BOOK REVIEW: ‘Asylum’: Actor Joe Pantoliano’s Plea for Understanding, Treating ‘Brain Dis-Ease’

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Asylum': Actor Joe Pantoliano's Plea for Understanding, Treating 'Brain Dis-Ease'

Asylum: 1. An institution for the care of the mentally ill. 2. A place that provides protection or safety — Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary
You know the asylum is run by the inmates when your shrink in New York doubles as your agent in Hollywood, getting you into the movies.

That was the actual experience of Joe Pantoliano (‘Midnight Run,’ ‘Risky Business,’ ‘The Fugitive’, ‘The Goonies’, ‘Memento’, ‘The Matrix’, ‘Canvas’, ‘The Sopranos’) as he recalls it in his memoir “Asylum: Hollywood Tales from My Great Depression: Brain Dis-Ease, Recovery, and Being My Mother’s Son” (Weinstein Books, 296 pages, index, 8-page glossy black and white photo insert, $25.00). In the early 1970s Pantoliano was a struggling (aren’t they all?) East Coast actor and was in a group therapy class conducted by Ralph Ricci, the father of actress Christina Ricci.

As with all of Pantoliano’s relationships, the one with Ricci was complicated: He was a mentor and he was manipulative like Joey’s mother, and he was ambitious to get out of the shrink business and become an agent in Hollywood, so, as Joey writes Ralph Ricci convinced agent Annette Hanley to work for him in Hollywood.

“When Ralph got to L.A. he started running group therapy but maintained a group in New York as well. Sort of bipolar bicoastal,” Joey writes. Ralph promised Joey that if he’d move to the West Coast he would introduce him to a partner of their’s, Harry Ufland. Joey Pants was part of the actor exodus of the 1970s and benefited greatly from his endorsement by his association with the agency started by Ricci, Ufland and Handley, which morphed into United Talent Agency (UTA).

“Your résumé is different when it says UTA, CAA or ICM on it, you have that endorsement helping you,” Pantoliano writes, noting that only a tiny fraction of the more than 100,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild manage to support themselves by acting; most of the time they’re waiting on tables or doing other jobs.

Pantoliano’s memoir is only partly about acting and actors. Much of it takes aim at the stigma attached to what he calls “brain dis-ease” by writing candidly and humorously about his own journey through clinical depression and addiction. He’s grateful for the benefits acting has afforded him, taking him to places the kid from the projects of Hoboken, NJ “could never dream of. This is what I know, and I hold it close.” Candid in the extreme, he writes: “Come to think of it, working has never been my problem. It’s living that I’m not good at.”


Success is supposed to bring us happiness, but as the Jewish saying goes “Man plans, God laughs.” God is nothing if not ecumenical, so it applies to Roman Catholics from Hoboken, too. Pantoliano, known as “Joey Pants” because everybody — including his friend R. J. Wagner — found it difficult to pronounce his name — struggled with what he later found out was clinical depression —or “brain dis-ease” (BD), as he calls it. When the success he sought and worked for came his way, he went into a painful downhill spiral into depression and addiction.


In “Asylum”, Pantoliano crafts a beautifully written, often F-bomb laden account of the true nature of the disease, as well as his own eventual diagnosis, recovery, and ongoing efforts to educate others and remove the stigma from mental illness. He also struggled with dyslexia, so just about everybody can benefit from a close reading of this memoir.

Before he became one of Hollywood’s most successful actors, he was “Joey Pants” from Hoboken, the son of a fiercely controlling mother with her own undiagnosed brain dis-ease, or BD. Growing up, Joe always knew that something was different about him, too — he just didn’t know what. “It was as if I was born with a huge hole inside my soul,” he writes. Not until much later in life was Joey diagnosed with clinical depression. Now he has a message for the millions of people who suffer from BD: You are not alone. You can learn as he did that by surrendering to BD, you can overcome it. He says, with some exaggeration, that BD is the only disease that people are blamed for having. I think people are blamed for lung cancer, even if they’ve never smoked, as was the case with my late mother-in-law.

Joey’s path to recovery was filled with trials and tribulations. Asylum recalls his early years as a struggling actor, when he was befriended and mentored by Natalie Wood and her husband Robert Wagner, and Eli Wallach and his wife Anne Jackson. Over the years he had major hits working with such megastars as Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, and Tommy Lee Jones, and directors Steven Spielberg, Martin Brest, Christopher Nolan, and the Wachowskis. But as his success grew, so did his dis-ease. Before he was diagnosed he tried to fill the hole inside him with alcohol. When the alcohol stopped working, he started taking up to twenty Vicodin a day in an effort to obliterate his emotional and physical pain.

“Asylum” is the story of Joe’s quest for the Hollywood success he was so sure would cure him. And when it didn’t, he began a painful downhill spiral with the “Seven Deadly Symptoms” — the phrase he coined for his addictions to food, sex, vanity, alcohol, prescription drugs, shopping, and fame — that so often accompany undiagnosed brain dis-ease. Interweaving his personal experiences with informative discourse, Pantoliano creates a highly relevant and unflinchingly honest memoir of everything that led to his eventual awareness, diagnosis and recovery, and public activism and advocacy. His story will resonate with people who suffer from brain dis-ease, enlighten anyone who aspires to join him in the asylum called Hollywood, and entertain all who have admired his career.


To those of us who enjoyed and still enjoy “Midnight Run,” directed by his contemporary Martin Brest (“Scent of a Woman,” “Meet Joe Black” “Going in Style” and, of course “Beverly Hills Cop”) I’d like to see the director and the actor reunited, perhaps with fellow Connecticut resident Charles Grodin, in a film, any film. After all, Joey Pants writes that “Midnight Run” was Sigmund Freud’s favorite Pantoliano flick, too!

About the author
Joseph Peter Pantoliano was born in Hoboken, New Jersey on Sept. 12, 1951. He has more than one hundred movie, TV, and stage credits, and won an Emmy Award for his work on The Sopranos. His first book, the memoir “Who’s Sorry Now? The True Story of a Stand-up Guy”, was a New York Times bestseller. He studied drama at HB Studio in Greenwich Village in New York City. He landed his first professional role in 1972 when he played Billy Bibbit in the national touring company of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. He worked in regional theater appearing in more than 40 Off-Broadway productions including “Vision of Kerouac” at the Lion Theater and “The Death Star” at the Theater of St. Clements He lives in Wilton, Connecticut with his wife Nancy Sheppard Pantoliano. A portion of the profits from the book will be donated to his foundation, No Kidding, Me Too ( dedicated to fighting the stigma of Brain Dis-Ease. In 2010 he directed “No Kidding, Me Too!!”a documentary about BD, available on a DVD from Amazon:



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