Way Beyond Spaghetti And Meatballs

To most people he's probably best known as Richard Cross-the suavely malignant rich guy who may be the killer on ABC's "Murder One." Stanley Tucci may not be a household name, but mention his name to his fellow actors and their eyes light up with admiration--he's the definition of an actor's actor. The trouble with that name, however, is that it's gotten him typecast as a mafioso-though he once played an Arab heavy in the "The Pelican Brief." But anyone who saw him onstage in New York in the title role of Moliere's "Scapin," or cherished his cameo in "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," knows the range this compact $5-year-old actor possesses.

What no one knew--until the recent Sundance Film Festival in Utah--was just how versatile Tucci really is. "Big Night," a movie Tucci stars in, co-wrote (with his cousin Joseph Tropiano) and codirected (with fellow actor Campbell Scott), was embraced with equal fervor by critics, industry folks and civilians. It won Tucci and Tropiano the jury prize for screenwriting.

"Big Night" is set in the late 1950s in a New Jersey town where two Italian immigrant brothers, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secundo (Tucci), are struggling to keep their restaurant from going under. Their food, concocted by the perfectionist Primo,is years ahead of its time; their customers expect spaghetti and meatballs, but Primo is an artist whose seafood risottos are too subtle for their philistine palates. Across the street, their rival Pascal (Ian Holm) is packing them in serving bad Italian food with singing waiters ("the rape of cuisine," snorts Primo). Secundo tries to save their failing enterprise by investing their last dime in a banquet for visiting bandleader Louis Prima, hoping it will make their reputation. This cinematic meal rivals "Babette's Feast" in appetite-rousing delight.

Tucci's funny and delicious movie is about the clash of art and commerce, Old World and New, but no plot description can convey the delicate tone, the exquisite timing or the precision of the east (which includes Isabella Rossellini and Minnie Driver) that makes this small film so special. "I tried to make a movie in keeping with earlier filmmaking," Tucci said. His model was Jean Renoir, and his film's unsentimental humanism earns the comparison.

Working with filmmakers who "don't know how to talk to actors" inspired Tucci to direct. Once he decided to star as well, he turned to Scott, a friend since high-school days in Katonah, N.Y., to codirect. "I knew I needed someone calm and not Italian." In "Big Night" there are no mafiosi and no gunshots: it's a vision of Italian-American life free of movie cliches.

Just when the public will get to see this gem is unclear. Its original distributor, the Samuel Goldwyn Co., went bankrupt. And because the home-video rights have already been sold, it's hard to cut a new distribution deal. As in the movie, art and commerce are at odds. While we wait, Tucci flies back and forth between New York, where he lives with his social-worker wife, Kate, and L.A., where he shoots "Murder One." "I love to act. I'm obsessed with it." Obsessed like Primo, the master chef, for whom the art of cooking is its own reward. An actor for sophisticated palates, Tucci's too good to stay obscure any longer.