During the '70s and '80s Vincent Gardenia was one of the most familiar character actors in film, television, and on the Broadway stage. Though viewers may not always have remembered his name, his sad eyes, hawk-nosed Italian-American face, short, stocky build, and distinctive often booming Brooklyn-accented voice and exaggerated gestures made him instantly recognizable.
Gardenia was born Vincent Scognamiglio in Naples, Italy, but he was raised in New York from the age of two. Once in the Big Apple, his father founded an Italian-language theater troupe and it is with them that Gardenia learned his craft. When he was 14, Gardenia dropped out of school to become a full-time actor with the company. He was in the army during WWII; after his discharge he returned to work in his father's theater and in other Italian-American productions. Though he had played a bit part in the 1945 film The House on 92nd Street, Gardenia did not launch his real film career until he was in his mid-thirties and played his first major role in The Cop Hater (1958). Though most often cast as Italian-Americans or in simple ethnic roles, Gardenia was a versatile actor who could easily switch from comedic to dramatic roles in films of widely varying quality. Some of his best-known roles include that of a bartender in 1961 in The Hustler, and Dutch Schnell in Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) opposite Robert De Niro. The latter garnered Gardenia his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Gardenia's second nomination came in 1987 for his memorable portrayal of Cher's father in Moonstruck. The character actor was 70 when he played his final role in the Joe Pesci vehicle The Super (1991). Gardenia's considerable television work includes the soap opera Edge of Night, a regular role on All in the Family (during the 1973-1974 season), the short-lived series Breaking Away (1980-1981), and a semi-regular role on L.A. Law in 1990. He has also made numerous guest appearances. Gardenia died of heart failure in 1992 at the age of 70.