Tony Lo Bianco obituary

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The American actor Tony Lo Bianco, who has died of cancer aged 87, specialised in hoods and heavies, often played with an uncommon twinkle in the eye that suggested he was in on some grim private joke. “I guess I’ll have to do a nun next,” he said after a run of such roles.

There was never any doubt that he meant business. “If you encountered Tony in a deserted alley at midnight, you’d be inclined to hand him your wallet before he asked for it,” wrote a US newspaper in 1978.

With his conspiratorial manner, imposing stare and tractor-tyre eyebrows, Lo Bianco fitted naturally into the 70s trend for gritty crime thrillers. As the mobster Sal Boca in The French Connection (1971), he is pursued by the New York cop “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) for his role in buying a massive shipment of heroin. The Seven-Ups (1973) reunited Lo Bianco with his friend and French Connection co-star Roy Scheider, and gave him a bigger bite of the cherry, this time as a shady police informer in a camel-hair coat and sharp hat.

Lo Bianco as Rocky Marciano, Vincent Gardenia appearing in the ABC tv movie ‘Marciano’. (Photo by American Broadcasting Companies via Getty Images)View image in fullscreen

His first major role had already proved he was more eccentric than any rent-a-thug. In The Honeymoon Killers (1970), which was inspired by real events, he played the silver-tongued Spanish con-artist Ray Fernandez, who embarks on a murder spree with a lonely woman whom he tries to swindle. Martin Scorsese was sacked as the film’s director for dragging his feet, but the end result (with the composer and librettist Leonard Kastle stepping in after Scorsese’s exit) has a sizzling, unwholesome B-movie tang, due in no small part to Lo Bianco’s oleaginous presence and his rapport with Shirley Stoler as his partner-in-crime.

Most of his finest screen work was done in the 70s. He was a police detective investigating seemingly random murders in the supernatural horror God Told Me To, and an injured, suicidal former rodeo rider raising his young sons in Glory Days, AKA Goldenrod (both 1976).

Bloodbrothers (1978), in which Lo Bianco was all gruffness and gristle as an Italian-American construction worker pressuring his recalcitrant son (Richard Gere) to follow in his footsteps, was especially dear to him. “It’s very close to my heart,” he said. “I know the characters like I know my family.”

In the same year, he was a surprisingly genial crime boss opposite Sylvester Stallone in the union drama F.I.S.T. “Sure, I could have played [him] as one more Italian thug,” he reflected. “But does the world really need another overbearing, obnoxious, obvious slob to dismiss or look down on as some kind of buffoon?”

Lo Bianco attributed his facility as an actor partly to his upbringing. “Coming from an Italian family in a big city, my emotions were always close to the surface, ready to live life fully, to give, to laugh and cry without holding back, without strain.”

He was born in New York City to Carmelo, a taxi driver, and Sally (nee Blando). One of his teachers at William E Grady high school suggested he give acting a go, though his early passions were largely sporting ones. As a teenager, he tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and was also a Golden Gloves welterweight boxer. “I guess you’d say I was a borderline delinquent. It was the 50s, Elvis time, leather jackets, a time for being tough.”

With Richard Gere in Bloodbrothers’ in 1977 in New York, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)View image in fullscreen

Years later, he would step back into the ring to play the boxer Rocky Marciano in the television biopic Marciano (1979). He returned to the same story, again for TV, in Rocky Marciano (1999), this time as the gangster-turned-promoter Frankie Carbo opposite Jon Favreau as the prizefighter.

Lo Bianco studied acting at the Dramatic Workshop in Manhattan in the late 50s, and founded the Weekend Theater there in order to gain experience. “I built the sets, the stage, and put in the lighting. I got it going.” He did the same in 1963 with the Triangle Theater, where he also served as artistic director. It was here that he first met Scheider.

He accumulated numerous credits on television, including a recurring role between 1971 and 1973 as a doctor in the long-running soap opera Love of Life, and on stage: in 1975, he won an Obie (an award for an off-Broadway performance) for his portrayal of a fading baseball star in Yanks-3 Detroit-0, Top of the Seventh. He also won a Tony for playing the tormented longshoreman Eddie Carbone in A View from the Bridge in 1983.

Appearing in the Italian caper Mean Frank and Crazy Tony (1973) immediately after his success in The French Connection, Lo Bianco seemed to be spoofing his own image when it was still in its infancy: he played a none-too-bright crook who idolises a legendary gangster (Lee Van Cleef). But the actor re-asserted his authority on television in the anthology series Police Story (1973-76). He was one of only a handful of cast members who appeared in more than one episode. Even more unusually, he was on the right side of the law this time.

In Franco Zeffirelli’s mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977), he was Quintillius, who advises Pontius Pilate, played by Rod Steiger. A year later, also on television, he starred in The Last Tenant as a man dealing with the increasing needs of his senile, irascible father, played by the acting guru Lee Strasberg. In the 80s he won plaudits for a TV adaptation of Paul Shyre’s play Hizzoner!, in which he starred as the New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia. This spawned several spin-offs, including La Guardia and The Little Flower, written by Lo Bianco and performed by him across the world at the start of this century.

With Lee Strasberg in The Last Tenant’Unspecified - 1978: (L-R) Tony Lo Bianco, Lee Strasberg appearing in the ABC tv movie ‘The Last Tenant’. (Photo by Ken Regan /Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)View image in fullscreen

Notable later roles include a mafia boss in the lighthearted, 30s-set Clint Eastwood/Burt Reynolds vehicle City Heat (1984), a corrupt property developer in John Sayles’s ensemble drama City of Hope (1991), the ivory-haired mobster Johnny Roselli in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), and yet another intimidating gangster in The Juror (1996), with Demi Moore and Alec Baldwin.

Like Robert De Niro, for whom he was sometimes mistaken, it seemed there was nowhere left to go but comedy after playing so many crooks. Having parodied himself at the very start of his film career, Lo Bianco did so again in Mafia! (1998), also known as Jane Austen’s Mafia!, a send-up from some of the team behind the Airplane! and Naked Gun spoof series.

Though he directed to acclaim on stage, he made only one film, the slasher movie Too Scared to Scream (1984). His final picture was Somewhere in Queens (2022), starring and directed by Ray Romano, in which Lo Bianco played the main character’s standoffish father.

He is survived by his third wife, Alyse (nee Muldoon), a writer, whom he married in 2015, two daughters, Yummy and Nina, from his first marriage, to the actor Dora Landey (Anna, a third daughter from that marriage, died in 2006), a brother, John, and six grandchildren. Both his previous marriages – the second was to Elizabeth Natwick – ended in divorce.


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