, two beautiful daughters-in-law. I have six grandchildren and another on the way. I have a brother and sister, I was the middle child. Since I was 8 years old I’ve had many great friends from the neighborhood I grew up in, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. But as far as work goes, I’m lucky. I’ve been very lucky throughout my life. I’ve worked hard to achieve what I’ve achieved, but I’ve also been lucky. I know a lot of people who are good actors but never got a great opportunity. My acting philosophy has always been to say yes. That’s turned out to be a good philosophy in the acting profession. You never know where something is going to go in this business.
LIM: Was anyone in your family an actor? Where you interested in acting at a young age?
DG: No. There’s no rhyme or reason why I became an actor.
LIM: Did you act in school plays as a child?
DG: I did plays in grammar school. I did no plays in high school or college. I was good in math and science. I had scholarships to college and fellowships to graduate school. After I had just gotten married and had an apartment, I went to work for Bell Labs at the old Lucent building in Holmdel. But I didn’t like working in the 9 to 5 environment. I was a member of technical staff in graphics when I started. One day I woke up and I said, ‘I could be an actor.’ I have no idea why. My ex-wife said to me, ‘Why don’t you go study with Lee Strasberg at his acting school?’ I didn’t know who he was, but I went for an interview. During the interview, when I filled out a card for experience, I left it blank. The woman who interviewed me asked me why, and I told her she didn’t know how far acting was from my regular life. I told her I had no idea why I was there, but she must have liked me and got me to enroll in a class. I was in my mid 20’s. I took my first class in February of 1970.
LIM: How different were the classes from anything you’d ever experienced?
DG: Being from academics, I took it as, you learn one chapter one day, and then learn another then the next and so on, and in 10 weeks – boom – you’re an actor. I didn’t understand the learning process of being an actor. On one Monday, Strasberg was giving a lecture in Carnegie Hall. I lived in Brooklyn, worked in New Jersey, and I thought I could leave Jersey at 5 and get a parking spot in Manhattan at 6 and go to the lecture. I got a parking space at 6:30, and when I got to the door I said to myself, ‘This is ridiculous.’
DG: I was afraid I was going to fail. All my life, I had been geared to be a computer scientist. I turned around and started walking down the block. But then I stopped and thought, my whole life has been geared toward math and science because I was good at it and people gave me money to do it. Once the Russians sent Sputnik into the sky, if you were good at math and science, you got a lot of money and support to help you go to school for it. I was talking to myself saying, ‘I never made a decision like this in my life. This could be my destiny. I could be kicking my destiny right out the window.’ I turned right around and walked back in.
LIM: So how did it go from there?
DG: Well, the next day, someone asked me if I wanted to work an improv session. I wanted to wait, but they told me I was going to do one anyway. I had no idea what improv was. I was observing other actors in the room and I remember seeing one scene where someone needed medical attention, and I really thought they needed to go to the hospital. In my first session, I had to act like I was engaged to the other actor, who was a complete stranger to me. It was different from anything I ever experienced.
LIM: How did you like it?
DG: I loved it. I knew that was what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew right then that I wanted to become an actor. But, if I knew what lay ahead and what the business was about, I don’t know if I ever would have done it.
DG: The difficulty of it. Actors have a high unemployment rate. No matter how good you are, it doesn’t mean you’re going to make money. People with less ability can make millions of dollars, and some actors who are great don’t. Like I said, I know people who have great talent who don’t make much, and I know people who aren’t quite as good, but have been more successful. It’s crazy. The good do rise to the top, but not all of them. There are a lot of casualties in the industry.
LIM: How did you personally evolve as an actor?
DG: I started out taking classes for two days a week, and then four days a week, and then rehearsals were thrown in. I studied for two years. Those were my training years, and I studied with Lee Strasburg. My first play was off-off-Broadway, paid $25 a show in 1972. I quit my job at Bell Labs in 1972.
LIM: What was that career transition like? Was it difficult?
DG: One of the hardest things I ever had to do was quit Bell Labs. My whole life had been geared toward that profession. Eventually I started teaching middle school, and then I taught at a community college for a few years. Doing that allowed me the time to act and be home with my kids. Then I went to California for a year, but flew back and forth every six weeks to be with my kids. For those years, I did off-off-Broadway showcases and smaller films to learn the craft. Eventually in 1980 I starred in a film called Don’t Go in the House, which was a top-grosser in the country for a few weeks. But I still couldn’t get a job in New York. I almost fainted in the street while trying to get work there. And then when I went out to Los Angeles, the actor’s strike hit. I came back and I started teaching and trying to keep doing what I could in acting.
LIM: When would you say you got your first big break?
DG: The Sopranos.
LIM: How did you get your job on the show?
DG: I went to the audition. I was the 12th guy to try out for the part. I had a friend, Joe, who had worked together with me before, and whenever he showed up at an audition, I’d get the job. The reason why: I have to work before I audition to help myself create the character. But I wanted to be liked, too, and I’d get sucked into conversations and I wouldn’t be off in the corner working. Joe came over to me before the audition when I was talking with a few people and asked me, ‘Shouldn’t you be preparing?’ I said, ‘You’re right,’ and I went and started preparing. I go in and audition and [Sopranos creator David] Chase asks me if I had a minute to talk after. Like I was going to say no. He asked me to read another script. So I knew I beat the guys ahead of me, but I knew there were a lot of people after me. Eventually, I got the job and they cast me as Philly Parisi.
LIM: How did you feel when you got that call?
DG: I was happy. The Sopranos was one of the biggest shows in television and I was from the area they filmed in. My scene was all about me, and I did a lot of talking, but my Sopranos career was only supposed to be three days because my character got killed right away. I asked the director if the bullet could miss my head, and he said sometimes the best thing that happens to people on this show is that they die. I was happy to do the work, and then I went home.
LIM: Was it a little bittersweet?
DG: The director called me up and said Chase really liked my work. But when I hung up, I was upset. So what that he liked me? I wanted to work. What good was the praise? Later, they started rumblings that they were going to bring me back. I was the only actor who they brought back after their character died. I came back as my character’s twin (Patsy) and did 47 episodes. I basically did 9-10 episodes a year.
LIM: In the moment, did you realize how special The Sopranos was?
DG: Yes. I was called Mr. Sunshine. Every day I went to work, I was the happiest guy in the world. I was going to work on the best TV show ever. I will argue that point with anyone. It was the best-written TV show ever. It was written like classic playwrights wrote for Broadway. The writing was spectacular. What we were all proud of was we changed the social life of America. I’ve seen a lot of shows after our show, and they’re good, but nobody had watch parties throughout the country like we did. Our fans followed our show like no other, and they argued about our show like no other, especially with how it ended. One of the proofs of the greatness of something is its longevity in the public eye. People still come up to us and talk about it.
LIM: What was it like to work with James Gandolfini?
DG: He was a very generous actor, man, and very talented. He was a bear of a guy, and as big as he was, that’s how loving he was. It was a tremendous loss at a young age. He was a great acting partner.
LIM: Who are some of the other actors you’ve enjoyed being around and working with?
DG: Too many to mention. There were so many. Really.
LIM: What was it like to win the Screen Actors Guild award for “Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series” in 2008?
DG: I was ecstatic. We wanted to win. It was the last season, and it was a good feeling. I don’t know what awards really mean, but it’s nice to have them.
LIM: Nice in what way?
DG: How do you prove that you were an actor, if you’re not famous? When you get a pension? When you win awards? There are many great actors walking the streets of New York and Los Angeles that never get any fame or fortune. How do they prove they were actors? Once you’re gone, you’re gone. It’s a cotton candy profession – it’s delicious when it’s there, but when it’s gone, it’s gone. You read an obituary of an actor, and after a while nobody cares. It was a wonderful experience to win the Screen Actors Guild award, and it was a nice recognition of the show and all the actors and everyone involved in it.
LIM: Was it difficult to move on from the show?
DG: It was a terrible job to lose. It was awful. Remember, when we lose a job, we’re back to ground zero, unless you’re a star. When you’re a character actor and a journeyman, like I was, when I got a job like I did on The Sopranos, you wish that the job will last forever. I wish it went on for 20 years. I had finally become a regular and was making halfway decent money. After my work on The Sopranos, when I watch TV now and see somebody die, I don’t think about the character in the show. When I see that, I think and feel bad for the actor who just lost his or her job. It’s terrible. I see the other end of it. I really do. I really feel for the small guys. But yes, moving on was difficult because the greatest thing about it was I didn’t have to look for work for those years. I had a job for nine years, for six seasons. The biggest joy was taking that pressure away. I wasn’t unemployed looking for a job.
LIM: And you still continued to teach while acting?
DG: Yes. I’ve taught for about 33 years. I’ve never stopped.
LIM: Did your students ever recognize you?
DG: Yes. It was very embarrassing. I kept the two careers separate. Whenever a student comes up to me, I keep it strictly to the computers and math that I teach. Now, they don’t recognize me as much because the younger generations haven’t seen the show. I was more popular when the reruns started on A&E.
LIM: Was it hard for you to compartmentalize the two careers?
DG: Yes. The college career, which is wonderful, has been great. I don’t ever want to retire. The success of The Sopranos, and my second wife, helped me manage it a lot better. The first 30 years was frustrating because I worked every job I could get. When I was teaching, before I was tenured, I was on a commercial during Monday Night Football. Tuesday, a student raised his hand and said he saw me on TV last night. During the class, I was being observed in the classroom by my department head. I looked at the kid and said, ‘A lot of people think I look like some actors, but that wasn’t me.’
LIM: So you didn’t want to admit you were working as an actor as well?
DG: You can’t have two professions. Six months later, I found the kid in the cafeteria and I told him that was me but I couldn’t say anything with the department head there. Then, when I was doing a play called Tony and Tina’s Wedding, my department head lived in The Village, and we walked through there during the play. I was teaching summer school one day, and he asked me if I was in the play. Now, I knew I couldn’t lie. I told him yes, and he said he followed me after he heard my voice. My department head told me that he always wanted to be a musician and that he always wanted to pursue his dream, but didn’t. He was in the same boat that I was, but he stopped. I didn’t. But there was always this fear I had about people finding out.
DG: There’s a saying that if you can do anything, don’t become an actor. Because if you’re an actor and you tell producers you’re a college professor, they think you’ll treat acting as just a hobby. If you’re a college professor and you tell the administration that you’re an actor, they’ll think you’re out of your mind. Although everybody has side jobs, I didn’t treat either as a side job. If you have one profession, everyone expects you to be dedicated to that profession. If you’re a waiter and you tell people you’re an actor, it’s a little different. Of course, there are people who are professional waiters, but it’s more acceptable to see someone who does both if they’re not teaching or in a similar profession. It was very difficult to balance the two.
LIM: So you viewed yourself as truly being both, and not one or the other?
DG: Well, my main thing was raising my kids. Being a father was always my main goal. My wife was there too, but I liked to take care of my kids from soup to nuts. That’s really what my life was about. Now I’ll go and visit my grandkids sometimes in Staten Island and take them to the zoo. I’ll go watch them play ball, and I’ll spend time with them for things like that. My oldest granddaughter is 11 and she’s taking a drama class at Wagner College.
LIM: Does she ever pick your brain?
DG: Yes. I help her out a little bit when I can. She’s doing improv right now.
LIM: Besides spending time with your family, what other hobbies did you have?
DG: Travel. I love to travel. I’ve been to Europe, the islands, more than half of America. I actually love Disney. I went with my grandkids last year. I’m dying to get back to France, Italy, or Spain. I spent a couple winters in Florida. Before my wife passed way from pancreatic cancer, we used to travel twice a year to Europe.
LIM: Did you ever take summer vacations at the shore in New Jersey?
DG: For beaches, I’m a Hamptons guy. I have a house in Sag Harbor in Long Island. When you lived in Brooklyn, some guys went to the Jersey Shore, other guys went to the Hamptons. I have friends that live in Sea Bright and Rumson. In fact, of my childhood friends, one lives in Rumson, two live in Brick and two live in Middletown. That was one of the reasons why I moved here, to be closer to them. Plus, my wife liked it here. I’m only 45 minutes away from Brooklyn during an early morning commute. And I meet up with my friends at least once a week. Some of them have been extremely successful in their careers, and I always tell them you’re rich, but I’m famous.
LIM: You’ve also acted at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Have you performed at any other local playhouses?
DG: That’s the only one. It’s a beautiful place. I loved working there. It’s also nice that by working there, my friends that I grew up near can easily come and see me. It’s a wonderful little theatre. I’m doing the Fringe Festival in New York this summer too. I have a passion for acting. I love to do it. I will do it every chance I get. Like I said, that’s my philosophy. But Long Branch is really the only local playhouse I’ve been at.
LIM: And I understand you’ve been involved in fundraisers for various charitable foundations. What are some of them?
DG: I do several. Heartshare is one, which helps people with developmental disabilities. I also have done benefits for FRAXA, which goes to autism research. I’ve done work with the Boy and Girl Clubs of Italy, and March of Dimes benefits with Joe Namath and Staten Island March of Dimes. I’ve done events for Transplants for Children, too. I’ve done a few.
LIM: Is giving back and doing charitable work important to you?
DG: Yes. That was one of the great things of being on The Sopranos and becoming a small celebrity, I got the opportunity to do charity work and give back. I’ll do anything for kids. It’s important because in our society, celebrities attract more money to a charity. People come and donate because you go. I never say no to anybody. I’ll do them as much as I can, whenever I can. Pancreatic cancer is another one I do work for, called Pancan. My wife died from that. In fact, I’ve gone to Washington D.C. to lobby to raise money for research for pancreatic cancer.
LIM: Did the lobbying gain any traction?
DG: Yes. Years ago they passed a bill that allocated more money to pancreatic cancer research, which was great. Survival rate and money go hand in hand with cancer. They’ve allocated more money, and hopefully more will come.
LIM: Are there any long-term projects you want to accomplish in the future, either personal or professional?
DG: I’ll be teaching until I die. But I do hope to get a part in another series. As long as I can keep acting, that fulfills me. The craft of acting is something that I love, and if I can continue doing it professionally in front of an audience or in front of a camera, then that will make me happy. You can’t predict what’s going to happen to you in this business. You just can’t.
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