It Wasn't Easy Getting Joe Pesci To Join The Irishman's Cast

Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman" (or if you prefer, "I Heard You Paint Houses") was an onscreen reunion. It was the first time that the director had worked with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci since 1995's "Casino" — they play Frank Sheeran and Russell Bufalino, respectively, two of the film's three leads. Harvey Keitel, Scorsese's first leading man, also shows up for a more minor role as gangster Angelo Bruno — "The Irishman" is his first Scorsese picture since 1988's "The Last Temptation of Christ." These three were the most frequent faces in Scorsese's 20th century films but during the new millennium, their partnerships declined and Scorsese found a new muse in Leonardo DiCaprio.

In getting the band back together, the hardest player to corral in was Joe Pesci, since he hadn't just stopped working with Scorsese, he'd stopped acting altogether. If Scorsese and De Niro had been even just slightly less persistent, there would've been a different actor playing Russell Bufalino in "The Irishman."

Pesci's history with Scorsese

Pesci's original showbiz partner wasn't Scorsese or De Niro. It was Frank Vincent, whom he'd later kill onscreen in "Goodfellas" (in turn, Vincent would kill him in "Casino"). The two toured as comedy duo "Vincent & Pesci" before starring in B-movie "The Death Collector." That movie wasn't their big break, but it convinced Scorsese and De Niro to cast them in "Raging Bull"; Pesci played Joey LaMotta, brother and manager of boxer Jake (De Niro).

Ten years later, Pesci and Scorsese partnered once more on "Goodfellas." Pesci's Oscar-winning turn as Tommy DeVito, a volatile psychopath with a sick sense of humor (but don't tell him so) defined his career during the next decade. His part as Nicky Santoro in "Casino" was practically a Tommy reprisal, while even his comedic roles, from "Home Alone" to "My Cousin Vinny," used his explosive rage.

In 1998, Pesci released the album, "Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You." The following year, he retired from acting, explicitly to focus on his music career. It's plausible that typecasting drove this decision; in 1992, Pesci had told The New York Times, "I love to star in movies, but I want to have good roles. It doesn't help to get starring roles in something that's no good. I mean, that will just kill you."

This desire for "good roles" shaped Pesci's decision about starring in "The Irishman," both his hesitancy and why he ultimately said "Yes."

What convinced Pesci

Pesci's retirement had lapsed before; he cameoed in "The Good Shepherd," directed by De Niro. However, "The Irishman" was a different beast since it was a larger part and familiar subject matter. According to the Deadline piece which confirmed his involvement, Pesci said "no" around 50 times.

As Scorsese told The Hollywood Reporter, this was because Pesci assumed Russell would be a similar character to Tommy or Nicky, and playing the old beats didn't interest him. Scorsese elaborated, "There was a lot of persuasion ... we're going to come together again, it's got to be something that could be a change for him. And he wasn't sure that was the case. Once he caught on that it was going to be the opposite of what you normally see, he really enjoyed himself."

Indeed, pretty much the only thing Russell has in common with Pesci's past parts is that they're all gangsters. Russell is a quiet, cautious man. He often doesn't even seem to have a temper, much less a short one. He often plays the peacemaker, most memorably in his veiled threat to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), "You might be demonstrating a failure to show appreciation."

Still, while his first instinct isn't to commit violence, he's unafraid to do so. One moment shows him stumbling home in the middle of the night, covered in someone else's blood. We know what he's capable of but we never see it onscreen, which makes him even scarier; every time we watch Russell, we wait for a shoe to drop that never does.

While Tommy and Nicky both get violent deaths, Russell is imprisoned and grows to old age behind bars. The last time we see him, he's headed to Sunday Mass, having achieved peace, if not absolution, in his twilight years.