The heady world of organized crime is familiar territory for Steve Schirripa. Best known for surviving six seasons as wise guy Bobby Baccalieri on The Sopranos, the plus-sized actor was a natural choice to host the new true-crime series Nothing Personal.
Born and raised in the tough Bensonhurst neighbourhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., Schirripa was working as an entertainment booker in Las Vegas when he played an uncredited extra in the 1995 feature Casino. He followed up with small roles in the films The Runner and Joe Dirt before landing his role on HBO's The Sopranos in 1999.
Once the show finished in 2007, Schirripa spun off his high profile into several TV series and penned a series of "Goomba" books, including A Goomba's Guide to Life and The Goomba Diet. In 2008, he signed on for the ABC Family series The Secret Life of the American Teenager as the father of one of the main characters, which parallels his own role as father of two teen daughters.
Schirripa is more in his element on Nothing Personal, which dramatizes true-life accounts of cold-blooded contract killings. He agreed to a sit-down interview last week in Toronto.
What was the inspiration behind this new true-crime series?
I'm a big fan of the genre. I watch Dateline and 48 Hours. I wanted to do this show because it's not just about hit men and mobsters. These are true stories about murders-for-hire ordered by regular people like you see every day. I didn't want to do the show if it was all mob stories.
The first episode chronicles the demise of young gangster Larry "Champagne" Carrozza. What was his fatal mistake?
It could have been dating the boss's daughter, or more likely it was about money. His bosses were set to make a huge score and they wanted him out of the way. Money is a recurring theme on this show. All six of the stories we cover have to do with money. Every one.
Growing up in Brooklyn, were you ever tempted toward the mob life?
I was never tempted, but I grew up all around it. Neighbours, people across the street, friends' fathers. I know a lot of those people in it to this day. I was never attracted to it because not that many mobsters live a long life. Just about every one winds up dead or in jail.
Is there a common character trait with real-life wise guys?
A lot of them, believe it or not, are always broke. They never get rich because they have to constantly kick the money upstairs to the bosses. Most of them learn pretty fast that the mob life is not what it's cut out to be. That's how we showed it on The Sopranos. Nobody on the show was ridiculously wealthy.
Did being on the set of Casino push you toward making acting full time?
I had done a few small acting things before then, but that movie was different. I was on set with [Joe]Pesci and [Robert]De Niro, you know. It was a long day, about 16 hours, and the adrenaline was flowing. I started thinking that this was what I wanted to do. I took a shot, it worked out.
How did your life change after The Sopranos?
From an acting perspective, obviously it became easier to get work. The show was a big platform. So I wrote some books and sold some other TV shows. In that way, it was fantastic. As far as my own life goes, I don't buy into the Hollywood scene. I still have the same friends.
What type of offers did you receive post-Sopranos?
I got offered all this reality crap. Everything from Dancing with the Stars to Celebrity Wrestling. I am not a fan of reality TV. I don't mind the shows where you learn something or build a house, but not the Real Housewives or Jersey Shore. That's all garbage. Some people will humiliate themselves or their families just to be on television. I've been offered Celebrity Fit Club, where you have to take off your shirt and get on a scale. I got kids, man. I'm not going to humiliate myself. I'd rather drive a cab.
Didn't you host a poker show for a while?
Yeah, that was fun. Face the Ace. NBC tried it in primetime during the big poker craze a few years ago. Seven episodes and out, you know. Some people played poker before it became trendy and they're probably still playing. It's like the cigar craze, right? These things come and go.
Does your role of a widower dad on The Secret Life of an American Teenager feel more natural for you?
It's more the way I really am. It's a chance for me to play a regular guy and I can draw on my experience as a real dad. The show's creator, Brenda Hampton, gave me a chance, where a lot of people in Hollywood would have me play a mob guy the rest of my life.
Nothing Personal has been green-lit for a second season. Are you researching new stories now?
I read a lot of true-crime books, but sometimes they can put you in a bad mood. The mob stories don't bother me, but when the family and the kids get involved, it's not very happy. It can put you in a funk. I pick and choose.
Will we ever see a Sopranos movie?
That's entirely up to [series creator]David Chase. If he had a good story to tell, who knows? I can't see it myself.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Nothing Personal debuts Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Investigation Discovery.