A veteran actor, his first love is singing, which he does every Monday evening (except Dec. 20 and 27) at the Manhattan nitery, Sofia's, with a band called the New York Sidewalkers. He considers himself "an actor who sings, rather than a singer who acts."
Early in 2005, Chianese, who also plays guitar, and his group are switching venues — to the West Bank Café, on 42nd Street and Ninth Avenue. His success as the avuncular Mafioso came late in his career, and the genial Chianese fully appreciates it. "You never know what's going to happen," he says cheerfully.
"I was only 68 years old when I got 'The Sopranos.' It took me a little while," he adds with a laugh. "I was lucky. That really put me on the map." One guesses that it would have been nicer had the role come a little sooner, but the actor disagrees. "It came when it had to come. I think I had a lesson to learn. I'm writing an autobiography, and I want to tell people that we have to learn something in life. We're here for some reason."
Chianese (KEY-ah-nays-ay) is having a great time playing Lou Wolfe, the father, in Allen's play. "The first couple of weeks were very hard. We were dealing with pacing and a playwright-director who could hear it in his mind. During the previews, we were still learning, and that can be quite frustrating. Now, it's fine, and Woody's very happy." "Now" is the key word, explains Chianese. "I was frustrated with Woody, because he wasn't giving me a chance to work on who Lou Wolfe was. I was trying to please him. It was my own fault, not his fault. Woody kept saying, 'You've got the character, you had him in the audition. Just learn the lines and do it.' It works, but it takes time. Woody slowed up the process; he doesn't work on motivation. I feel I'm really getting into it now. If Woody had let me alone, I would've gotten it sooner."
The drama takes place in the 1950s, the same time that the Bronx High School of Science graduate's career began. One day, young Dominic was on a bus, on his way to work with his bricklayer father. Picking up a copy of the New York Herald-Tribune, he noticed a listing that the American Savoyards were seeking singers for a Gilbert and Sullivan show. He asked his father if he could attend the audition, and ended up with a job. "We did [H.M.S.] Pinafore first, and then toured for a year in Mikado and Patience. Dorothy Raedler was the artistic director. It was very, very good training."
Bitten by the acting bug, summer stock and regional theatre followed, during Chianese's ten years of night college. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1961, with a Bachelors degree in Speech and Theater. "Bernie Barrow and Wilson Lehr were my teachers at Brooklyn College, but they're gone now." In 1963 and '64, he taught fifth grade at two Brooklyn schools. "They wouldn't let me teach creative arts, so I ended up leaving. The problem was the bureaucracy. They didn't allow the teacher to teach his or her way. You had to follow a curriculum, which just didn't work. At some point, I reached success with supposedly the dumbest fifth-grade class. They weren't so dumb; they just weren't taught.
"At one point, I had them on the stage in a version of Caucasian Chalk Circle. We took out all the political stuff and made it a fairytale. These kids went up on that stage and brought the house down. It was so exciting! The next day, I was called in to the principal's office and told I couldn't do that. I quit about a week later. I apologized to the kids. It broke my heart. My father wanted me to be a teacher. To the first generation Italian-Americans, teaching was looked up to as a profession."
Studying at the HB Studios, Chianese worked with Walt Witcover, whom he credits with "unlocking my emotions. He made me realize that emotions are important. He's a real genius. He's now 82, and just wrote a book, 'Living on Stage.' I once did a scene from Climate of Eden, where my character is supposed to kill a woman. The actress got so scared that she knocked a flat over, but Walt looked me in the eye and told me, 'I didn't believe a word you said.' I was blocked; I couldn't get the real emotion. One day, he asked me to describe my grandfather, who had died. I started to describe him, and tears started flowing. Witcover said, 'That's what acting is.' Witcover, Barrow and Lehr were the three gentlemen who taught me about acting."
Chianese's Broadway debut came playing a Londoner in a 1965 engagement of Oliver! "When we went on the national tour, I played Sowerberry [the undertaker]. At the Paper Mill Playhouse, I went on for Fagin. It was one night, but I realized that I could hold down a lead role. It was the highlight of my life!"
Next came Archibald MacLeish's Scratch, in which Chianese played a Juror. Based on Stephen Vincent Benet's "The Devil and Daniel Webster," it starred Patrick Magee as Webster and Will Geer as Scratch, the Devil. "I always looked up to Will Geer, and I befriended Patrick Magee."
Recalls Chianese, "We were in Boston [prior to the New York opening], and my agent called to say that Francis Ford Coppola wanted to see me again for 'The Godfather.' I had met with him a few weeks earlier in New York. I said, 'No, I'm in a play; I don't want to be bothered with these films.'" Scratch closed following four performances; "The Godfather" won an Oscar as Best Picture.
"Francis remembered me at the time he was doing 'Godfather, Part II,' [in which he was cast as Johnny Ola]. It was great working with [Al] Pacino, [Robert] Duvall, [John] Cazale, all those guys. That gave me a film career, which kept me alive financially."
He has several movies to his credit, including "All the President's Men" and "Dog Day Afternoon," but Chianese says, "Those are tiny roles. I did two other movies ["Q&A" (1990), "Night Falls on Manhattan" (1997)] with Sidney Lumet; I had better parts in those."
In David Mamet's The Water Engine, which starred Patti LuPone, Chianese played a candy store owner. "We didn't last too long on Broadway [24 performances]. The theatre was too big. It was an intimate kind of play."
At the Cort in 1979, Chianese appeared in Richard III, starring Al Pacino ("a great friend; he's very sensitive to people's needs"). Then followed the 1985 production of Requiem for a Heavyweight, starring John Lithgow. "He would get a standing ovation every night. We did it at Long Wharf, with Lithgow and Richie Dreyfuss. We went on tour, and again standing ovations. We came to Broadway [with George Segal succeeding Dreyfuss]. Opening night, we got a standing ovation; the next day, they posted the closing notice. That was a heartbreaker! They didn't produce it right; there was no advance sale." Chianese's most recent Broadway engagement, the 1995 Circle-in-the Square revival of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo, cast him as Father DeLeo. "It was a good production. Mercedes Ruehl was fun to work with."
This past summer, Chianese appeared at the Delacorte in the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of Much Ado About Nothing. "It only took me 50 years to do Shakespeare in the Park. David Esbjornson is one of the best directors I've ever worked with."
He's married to Jane Pittson-Chianese, "who works for the United Nations. We've been together about 12 years, but we just got married in June 2003. It was a great wedding; all 'The Sopranos' attended." The actor is the father of six: "four girls, two boys."
His advice to actors starting out, notes Chianese, "is to do theatre, and to study with someone like Walt Witcover. I need to do plays. Otherwise, I lose my touch." He also has two albums ("Hits" and "Ungrateful Heart") in release. Filming on "The Sopranos," which won this year's Emmy as Best Drama, starts in mid-April, but the episodes won't be seen until 2006. Observes Dominic Chianese, "Uncle Junior's kind of a funny guy. He's such a serious old bastard."
Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com, and is the author of the book "Between Takes (Interviews with Hollywood Legends)," to be published in 2005.