Frank Vincent, of 'Goodfellas' Fame, Was the Ultimate Sleazy Gangster Character Actor

You might not have known Frank Vincent's name while he was alive, but chances are you've seen Joe Pesci beat the living crap out of him. Once, maybe even twice.

There was Raging Bull, in which Vincent, playing a seedy mafia type named Salvy Batts, faces the wrath of Jake LaMotta's brother (Pesci) in a violent nightclub scene. There was Goodfellas, in which Vincent's character delivers eight of the most quotable words ever to appear in a gangster flick: "Now go home and get your fucking shinebox." (Pesci, as loose-cannon gangster Tommy DeVito, famously retaliates by beating Vincent's character to a bloody pulp, then stuffing him in a trunk.)  

And then there was Casino, the remarkable and grisly 1995 crime epic, in which Vincent—by then a recognizable face in crime dramas—finally got his revenge. (Just typing the words "Casino cornfield scene" into the YouTube search box gives me chills.) 

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Vincent, the character actor who died Wednesday during heart surgery at the age of 78, made his name in this trilogy of Martin Scorsese masterpieces, each performance sleazier and deeper than the last. Later on, Vincent was introduced to millions more viewers when he played the vicious crime boss Phil Leotardo on The Sopranos. (Speaking of iconic scenes of mobsters getting whacked...) His career spanned four decades and dozens of credits, from Do the Right Thing to Law & Order, but Vincent will probably always be remembered for his crime roles. Never quite a leading name, he was the ultimate character actor of gangster cinema.

Though Vincent was just an actor—he didn't really spend his days burying bodies in desolate cornfields—he embodied the onscreen gangster aesthetic so definitively that it was easy to become convinced he really did inhabit that underworld sphere. Scorsese must have recognized that essence when he saw Vincent's first film, the low-budget 1976 flick The Death Collector (also featuring a very young Pesci—it's on YouTube under a different name), and decided to cast him in Raging Bull. (Vincent had initially pursued a career as a musician, why is how he met longtime buddy Pesci.)

Vincent, with his thick mop of hair and gruff, Jersey-accented voice, was perfect for those roles. He had a knack for capturing the swagger and the vulgarity of mob life: Watch the way he goads Pesci's character in Goodfellas with that toxic mix of drunken camaraderie and violent provocation. He only appears onscreen for five or 10 minutes in that film, playing the "made man" Billy Batts, but it's an iconic performance.

The role followed him around for 25 years. In fact, in a 2013 video interview, Vincent said that people still quoted the "shinebox" line back to him everywhere he went. (He joked that he could buy a new Mercedes if he got a dollar every time that happened.) He didn't hesitate to cash in on the line's popularity, selling mugs and shirts with the Billy Batts image and quote emblazoned on them.

During that interview, Vincent downplayed his skill in delivering that unforgettable quip. 

"It hit me as a great line," he said. "When lines are great, they're easy to do. You just find the essence of it, and you do it." Vincent found the essence of every underworld scumbag he played.

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