When The Sopranos returned for Season Six back in March 2006, the show was in a pretty unique place. The series had already revolutionized television in countless ways, and after a nearly two-year absence from the airwaves, it was finally returning to HBO to wrap up its final season. But while many series seek to tie up loose ends toward their conclusion, The Sopranos continued to break new ground, and never so ambitiously as with the final storyline for the character of Vito Spatafore.
The groundwork for Vito’s swan song was laid in the previous season, when Finn, Meadow Soprano’s boyfriend at the time, spotted Vito giving another man a blow job. After that, it was barely addressed until the next season, when Vito was spotted at a gay bar by some guys connected to the Jersey mob. Eventually, word got back to Tony about Vito’s secret life, and before he could be killed for it, Vito fled New Jersey for New Hampshire. While there, Vito got a brief glimpse of “what might have been,” as he settled down, stayed out of trouble and even fell in love with a man he nicknamed “Johnny Cakes.”
Eventually, Vito returned to New Jersey and was murdered like so many others in The Sopranos, but while his ending was predictably violent, the story that led up to it was far from expected. Not only was it a quiet, sweet story, but it put the issue of homosexuality in the mob in the forefront, which wasn’t just new to The Sopranos but to the mafia genre as a whole.
Back in 2006, some in The Sopranos fanbase recoiled at the idea of a gay love story in their favorite show, but the arc did earn The Sopranos its only GLAAD nomination. Also, in the years since, Vito’s final arc has received kudos for addressing gay relationships in a new light while also standing the test of time as one of the most memorable storylines in The Sopranos. And, while The Sopranos creator David Chase and the show’s writers deserve a good deal of the credit, most of it belongs to actor Joe Gannascoli, who not only played the role of Vito but also suggested the storyline.
Joseph R. Gannascoli, Vito Spatafore on The Sopranos: I was first on The Sopranos in a small part in Season One, as a guy in the bakery with Christopher, but after they brought me back as Vito in Season Two, I was looking for a way to get a little more to do on the show. Even before The Sopranos, I’d read this book called Murder Machine, which is about this mob crew that was based out of a bar in Canarsie, Brooklyn, where they did the murdering in an upstairs apartment. In it, there was this guy named Vito Arena, who was gay, so I had that in the back of my mind and I thought that might be pretty interesting for my Vito.
Jerry Capeci, co-author of Murder Machine and owner/columnist at Gang Land News: Vito Arena was a car thief, burglar, armed robber and murderer who was a member of the Brooklyn-based DeMeo crew of the Gambino crime family. He was involved in scores of murders in the 1970s and 1980s, and when he was arrested, he decided he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in prison, so he decided to cooperate and testified in a couple of trials. Later on, in 1991, he was pulling an armed robbery in Houston, but the guy behind the counter had a gun too and shot him. And that was the end of Vito Arena.
In the tabloids back then, he was identified as “The Gay Hitman.” He’d had a gay lover named Joey Lee who was about 15 or 20 years younger than him and they’d posed as father and son on occasion and would rob doctors’ offices together. I don’t know if I’d say he was openly gay, but everyone knew that he was gay, if that makes sense.
The difference between Vito Arena — who was, in real life, the gay hitman for the mob — and Vito Spatafore, the gay hitman in The Sopranos, is that Arena was a lower level mob associate while Spatafore was a made guy. On The Sopranos, they didn’t know Vito Spatafore was gay when he was made, and when they found out, they killed him, which is the expected reaction when it comes to homosexuals in the mob. In real life, when it was found out that John D’Amato, the Jersey boss of the DeCavalcante family, was bisexual, he was killed for it.
Anthony Capo, hitman in the DeCavalcante crime family who participated in D’Amato’s murder, excerpt from 2003 court testimony: Nobody’s going to respect us if we have a gay homosexual boss sitting down discussing La Cosa Nostra business.
George De Stefano, author of An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America and the essay “A ‘Finook’ in the Crew: Vito Spatafore, The Sopranos and the Queering of the Mafia Genre,” featured in The Essential Sopranos Reader: Much of The Sopranos was inspired by the DeCavalcantes, which is a New Jersey-based crime family. One specific inspiration was the story of John D’Amato, a boss who was discovered to be visiting swingers clubs in New York and having sex with men as well as women, so he was murdered in 1992. This partially inspired the Vito Spatafore storyline.
Gannascoli: The whole reason that I wanted to do this story was that I wanted to prove that I can act — to myself, really. I’m sort of self-taught, I’m not really a trained actor. Originally I was a chef, and I still am, but I wasn’t a trained chef, I learned on the fucking job, and this was the same thing. But playing a wise guy or a guy from the neighborhood wasn’t much of a stretch for me — I wanted to play something totally opposite of who I am.
I sort of plotted how I’d broach this with the writers. I wasn’t going to tell [David] Chase — I wasn’t close with him like that — so I wanted to get one of the writers alone and tell them. Sometime in Season Four, I told writer Robin Green, whose husband, Mitchell Burgess, was another writer on the show. I mentioned to her that I’d read this book, and I gave her a copy and I said, “You know, there’s a gay character in this, and I thought it’d be pretty interesting — something you never see,” and she said she’d take a look and I didn’t hear anything about it for a long time.
Then she caught up with me at the beginning of Season Five and said, “Hey, what was the name of that book?” I told her it was Murder Machine and I brought her another copy and I thought, “Wow, they’re thinking about it.” There was also a line change in one episode where [Tony] Sirico — Paulie Walnuts — said to me, “Where the fuck is my Tupperware?” and I told him my wife had it, and I thought, “I have a wife now?” So I knew something was brewing.
Mitchell Burgess, writer and producer on The Sopranos: Joe had said, “I think I’ve got a good idea,” to Robin, and we went with it and talked about it with David. It was a good story idea, so he went for it.
Robin Green, writer and producer on The Sopranos: We’d already handled cunnilingus and the mob’s aversion to that, so we were game to handle difficult subjects when it came to the mob.
Gannascoli: On the show, they didn’t let you know what was going on in the episodes because they didn’t want it to leak out, so they just gave you your sides, not the whole episode. We all had our moles though — set decorators, hairdressers, props — all those people got the episode first so they could prepare.
So I asked my guy, “What’s going on in the next episode? Am I dying?” That was always everyone’s concern, getting knocked off. So I asked him, and he said, “No, no, you’re good. But let me tell you, you’re blowing somebody.” I said to him, “What are you, a fucking jerk-off?” and he said, “No, yeah, you’re gonna be blowing a guy.” I told him, “Get the fuck out of here!” and he said, “Okay, you’ll see.” After that, I got thinking, “Holy shit, they’re gonna do it!”
I get to set and, of course, Sirico is going, “You know my friend, Joe the Cocksucker.” And Stevie Van Zandt was saying, “Oh boy, you’re going to get a lot of shit in the neighborhood.” Then Jimmy [Gandolfini], being the fucking gentleman that he was, said, “Look, if you’re uncomfortable with this, we’ll go talk to David.” I said, “You know, I kind of asked for this. It’s not what I had in mind, but I’ll trust it.”
My only concern was that I was going to be blowing a guy and that was it. I didn’t want it to be like the Russian guy where it’s in one episode and you never hear about it again, so I went to Robin and I said, “Is this going to be it?” She told me, “Listen, it’s not going to be anything this year, but next year is going to be big for you.”
Dan Dyson, fan of The Sopranos and co-creator of Sopranos World on Twitter: There are some subtle hints early on as to Vito’s sexuality. At one point, Paulie says, “Why do pissing, shitting and fucking all happen within a two-inch radius?” and Vito says, “They’re all sources of pleasure.” We also, at one point, see him take a hot dog out of a bun and eat it by itself, which is a pretty unusual way to eat a hot dog. There’s a pretty suggestive camera angle when he’s in a massage chair in one episode, and when the character Eugene kills himself, Vito says, “Maybe he was a homo — felt there was nobody he could talk to about it.”
In Season Five, Episode Nine, we see Meadow’s boyfriend Finn get a construction job. He shows up to work early one morning and sees Vito blowing a security guard and that’s the first time the audience knows that Vito is gay. Nothing really happens with this, but in Season Six, when Finn tells Tony, Tony finally believes the rumors about Vito.
Gannascoli: After the security guard scene aired, it was all anyone was talking about that Monday, from Howard Stern to every sports program. I even called into Stern because I was a big fan of the show and he said, “You sound pretty cool, why don’t you come with us to Vegas?” And I was like, “Yeah, you don’t have to ask me twice. I’m going!” So I got to hang out with them for four or five days, which was a fucking crazy thing.
That scene was a big deal for the whole week after that episode aired. That Thursday, I walked into a restaurant in my neighborhood, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and there was a big crowd and when I came in, everybody started laughing and clapping. Later on, my friend told me about this woman at the bar who was single, and I had an ex-girlfriend there that I was trying to make jealous. So I went up to the bar and I was really flirty with her and this and that, and a month later, we got engaged.
Later on, while we were filming again, I got married on a Saturday and it was back to work on a Monday, but most of the cast was at the wedding. There were like 450 people there and everybody said something. Jimmy was there with his son, Uncle Junior sang and Artie Bucco got fucking lit. Michael [Imperioli] even said, “Watch out for Joe next year, he’s gonna have a big year!” It was like the best wedding ever.
De Stefano: In Season Six of The Sopranos, there’s an amazing scene that kicks off Vito’s story. A couple of Tony’s crew guys happen to see Vito in a gay leather bar and, of course, they can’t believe what they’re seeing. Vito tries to tell them that it’s just a joke, but now Vito’s secret has been disclosed.
Gannascoli: That scene was shot in a club in Queens, and they had put up some fliers in some fucking leather bars in the Village. So all of those people that are in that scene were real leather guys — they weren’t actors and they could care less about the show. They all had hooch, and they were drinking and carrying on and making out.
[Steve] Buscemi directed that one and Terry Winters wrote it. On the last take, Terry said to me, “It’s the last take, so do what you want?” I was dancing with this guy who I think was a personal shopper at Barneys and I decided to kiss him. I said, “What does a guy gotta do to buy you a drink?” and gave him a kiss.
Dyson: After he’s seen at the club, Vito hides out with his goomad for a few days at a shore house as word spreads around about him. Eventually, a few of Tony’s guys track down Vito and tell him that Tony wants to see him. Vito, of course, knows what’s going on so he drives off. Later on, he breaks down near a little town in New Hampshire, and that’s where he’ll eventually meet the guy he falls in love with.
Gannascoli: During my lunch hour one day, they asked me to come upstairs to the writers’ room. It was kind of freaky because David told me, “Don’t look at the fucking board,” which had all the plots and synopsis and everything. It was nerve-wracking, but they told me they wanted me to read with the guy I was going to be with on the show. I walk in, and I see it’s John Costelloe — I’d known John for like, 20 years! I wasn’t close to him or anything, but I was a little relieved that it was someone I knew, which made it easier for me. He was a great guy. I remember for Christmas, because he knew I was a big Santa collector, he got me a leather Santa on a motorcycle.
Dyson: The morning after Vito arrives in New Hampshire, he heads into town and meets Jim, a fry cook at a diner that’s serving johnny cakes. Vito orders a stack and seems interested in the guy. While he’s in New Hampshire, Vito frequents the diner and the two fall in love and Vito nicknames him “Johnny Cakes.”
Green: We called him “Johnny Cakes” because I’m from Rhode Island where they have johnny cakes, though I don’t know if they have them in New Hampshire, too. We liked that name because it just sounded so dear — like a term of affection, like “baby cakes.”
Ben Drumm, co-owner of Kenyon’s Grist Mill in Usquepaugh, Rhode Island: Johnny cakes are essentially a boiling cornmeal porridge mixture that’s made into a flat griddle cake. It kind of has a tortilla-like taste, though it depends upon how people make it and what they serve it with. It’s a staple here in Rhode Island because of Kenyon’s Grist Mill, which has been making johnny cake meal since 1696. We supply it to people and restaurants nearby, including some in New Hampshire, so you might find them there too.
De Stefano: For a brief period, Vito tries to have a normal gay life in New Hampshire. He meets and falls in love with another man, and they have this period of domestic bliss. And Vito is really amazed by the guy he falls in love with. He not only is attracted to him, but he sees in him an alternate model of masculinity. Vito’s been told all along by his culture that homosexuals are weak and feminine, but then he sees this guy who is a volunteer fireman and rescues people and who, in every way, flouts the stereotype that Vito has come to believe in and that permeates mafia culture.
Green: The love story between Vito and Johnny Cakes was very sweet. It was a very heartfelt story for The Sopranos.
Burgess: Joe did a really wonderful job with it. It was very impressive to see some of these guys who weren’t traditional actors just transform in front of the camera.
Gannascoli: We shot all of those scenes in Boonton, New Jersey, which is a quaint little town with antique stores and things like that. It was different for me to have this story all to myself, but it was a nice challenge. It was tough doing all of those scenes because I had very bad hips. I needed a double hip replacement, so that walk I had was very real. Every step I took, I was in constant pain, and I was doing 10, 12 Advils a day. I’m proud of it though. I never said, “I can’t do it.” Take after take after take, I always answered the bell.
And John, he was just a great guy to work with. I can’t say enough good stuff about him. Although, I do remember telling him, when we were rolling around in the grass in one scene, “John, do me a favor, the mustache, you gotta brush it to the side. It’s a little much for me.”
Dyson: Eventually, Vito tells Johnny Cakes the truth about who he is, and Johnny Cakes helps him get a job as a handyman. The show ends up doing this really funny sequence where Vito is trying not to look at his watch as he’s trying to get through a day of work and we start to see that this might not be the life for Vito.
Tyler Bet, fan of The Sopranos and co-creator of Sopranos World on Twitter: What’s interesting about that scene is that it’s pretty much the only voiceover in the whole series, I think. It was pretty unusual to do that in The Sopranos.
Gannascoli: I do these Cameos now, and I did one for this guy’s son who had me quote that scene. That voiceover is a lot of people’s favorite scene because they can really relate to it.
De Stefano: What happens though is that Vito misses the old life and he can’t quite make the leap. He’s still too tied to his old way of life. He has a wife, he has kids, he makes his money through organized crime. So he leaves Johnny Cakes and heads back for New Jersey.
Gannascoli: I don’t know that Vito ever could have made it work with Johnny Cakes. He’d have to say he’s done with the mob, but he missed his kids and he missed the action. The life with Johnny Cakes may have seemed idyllic, but he was a mobster at heart, so I don’t think it would’ve worked.
I was hoping that Vito going back to Jersey wouldn’t lead to his death, though. I knew that there was going to be two parts of Season Six and I tried to talk David into maybe carrying him into the next season. I said, “Why does he have to go? He’s a big earner.” David gave me my little three minutes of hearing me, and then he just said, “You’re going.”
Green: It was the first time this series had tackled that subject matter overtly, and I think Vito had to die after that. Joe was very sanguine about it — he understood the peril we’d put him in.
Ty Mitchell, adult film star and queer culture writer for MEL: There are very few killings in The Sopranos that are surprising. Death in the show works through dread, so we watch the Vito storyline knowing that this person isn’t going to survive because no one survives in The Sopranos — “no one gets out of this family alive” is something they teach us over and over again. That’s one of the things that’s so great about the story, not only is it a gay storyline, but it also feeds into that question of, “Can you escape this family alive?”
Dyson: Heading back to Jersey, everyone pretty much had it in for Vito. None of Tony’s crew wanted to work with him and the worst was Phil Leotardo, head of one of the New York families who was cousins with Vito’s wife. Phil especially had it in for Vito.
The most surprising, though, was Tony, who, for a while, seemed open to the idea of Vito returning to work with the crew.
De Stefano: Tony, on occasion in this story, almost seems kind of liberal. He says, “It’s 2006, there’s pillow-biters in the special forces,” and while you could never call him pro-gay, he’s not as phobic as some of his fellow crew members. The only reason why he eventually agreed that Vito had to go was that it was bad for business.
De Stefano: But Tony isn’t able to take care of Vito, as Phil gets to him first.
Vito’s death is quite an amazing scene where he’s hiding out in a motel, and Phil Leotardo emerges — he literally comes out of the closet. Then his men kill Vito and, for good measure, force a pool cue into his rectum.
There’s almost this eroticized aspect to it as well, as there seems to be a sexual satisfaction that you’re seeing in Phil Leotardo’s face. Phil had his own masculinity issues in the series too. For example, he has a certain insecurity about the fact that his family’s last name was changed to “Leotardo” when they came to America, as though there was some femininity to it.
Dyson: Phil was also in prison for 20 years, so it’s possible something homosexual happened there. Also, after Vito’s death, there are some bodybuilders on the TV and they distract Phil and he shouts to “shut that off!” So there are some suggestions about Phil too.
De Stefano: Phil killing Vito allowed him to exert his masculinity over Vito and Tony as well, as he’d moved against Tony and took care of Vito himself.
Dyson: Phil killing Vito also had consequences as the series went on and the war between New York and New Jersey escalated, leading all the way up to Phil’s death in the final episode.
Gannascoli: Because of my story, The Sopranos got nominated for a GLAAD Award in 2007, which I was really proud of. They praised it for being the first time that kind of story was told in such a popular, heterosexual show. They complimented me for being brave and the show for bringing it into the spotlight.
A year later, I think I fell out of favor with GLAAD, though. Someone approached me about doing this pool stick — I like pool, so I promoted “A Cue to Die For.” I was just trying to have a little fun with it, but GLAAD thought I was glorifying how my character got murdered, and I get their point. We pulled it after that.
David Hinckley, New York Daily News, May 27, 2006, excerpt from “Gay Groups Weigh In on Sopranos Take”: Several prominent gay media organizations say that the recent death of gay mobster Vito Spatafore on The Sopranos was, sadly, an honest reflection of the way things still work in too many real-life cultures. “This was a complex commentary on the struggle that so many people face in living openly and honestly,” said Damon Romine, entertainment media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination (GLAAD). “This was a story that laid bare the ugliness of prejudice and bigotry of so many characters on the show.”
Vito’s death was “true to the show,” said Matt Farber, president of Wilderness Media and founder of MTV Logo. “In many facets of America today, people are still not accepted for who they naturally are. Being killed for it, obviously, is an extreme — though a few people have been. It did a good job of showing how sad it is for many gay people, how there’s such self-loathing,” said Farber. “The saddest scene was when he called to say goodbye to his boyfriend in New Hampshire.”
“This was an interesting study of how gay characters can be integrated into a story,” [Romine] said. “With Vito, we saw how well cable delivers multidimensional gay characters. Broadcast networks have yet to fully realize this potential.”
Mitchell: I first watched The Sopranos this year and I went into it knowing the historical significance of the show, but I didn’t know about the gay storyline and I was really surprised by it. I was especially surprised that it was a storyline that they gave so much screen time to. Meadow’s mixed boyfriend didn’t get as much screen time and anything to do with minorities in that show tended to get a one-episode treatment at most. Vito’s story, though, was given room as it stretched out over four or five episodes.
I thought the love story was really sweet and I got emotional watching it, so, in some ways, it was impressive, but in other ways it was also a product of its time. For one thing, they really go out of their way to make it clear that Tony Soprano isn’t homophobic. Yet Tony is a total racist and he’s old-fashioned in so many ways that this feels a bit like it’s pandering. While racial minorities aren’t the same as sexual minorities, this does feel out of character for him, so it feels almost like it’s the loose thread in the Vito storyline.
But while Tony’s gay allyship is surprising, there’s something unsurprising about it as well because HBO is a company whose demographic is liberal white men. When I was watching this story, I was thinking that this is a show for liberal-minded white men who, in 2006, were trying to figure out where gay people fit into their politics. So it wasn’t entirely surprising that The Sopranos would have a sympathetic viewpoint toward gay people, because if it didn’t, it would have probably alienated a lot of its viewers.
This story also falls victim to the criticism that a lot of people have toward gay representation in the early 2000s and the 1990s — that queer characters are always tragic. Tara from Buffy was this tragic gay character that they give to us to make us happy, but they also take her away because ultimately we’re designed to die and that gay love has to end in tragedy. The same is true of Vito — he’s designed to be an emotional prop for other straight characters.
Still, I enjoyed watching it and I got emotional watching it, and had I been watching in 2006 when I was coming out, it would have been really gratifying to see this character at all, even though it ends in tragedy.
But if this story happened today, it would be harder to praise. Also, today it would be an issue that the actor playing Vito isn’t gay, but, back then, it was par for the course. It’s problematic, but had they hired a gay actor, it would have been a dead giveaway that this character was gay and the reveal that the character is gay is a big shock — one of the biggest in the whole show.
It’s important to note as well that The Sopranos is a singular, historical show and it has this huge place in TV history. Thus, the fact that this story was told in this show in 2006 offers a pretty fascinating look at how viewers were processing the increasingly pressing question of, “What do we do with gay people in our liberal politics?” and The Sopranos was often reckoning with questions like that.
Gannascoli: After Vito’s story was over with, I got emails from guys who were living a double life. Guys in the fucking military and other stuff. But in the neighborhood, I knew guys who weren’t happy with the role. Some guys stopped talking to me — guys that I knew. I even had a situation one time in a club where a guy was offended that I was playing a fucking mobster that was gay. It turns out that he just got out of prison and his uncle was a big shot — he was a captain — and we got almost into a brawl and people had to break it up.
Bet: There were definitely some Sopranos fans who weren’t happy about the story, and when I see those reactions, I think it’s more of an indicator of the person who was watching more than it was a reflection of the show. It was worse back then, as there’s been a big shift in our culture in the last 20 years or so, but some people still talk about how that completely turned them off from the show and some were furious that they went in that direction. Some Italian people were already unhappy with how the show portrayed Italian Americans, so, for some, this was another layer on top of that. There was even a guy I saw online recently that said, “Joe blocked me on Twitter because I told him that his character ruined the show,” so that’s still out there.
De Stefano: It’s funny that the reaction from some viewers was that they were more horrified by this narrative turn in The Sopranos than they were by a lot of the killing and the murders and the pretty extreme violence that was typical of the show.
In a way though, I guess it’s not surprising because The Sopranos served as a metaphor for a great number of things in American culture — capitalism, for instance, was critiqued by Tony’s upper-middle class lifestyle. As for masculinity, David Chase and the show’s writers really did something quite original and innovative with the mafia narrative by getting to this question of what happens when there is a “finook” in the crew, as Leotardo says, which is a Southern Italian slang for gay. The show quite successfully critiqued mafia masculinity, mafia gender codes and codes of sexuality.
But while Vito’s story addressed the phobias within the mob, it also reflected these issues in larger society. As a gay man myself, I certainly have experienced some of that, and I know some gay Italian men who have had some real horror stories about their family’s rejection of who they are. The Sopranos addressed many issues like this — including sexuality, race, violence and so many other real-life issues that didn’t just pertain to the mob.
Jamie Schram, New York Post, December 25, 2008, excerpt from “Tragedy Strikes ‘Soprano’ Hunk”: The Brooklyn actor who played Johnny Cakes — the gay-fireman lover of a mob capo on The Sopranos — killed himself in a holiday tragedy that has stunned family and friends. The front door to John Costelloe’s Sunset Park home was still sealed with police stickers yesterday, more than a week after the rugged 47-year-old actor committed suicide. Costelloe, a former FDNY firefighter, shot himself in the head in his basement bedroom on December 16th, cops and pals said.
Gannascoli: Johnny was always, from what I knew about him, sort of dark. I didn’t know him to that extent, but I knew he was an intense actor who was really well respected in the New York circle of actors. I think I was away in Detroit and someone called me up and said, “John Costelloe just killed himself,” and I was mortified. Just a sad, sad, sad fucking moment. I was just glad that I was able to get back and go to his funeral. We don’t know what drives people to do that. I don’t know what it was. Depression, I guess? I don’t know.
Colin Carman, The Gay & Lesbian Review, March, 2009, excerpt from “Remembering ‘Johnny Cakes’ of The Sopranos”: With the death of John Costelloe, the actor who played Jim “Johnny Cakes” Witowski on The Sopranos, fans of the landmark TV series lost an important player in the show’s most gay-positive, and perhaps most crucial, story line. The 47-year-old actor and former New York City firefighter shot himself late last year in his basement bedroom in Brooklyn. At the funeral mass on Christmas Eve, costars Steve Buscemi and Joe Gannascoli were in attendance. “I enjoyed all the time I ever spent with him,” Gannascoli told The New York Post.
Gannascoli: I’m just really grateful to John and for my whole time as Vito. It was a good run — the 39 or 40 episodes I got to do. It changed my life. I met my wife, we have a great daughter, it got me a beautiful house on Long Island. Before that, I was living in a one-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment, smoking cigarettes, fucking gambling, eating like an animal. So again, it changed my life — saved it even.