Robert Costanzo, the Essential Worker
[Article and illustrations from Lowbrow Reader #12, 2022]
City Slickers, the 1991 Billy Crystal hit, is the type of taut film comedy mainly consigned to Hollywood’s past. Its every component is sturdily built: from the script by the dependable screenwriting duo Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel to Crystal’s star turn as a Roosevelt Island family man struggling to shake off a mid-life crisis. The enviable casting includes Jack Palance, who won an Academy Award for his supporting role as a grizzled cowboy. At the Oscars ceremony—hosted for the third year running by Crystal—the old man famously did push-ups during his acceptance speech.
Lurking beneath the Academy’s radar was a less heralded but funnier performance that’s confined to a single scene. It comes early in the movie, as Crystal’s besuited character visits his son’s class during career week and is upstaged by one Sal Morelli—a side character portrayed, with usual pizzazz, by the rough-hewn actor Robert Costanzo. Weighing around 285 pounds, with visible plumber’s crack and a guttural Brooklyn accent, Morelli beams with pride about his manual labor. He regales the children with a tale of a mishap at a Midtown construction site: a “big friggin’ ballbreaker of a job,” which required workers to cordon off any pedestrian traffic “so that some schmuck don’t walk through there and take a wrecking ball between the eyes.”
Sal then introduces a new character: a snob hiding behind “big dark glasses” and carrying shopping bags from Bloomingdale’s, who ignores the construction site’s preventative measures and “starts walking right through the ropes.” Morelli relays the episode as if he were talking not to grade-school kids, but rather to coworkers at a beer-and-shot pub. “I yell down at her, ‘Hey! You can’t go there, you stupid bitch!’” The kids laugh. Upon its finale, Morelli’s story is met by applause when he describes how, with his “super-human strength” and some assistance from a coworker named Ernesto, he rescues the shopper from underneath an “enormous goddamn crane.”
“She’s screaming, ‘My legs! My legs!’” Morelli mockingly whines. “And I say, ‘No shit, your legs—you got a 2,000-pound goddamn crane on ’em!’”
Following his anecdote, as Crystal’s dejected yuppie speaks, the construction worker treats the children to the universal “jerk off” hand gesture.
It’s unclear whether Morelli is behaving inappropriately out of recklessness or cluelessness. The suspicion is that the character lacks awareness that classrooms are not meant for vulgarity. City Slickers’s writing team instinctively understood as much, or so I gathered during a phone call with Crystal, whose infectious laugh interrupted his own attempts to recite some of the Morelli monologue. “Yeah, this crane fell on her legs, and then Ernesto and ‘pull it out’ and all that stuff,” Crystal recalled while giggling to himself. “That was the three of us collaborating. I would often get up and just improvise, even before we cast.” As amusing as it is to imagine Crystal cultivating this banter, the 75 seconds of schlub perfection that made it onto the screen could not have been achieved without Costanzo’s performance.
Bobby Costanzo: You know his face. He has spent an eternity as a character actor, turning in portrayals of urban, mostly New York–based members of the working class. His gallery includes an impatient bus driver (Alex & Emma), a testy paint-store customer (Saturday Night Fever), a slimy bail bondsman (Unlawful Entry), a cuckolded factory worker (Honeymoon in Vegas), an irritable beat cop (Die Hard 2), and, of course, the churlish construction worker. “The whole movie was really well-cast, and he’s a good part of it,” Crystal said. “Because we just wanted a big type. For City Slickers, when he came in and read, we just laughed. He was great, and consented to let us show the crack of his ass. And that was good. He just rang true. You know, they say ‘He’s a character actor!’ Well, he is. Because he’s a real character.”
For moviegoers who grew up nowhere near the five boroughs, Costanzo captured the imagination of what true New Yorkers looked and sounded like: Surly yet charming, approachable yet not somebody you would want to antagonize. Theater marquees may have touted names and faces that shaped how Hollywood wanted you to perceive life in the city—whether swanky and alluring (Holly Golightly) or manic and dangerous (Travis Bickle)—but those characters were hardly indicative of the masses. Such representations are assigned to actors like Costanzo, who possess no conventional sex appeal and play members of an invisible population. They exist to serve the stars on screen that the rest of us are encouraged to worship. “I’ve seen him a zillion times, one of those reliable character actors without whom movies couldn’t exist,” the film critic Leonard Maltin told me. “I even remember how good he is in a little film almost nobody saw called With Friends Like These… where, for once, he gets to play a working actor—essentially himself—who feels he never gets the breaks. Guys like these are the backbone of moviemaking, but they don’t get much credit, let alone recognition.”
Nobody would confuse Costanzo with Brando. The majority of his career has been spent as a balding, overweight galoot with a claw-like right hand that was permanently damaged after he sent it through a window in 1975. “He’s a neighborhood guy,” according to Crystal. “He’s a guy who’d be funny on the stoop. He’s real, and that’s why, in the right parts, he’s exceptionally effective.”
All those neighborhood-guy roles did not require a great amount of research. “I grew up in Bensonhurst, in Gravesend,” Costanzo told me on one of multiple phone calls. The actor spoke from Los Angeles, at a roomier address than that of his Brooklyn childhood home: the top floor of a two-family house on West 8th Street, in between Avenues S and T. “Right in the neighborhood,” he said. “You know, the girl gets married, lives upstairs from their mother. The blessed mothers on the front lawn. It’s like Sopranoville.”
The family home was made up of three rooms, purchased by his mother’s parents in 1924. He and his brother Anthony shared the Castro Convertible in the living room—but stop imagining the guy from City Slickers wearing pajamas. This was more than 70 years and a whole lot of pounds ago. His father Carmine worked in sanitation, alongside his brother Frank.
“We were not connected to the mob,” the actor lamented. “I always said, ‘I wish we were.’ We didn’t have much privacy, but we didn’t feel poor. Neighborhood was safe. You could leave your door open then.”
The garbage truck that Bobby’s father and Uncle Frank drove was part of their own private operation. The route began around 4:30 in the morning and trudged through the Wall Street area, making stops for restaurants and retailers. It was a reliable business, one that eventually provided opportunities for the younger Costanzo to practice showmanship. In the summertime, the teenage Bobby would hop on the back of the truck as his elders kept cool in the cab up front. “I was built like a little bull,” he said. “I’d have my shirtsleeves rolled up so my biceps would show, and if I saw a pretty woman or young gal, I’d put the garbage can on my shoulder, walk out jauntily with my cap pitched and give her a smile. She’d look at me like I was nuts. I thought every woman in New York was looking at me.”
Between the family-owned property and family-run business pulling in $8,000 per year, the Costanzos could afford perks: a color TV when the sets were first introduced, a new Buick Super in 1954 for about $3,200. This wasn’t on account of Carmine’s financial savvy; macro forces were at play. U.S. manufacturing saw a boom in production, and the era’s economic expansion largely benefitted white American families while swaths of Europe were still under reconstruction, reeling from costs and damages incurred after the war.
“Some people called it the golden age of capitalism, from the end of the war to sometime in the ’60s or early ’70s,” Rutgers University labor historian Dan Sidorick explained to me; prior to World War II, unions were nowhere to be found for many of these factories. “During that time companies were able to make a deal with their workers. As long as you don’t try to tell us how to run our businesses, we’ll give you regular raises. That created the ability to exist a sort of depoliticized working-class base that belonged to big unions.” Sidorick’s Condensed Capitalism: Campbell Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the Twentieth Century touches on a microcosm of this agreement, how Italian-Americans at Campbell’s plant in Camden, New Jersey, used leverage to bring union leadership to the table. Had some of these factory workers not taken direct action, annual increases in pay and the 40-hour workweek might have never happened.
A fight for a say-so in wages and working conditions ran across several industries. The Rust Belt’s coal miners and auto workers are popular examples. New York City, perhaps hard to imagine now, provided prime real estate for the bedrock of 20th Century labor. Across the street from City Hall stood Newspaper Row. In Long Island City, Swingline Staplers took up an entire block. Pots and pans shipped out of the South Bronx’s Farberware factory. Midtown’s Garment District was bustling, mostly employing women. The rise of the labor movement, and the strides made within it, were undoubtedly net positives when it came to stabilizing industries and, by extension, providing a quality of life for the families of Gravesend.
“The massive wave of unionization, these were people that came out of neighborhoods like these,” Sidorick said. “They really pushed for inclusive, radical demands. For Campbell Soup, it was Johnny Tiza and Tony Valentino—two guys from South Camden that some people would say, ‘Okay, two more Bobby Costanzos.’ But they joined the Communist Party, fought in the Spanish Civil War. They were educated about what was going on, came back, and organized.”
Costanzo took a less ambitious route, living with his parents after completing high school (Brooklyn’s St. Francis Preparatory School, 1960) and college (Brooklyn’s St. Francis College, 1964). “It’s hard to beat those dinners,” he confessed. “You could always find a chick and stay with her, then go back home for the weekend and hang out with your friends.” At 27, Costanzo took a sales job at the Duplan Corporation, a publicly traded textile giant that provided a comfortable $7,500 annual salary and business-expense account. He used the latter to spoil friends with restaurant tabs at Peter Luger and weekend trips to the racetrack.
“I was basically fuckin’ off,” Costanzo said. “Once in a while, I’d make a sale to keep myself going. Most of my friends, we were all jocks. We were not like the Brooklyn gavones—the wise guys, you know, the Jersey Shore idiots. Most of us went to college, but I wound up hanging out with some mob-guy types. I still was who I was, but I got to observe all those guys. I got to pick up their mannerisms and behavior. It got into my subconscious.”
Costanzo’s knack for theater sparked during a Duplan sales conference in North Carolina. After an afternoon of quail hunting and bonding with some good-old boys, the Brooklynite delivered an off-the-cuff, Rickles-inspired performance. “That night they roasted me in a way,” he recalled, “but I topped everybody with my jokes.” He shared a flight home with the chairman of the board, who subsequently offered him a lift from the airport. According to Costanzo, the executive’s vote of confidence left an impact: “He said, ‘Costanzo, you’re very funny. Have you ever thought about show business?’ I said, ‘I guess you’ve seen my sales figures, Mr. Levinson.’”
Soon thereafter, Costanzo was riding the subway and happened upon a brochure for the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, the spiritual hub for aspiring actors who strive to learn Method. He spontaneously got off the train at Union Square. While studying there, he met fellow New Yorkers who otherwise would not have crossed his path or paid him any mind on the garbage route. “Now all these women who wouldn’t ever look at me are asking, ‘Would you like to come up to my loft and rehearse Antigone?’ And I’m going, Fuck yeah! This is great!”
Scattered theater roles led to bit parts on screen: A forgettable turn as a liquor store clerk in Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl, beating up Bruno Kirby in Between the Lines, and a very Bay Ridge exchange with John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (“You wanna know what color my wife’s ass is?!”). Classes at Strasberg had little to do with it. “I’m not anti-Method—where you work internally and all,” Costanzo said. “Those things are good, but you also take from the world around you. People who remind you of things when you see a script. When all the neighborhood guys got married and moved to Jersey and Staten Island and went corporate, I did stay in touch with them. But I was bouncing around and chasing women in either Brooklyn after-hours joints or going to Manhattan. Whenever I hung out with the jocks and college guys, I dressed a little more like a mob guy, and when I was with the mob guys, I dressed more collegiate. I don’t know if it was a conscious choice, but when I think back on that, I realize that’s what I did.”
None of the early film gigs put him on casting agents’ radars. Rather, he credits a pair of national TV commercials, for McDonald’s and Prego. “My friends said, ‘You’re a disgrace to the Italians,’” he recalled. “Like, my mother would kill me if I was pushing Prego over real Italian gravy. But I made enough money in those commercials where I didn’t have to work anymore as a bartender.” That exposure, he explained, was what got him on the CBS series Alice, and prompted his purchasing a one-way ticket to California. “I went there on my own dime,” he said. “I got a hotel room for a while, then got an apartment. Then I started nailing sitcoms like crazy.”
As Costanzo left New York, so did union jobs. Once less developed countries caught up to modern technologies, States-based industries suddenly were met with serious competition. Profit margins grew thinner, prompting suits in the boardroom to claw back on the progress made by Americans on the assembly line. “By the ’70s, things started to crumble, largely related to globalization,” Sidorick explained. “So this gentleman’s agreement with the working class, that deal is off. There was never a real partnership anyway—it was something that the corporate world just went along with for industrial peace and because they could afford to.”
Garment manufacturers would offshore to China and Latin America. The deregulation of trucking, railroad, and airline industries set course for decreases in union memberships. Hourly wage growth stalled. The Reagan presidency famously accelerated these trends. Whatever sense of security that once allowed the Carmine Costanzos of Brooklyn to sleep well at night was fast becoming a distant memory.
New York City in particular saw an exodus in manufacturing. By the late ’90s, Farberware’s cookware plant in the Bronx relocated overseas. Swingline went to Mexico. The jobs that remained Stateside had been revamped into smaller non-union workforces across the Midwest and the South. “That particular kind of demographic that Bobby Costanzo plays, they’ve definitely been known to decline,” Sidorick said. “They still exist. They’re just more diverse and more dispersed, and they are at a lower number.”
Casting directors weren’t paying attention to the breakdowns in domestic labor, continuing to cast Costanzo in parts that, in reality, were on the road to extinction. It’s as if he was unknowingly paying tribute to a dwindling class, even if those roles essentially functioned as punchlines: Grunt jesters, entertaining at the expense of working stiffs. These are “character parts that were always cast ‘white,’ but as a way to illustrate their place in society, they were white ethnics,” explained comedian and actor Anthony DeVito, a Brooklyn native generations younger than Costanzo who has auditioned for similar roles in the present day. “If there was a reason to show the character wasn’t educated in a certain way, you would get a blue-collar type, and specifically, ItalianAmericans or someone that read as ‘ItalianAmerican,’ even if they weren’t. They were shorthand for a certain type of person who occupies a certain place in society.
“There are very old-fashioned reflex casting notes that come up against the way things really are,” DeVito continued. “I get called in a lot for ‘Cab Driver,’ and there hasn’t been a New York City taxi driver that looks and sounds like me in a long time. At some point in the process they will realize it, and they’ll cast a guy who maybe is an African immigrant, South Asian, or Russian. These old casting types are slowly getting updated, and, as casting gets more diverse—which is only good, there is no downside to casting being diverse—the white parts are getting more white. There seems to be less room for the ‘white ethnic,’ even in the ‘white’ category. It’s like, ‘Okay, we’re going white so they gotta be really white so that nobody confuses them with a person of color, because we have those over here.’”
Admirably, DeVito pains himself with these observations. We spoke for two hours about the ways in which an Italian-American actor is typically relegated to a more narrow casting range: mafia goons and pizza-shop owners. He once lost a breakfast-cereal commercial because the client felt his “face had too much character.” A casual movie watcher might suspect that Trumpism is vaguely responsible for providing such little wiggle room for how “white” is interpreted, as if casting agents are inadvertently responding to the conservative cultural backlash. But pigeonholing the white ethnic was always in the ether.
“When I have gone on auditions, I have been told, ‘Okay, now do it more Brooklyn,’” DeVito said. “And I know what they mean. [But] there is no way to do something ‘more Brooklyn.’ A Black person from Brooklyn is gonna have a different way about them than a Jewish person from Brooklyn than an Italian person from Brooklyn than an Italian-American person from Brooklyn. What they mean is ‘more like a goombah type,’ but they can’t say that. We’re both meant to read in between the lines for what they want: an unfiltered, enthusiastic portrayal of your own stereotype. Because the truth is, in real life, a lot of people who are like that are doing it because they’re playing it up even for themselves, a performance within a performance.”
To fret over such things isn’t Costanzo’s bag. He made efforts toward personal progress on other fronts. He grew out of bachelorhood (he met his wife Annie at a 1978 Valentine’s Day party thrown by actor Joe Pantoliano) and into a lifestyle requiring a steady income. Weekends at the racetrack were replaced with a roster slot on a Showbiz Softball League team, the Coney Island Whitefish, co-managed by Crystal. (“He was a good hitter,” Crystal recalled.) Another manager, Rob Reiner, had worked with Costanzo on several projects. Their first was the 1982 made-for-TV movie Million Dollar Infield, which followed a group of New Yorkers who cope with midlife crises by playing in an amateur softball league.
Juicy roles awaited in some of the most prominent hits of ’90s television and film. In 1990 alone, Costanzo had speaking parts in three titles that broke $100 million at the box office. “He was talented, I liked him right away,” said casting director Jackie Burch, who put the actor in Dick Tracy and Die Hard 2, among other films. “He’s a really fun person to have in a room.”
Crystal elaborated on what Burch told me. Both emphasized how Costanzo had a “very real” way about him, a natural energy that he brought to these characters that another actor might overdo. Also, as Crystal explained, “he was fresh. He hadn’t been sprinkled around other movies a lot, which made City Slickers funnier. Because people actually thought he was a construction guy. You hadn’t seen him around a lot, and then he became a go-to guy.”
Crystal subsequently directed the actor in two more films: In the romantic comedy Forget Paris, Costanzo plays a waiter who needlessly quips to his tables, and in the made-for-HBO baseball biopic 61* (a passion project for Crystal, famously a Yankees fanatic), Costanzo played restaurateur Toots Shor. As further testament to Crystal’s appreciation for the actor, neither role advanced the plotline a smidgen. That may seem like a strange compliment—but it’s flattering that the director seemed to go out of his way to squeeze Costanzo into the frame. “He has this lovable face,” Crystal said. “And when he’s off the set and you’re with him, it’s the same guy. I love that about him. Bobby does feel like a throwback. He’s what in the ’40s they would call a ‘lovable lug.’ He’s a softie. I mean this in a good way. He’s not menacing. He’s just a guy you wanna hang out with. That’s why I liked him as the waiter. He’s genial. You trust Bobby. You don’t think of him like if he was on some crime show. I don’t think of him as a guy who would lie to Mark Harmon.”
All the same, Costanzo brought a humorous touch to a handful of shoot-’em-ups. In Total Recall, his character (another construction worker) has the honor of getting his neck snapped by Arnold Schwarzenegger. In Die Hard 2, Costanzo’s ogre of a police sergeant, Vito Lorenzo, provided a necessary levity amid all the violence. The opening scene has him issuing Bruce Willis’s John McClane a parking citation and towing his car, one of several details that elevated the summer sequel out of mediocrity. “There is no scene like that or character like that in the novel,” screenwriter Steven E. de Souza told me, referring to 58 Minutes, the book on which Die Hard 2 is based. De Souza, a script doctor for some of the industry’s most celebrated action-hero properties, “was brought in to make it a Die Hard picture,” he said, working off of writer Doug Richardson’s first draft, based in New York City.
“One of the changes,” de Souza said, “was that our hero is John McClane, who is a New York cop. So I just invented that moment as a way to make Bruce Willis a sympathetic everyman — the way he was in the first movie, how he said he had never ridden in a limousine before. So, in order to have that opening scene, it doesn’t work in New York, because no New York cop would give another New York cop a ticket. This is probably why I changed the setting to Washington, D.C.”
Like in City Slickers, the Die Hard 2 performance demonstrated Costanzo’s ability to muster the right amount of bozo crudeness for shrewdly written comic relief. Vito Lorenzo, who is a continual nuisance for McClane, initially skewed younger. In an earlier draft of de Souza’s script, when McClane slides into a patrol car with Captain Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz), the captain introduces his nephew. “We changed it to ‘Say hi to my brother Vito,’ because [Franz and Costanzo] were too similar in age,” de Souza said. “It actually is funnier in a way.”
One can imagine the incompetent Lorenzo brothers starring in their own madcap spinoff; if only their faces didn’t have too much character. Instead, the two were cast more stereotypically on the ABC cop drama NYPD Blue: Franz in the lead as Detective Andy Sipowicz, Costanzo in a seven-episode arc as a toupee-wearing mobster. Creators Steven Bochco and David Milch had used them both in their previous police series Hill Street Blues. “How I got that part is also curious,” Costanzo recalled. “I was over reading for a show at 20th Century, and David Milch sees me. ‘Costanzo, come here.’ He shows me this script, NYPD Blue, with this big, embossed badge on it, and goes, ‘Pick a part.’ So I look, and I stop. I’m liking this Sipowicz character, and he goes, ‘That one’s taken.’ And I go, ‘Thanks a lot, David. Who do you want me to play, third chooch from the left?’”
It does seem the same brand of self-deprecating wisecracks that charmed everyone at the Duplan sales conference had also carried Costanzo through decades of steady employment in Hollywood. That banter was ideal for conceivably the most prestigious work of his career, a TV show that did not even feature his physical form: Warner Bros. Animation’s adaptation of Bob Kane’s Batman comics, produced not on the studio’s Burbank lot but inside a bank building next door to the Sherman Oaks Galleria. Animation director Kevin Altieri believed the remote location used to work on Batman: The Animated Series minimized the chances for Warner execs to meddle, and thus granted a certain freedom to develop a faithful, noir-like adaptation that is considered the gold standard for comic-book animation.
Costanzo voiced Harvey Bullock, a Gotham City detective who harbors deep suspicions about the Caped Crusader. “He completely understood the humor that we were trying to get and had really good comedic timing,” said Altieri, who oversaw the storyboards which were produced after the actors recorded their dialogue. “In the first episode, Bullock is out to get Batman. He doesn’t step over the line, but you get the feeling that he wants Commissioner Gordon’s job. That’s kind of the way he played it, and as the series progressed, Bullock became this hard-ass. There were little nuances that he did with his voice that just comes across in the animation. Good voice actors are tough to find. From the way he would talk, you could visualize the character acting, and that’s a rare thing.”
Like any actor, Costanzo has his share of grievances. He never broke into Scorsese’s circle (“He’s got his own band of players”) and lost out to another lovable lug, Joe Viterelli, for Harold Ramis’s 1999 hit with Crystal, Analyze This. He still worked consistently. Voice-overs for Family Guy, wise guys in B-movies set in Brooklyn, a recurring role as a motel clerk in Days of Our Lives. The entries on his CV run deeper than the crack of Mr. Morelli’s ass.
Even if casting agencies haven’t completely caught up with demographic changes in the manufacturing sector, Costanzo has since aged out of those roles. He also shed about 75 pounds on account of a growth in his pancreas, further distancing him from the blue-collar look. (“Oh,” Crystal quipped when I told him about his weight loss, “then he’s not funny anymore.”) The tumor was removed successfully in 2019 after a painful seven-hour surgery—a “tough” procedure, Costanzo admitted, “but they got everything out. Everything’s clean as a whistle.”
As he enters his 80s, you are unlikely to see the actor alongside Schwarzenegger shattering concrete with a jackhammer or wearing a police uniform while giving Willis lip. He would more likely play the wise (ethnic) grandfather in a saccharine comedy-drama, or maybe a mafia don. He remains selective about the work that he likes to wax nostalgic about. He is, after all, in possession of one of those faces known to all.
“One night, a friend and I were going to see an off-Broadway play,” Costanzo said. “We were in a rush and couldn’t find a cab. All of a sudden, this taxicab makes a crazy U-turn. The driver goes, ‘Mr. Costanzo, get in! Get in! We’re cops, don’t worry about it!’ I guess once in a while they get a cop car and dress it up like a cab. Anyway, they knew me when they saw me. So we get in the car, and I go, ‘I gotta go to the theater.’ He goes, ‘We’ll take you there. But you gotta do me a favor: You gotta do your City Slickers monologue for my partner.’”
—Lowbrow Reader #12, 2022