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Joey Pants: The Sequel

By Bob Carolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations

Actor Joe Pantoliano (“Joey Pants”) is best known for his roles in movies such as Risky Business, The Fugitive, The Matrix and Memento—as well as winning an Emmy Award for his performance in the HBO television series, The Sopranos.

He also is known for publicly disclosing history of clinical depression, following release of the movie Canvas in 2006 in which he played the husband of a woman living with schizophrenia. He became the first Hollywood star to make a sustained commitment to fighting the stigma that traditionally surrounds mental illness. He founded the organization, No Kidding, Me Too and produced a documentary of the same name. He visited Iraq to meet with American troops and discuss issues surrounding posttraumatic stress disorder.

Long beforehand, Joey wrote an autobiography, Who's Sorry Now: The True Story of a Stand-Up Guy, about growing up in Hoboken, N.J., including a turbulent relationship with his mother. The book, which made the New York Times best-sellers list, ended as he left home to become an actor in New York City.

That’s where his latest book begins.

And it’s a lively sequel.

Asylum: Hollywood Tales from My Great Depression: Brain Dis-Ease, Recovery and Being My Mother's Son is first and foremost the story of his career, working in plays and movies and developing close friendships with stars such as Eli Wallach, Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford.

But there is a more complex plot woven inside.

Joey is candid—almost too candid—in discussing his “Seven Deadly Symptoms,” which include alcohol, sex, food, shopping, prescription drugs, vanity and a consuming drive for success. He calls himself “an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.” Some readers may be turned off by the ego side of the equation and vulgarity. On the other side, there is a sweet, sensitive guy struggling to figure out what “makes himself tick.”

How much of Joey’s behavior should be attributed to brain chemistry, how much to where and how he was raised and how much to free will? It’s a maddening equation to understand, let alone balance.

Joey once wrote an article for NAMI in which he explained that when he chooses to play a role he is “attracted to the whole story” and how characters relate to each other “with me usually being right in the middle.”

“I like colorful characters,” he said. “How I play a character may depend on how one behavior influences other behaviors.”

Asylum is colorful. Joey stands in the middle of the action, his behavior influencing others as the people in his life move around him and vice versa.

Relative to mental illness we learn:

  • Joey didn’t realize he had ADHD until his youngest two children were diagnosed with it. He also has dyslexia. But growing up, teachers called him stupid and lazy.
  • Joey loves dogs. So much so that whenever he started to slide into depression he would bring home a new one. At one point, there were ten dogs in his household.
  • Joey was in group therapy for years until the therapist crossed a professional boundary. In front of the group, he asked Joey why he hadn’t been invited to Joey’s wedding, turning the relationship into one of coercion and control.
  • In a moment of insecurity and despair early in his career, Joey found himself kneeling in the fetal position, banging his head on a stage, while punching and scratching his face and drawing blood. To avoid stigma, he pretended it was an acting technique.

More recently, a turning point came when Joey saw a psychiatrist and found himself unloading all his fears, frustrations and transgressions. “I am one of those bad characters in movies,” he said.

The doctor said: “It’s not your fault.”

For the first time, Joey started to understand.

“Of course I have to take responsibility for my actions,” Joey writes. “[But] what he was saying was that I had something inside me that I didn’t put there... It’s in my genes. It was nursed along by everything that I experienced as a child.”

“It was in the script that I wrote as a kid to explain my world and me to myself. Those lines keep coming to me decades later. It’s like I can‘t start a new movie. I just keep reciting the old lines.”

During his journey, beginning with Canvas, Joey came to realize that in all likelihood his mother also lived with mental illness, which had shaped her behavior and their relationship. Had he known, he writes, he would have written his first book. Who’s Sorry Now, differently.

“In the epilogue of my first book, I said that book was a love story for Mommy. It was. This book then is my amends to her and me for what I didn’t know.”