Being Fat Tony
For twenty years the voice of Fat Tony has been a dominant force in Springfield, home of The Simpsons. It’s a deep, authoritative voice, both threatening and charming, befitting of a mafia boss. A voice that has its origins in the Godfather trilogy (Fat Tony first appeared shortly after Godfather 3 was released).
Mobster king in The Simpsons
You know where you are with Fat Tony, and that usually means you’re in trouble. Minor characters are seriously in danger of being taken out, or taken out, depending on his mood. No, I didn’t quite get the distinction either, but it sounded clever when one of his mobsters was brave enough to ask his boss to clarify his instructions.
In another classic episode Fat Tony hooks up with Selma Bouvier, one of Marge’s ugly twin sisters, in a delightful mafia style wedding. Selma gets a sizeable ring but it turns out to be only the ring of a goomar (gangster’s mistress) when Tony’s legal wife turns up. The words at the wedding were spoken in Italian and did not relate to a marriage ceremony at all.
The biggest shock in the history of Fat Tony is that he is not really Fat Tony at all. Or rather he has not always been Fat Tony. The real Fat Tony died in The Simpsons some years ago. Fit Tony, a cousin, stepped up as mafia boss, started eating, and took over his deceased cousin’s persona. But you would never know unless you caught that episode. Principal Skinner has a similar past, but that’s another story. All we need to know is that life in Springfield moves on, and that well-loved characters can be surprisingly easily replaced. Just not Maude Flanders. Nor Edna Krabappel.
Fit tony, the second Fat Tony, before the flab set in.
So, where is this leading ? I was shocked recently to discover Fat Tony’s voice being projected by FBI agent David Rossi in the US series Criminal Minds. I’m late arriving at this. Criminal Minds is now in its tenth series, and I’ve only just started watching since cousin Jennifer Love-Hewitt has joined the cast. I haven’t seen her on screen much lately. Her last series, set in a massage parlour, was a sad and sleazy waste of her talents. She does much better talking to either crime suspects or ghosts.
But back to the main subject. Strangely, perhaps, FBI agent Rossi doesn’t look much like Fat Tony. Thin with dark hair, a goatee beard and a creased face. Not even like Fit Tony. But the voice is unmistakable. OK, I’m talking about Joe Mantegna, of course. He plays an investigative officer, but he sounds ever so much like a master criminal.
Agent David Rossi, Criminal Minds
I’m always amazed that actors use their own ‘normal’ voice for the characters they play on screen. Even for characters with whom they appear to have no other shared features or tangible connection. But does it go any deeper ? Is it more than just ‘sounding like themselves’ ? Are they actually ‘being themselves’ to some extent ?
It is tempting to believe that when actors use their own voice for any given role they also behave like the character in question in real life. We will never know the extent to which this happens. It would be fun to think that they are living their actual lives out on screen and that the fictional elements mainly comprise the script and the plot.
Maybe the truth involves a little more scheming. It's conceivable that Joe Mantegna was brought into the cast of Criminal Minds and asked to talk like Fat Tony due to the huge popularity of his character in The Simpsons. Not a cross-over, but a recognition of value in having a familiar voice, even if it does not necessarily fit in with the role. Although actually I think it suits an FBI agent almost as well as a mobster king.
If you’re engaged on the strength of previous works, the producers will surely wish to capitalise on your defining feature. To use the voice again and to have a character admired for being someone else. Alternatively, maybe the casting director for Criminal Minds was just being mischievous in making a respectable agent of law enforcement sound like a murderous figure from the criminal underworld.
Let’s finish with my favourite Fat Tony incident in The Simpsons. Seeking out Homer in order to shoot him, Fat Tony asks Johnny Tight Lips what he sees. “I see a lot of things”, comes the reply. Fat Tony’s counter response is hardly a classic line, but it’s delivered with perfect timing and exactly the right amount of menace : “You know you could be a little more helpful”. I trust that Joe Mantegna has never tried to shoot anyone, but I know that David Rossi has.
Fat Tony (R) with Jonny Tight Lips
For a short interview with Joe Mantegna / David Rossi / Fat Tony, check out…
As Joe points out, we all have our heroes.
© Eddie Hewitt, 2015