Bobby Cannavale and the Road to HBO’s Vinyl

A look at the center of the record on the turntable, Bobby Cannavale from HBO's Vinyl

HBO’s Vinyl premieres on Valentine’s Day this year and it promises to be a love letter for classic music lovers everywhere. The series is set in New York in the ’70s, a time when the punks met the godfathers, not only of soul, disco, glam, prog, and rock, but the godfathers who ran the clubs and stocked the jukeboxes, like “Crazy” Joe Gallo and Ace Vending.

Vinyl is executive produced by the perennially dissatisfied Mick Jagger, along with Terence Winter, who is no stranger to bootlegs, having run HBO’s prohibition series Boardwalk Empire. Martin Scorsese, who rewrote the rules of gangster movies with Goodfellas and Mean Streets, rounds out the unholy trio, as executive producer and pilot director.

At the heart of HBO’s Vinyl will be Bobby Cannavale as Richie Finestra, a record executive who has regained his faith in music and is putting it all on the line, with a little left over to go up his nose, to stand for these upcoming punks as they go through their baptism.

Cannavale is the perfect actor to bridge the punk and the godfather. He started acting on stage without any formal training and burst into the entertainment consciousness as Vince D’Angelo, a gay cop from a crazy family who wound up marrying Will Truman, played by Eric McCormack, on the NBC comedy series Will & Grace.

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Cannavale grew up in Union City, N.J. He is Italian and Cuban and goes back and forth between the two nationalities in roles that go against any ethnic stereotype. His character on Boardwalk Empire grew up in a cave in Sperlinga, Sicily. Dr. Cruz on Nurse Jackie was Cuban, but was defined by something entirely different. Cannavale started in theater in the nineties and was nominated for a Tony Award in 2008 for his role in the Broadway play Mauritius. Cannavale had his first film roles in Night Falls on Manhattan in 1997 and The Bone Collector with Denzel Washington in 1999.

As the paramedic Bobby Caffey in the first two seasons of the TV series Third Watch, Cannavale’s breakout role, he was the emotional center in the firehouse in the 55th Precinct. The most helpful and nicest guy there, until he wasn’t, shot in the chest by the junkie brother of the girl he lost his virginity to. While Third Watch survived the loss of Cannavale’s character for a little while, some of the characters around him couldn’t go in without him. 

In 2001, Cannavale worked with one of the greatest directors of all time, Sidney Lumet, on the show 100 Centre Street. Lumet started on stage as one of the original kids of the play Dead End and went on to transform TV direction and then make classic films like Dog Day Afternoon. Cannavale was married to Lumet’s daughter at the time. When the series ended (too soon), Cannavale closed out the last five episodes of Ally McBeal in 2002. He also starred on the miniseries Kingpin that year. In 2003, Cannavale also closed out the run of Oz, which also starred  Edie Falco, future Nurse Jackie and then-current Carmela Soprano on The Sopranos. In 2005, Cannavale won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for his work on Will and Grace.

During that time, Cannavale appeared in the movies Snakes on a Plane and The Guru (2002) and did a mean tango in Shall We Dance? (2004), which starred Richard Gere. He also acted in the films Romance & Cigarettes (2005) and The Take (2007) and guest starred on the series Sex and the CitySix Feet UnderLaw & OrderLaw & Order: Criminal Intent, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

On stage, Bobby starred in the The Motherfucker With the Hat with Chris Rock and Annabella Sciorra on Broadway. Cannavale read the audiobook versions of Lush Life, written by Richard Price, who wrote The WanderersThe BreaksLadies ManBlood Brothers and Clockers, among other classics. He also read the audio book version of Ed Falco’s 2012 novel The Family Corleone

I discovered Bobby Cannavale on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, where he played an ambitious capo to godfather Joe Masseria and a thorn up the ass to Atlantic City’s favorite politician, Nucky Thompson, played by the perennially brilliant Steve Buscemi. 

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Gyp Rosetti was a punk working for the godfather. He was one of HBO’s masterful “Manson Lamps” characters, which got its name and start with Richie Aprile on The Sopranos.  These guys are loose cannons in a world of untethered armaments. Okay, so maybe you don’t think Rosetti was a pure Manson Lamps kinda guy, but remember – the last thing he said, or sang rather, before the knife was twisted on the beach at Atlantic City, was “Barney Google with the goo goo googly eyes.”

Gyp Rosetti was one of my favorite characters in Boardwalk Empire. He was hungry. He was ruthless. He was efficient and he was totally warped. Sometimes the man exuded charm and class, other times he acted like a jungle monkey. 

The guy grew up in a cave and had a series of rather progressive sexual fetishes, like gigantism. He wanted to be a bug crushed under the feet of a beautiful giantess. I’d never heard of that particular fetish until the show but apparently, it’s a thing. Rosetti’s peccadillos didn’t thwart his ruthless gangster temper though. One of the best visual scenes Cannavale did was when he walked among the carnage of massacred mobsters, nude except for the leather harness that had been wrapped tightly around his throat from a session of sexual asphyxiation.

The next time I saw Cannavale was as the corporate obstetrician on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie. Dr. Cruz was everything the audience was just loving to hate. He had it all. He made the nurses wear uniform scrubs, took no shit, fired every character the audience was rooting for in a bid to send the recovering junkie over the edge and did it all as indelicately as he could.

He told God himself, played by Steve Buscemi’s brother Michael, to pack up his chalk and stop defacing the sidewalk outside All Saints Hospital. What did he think he was doing? Painting the Sisteenth Roof? What’s not to hate, right? Well, you couldn’t.

First of all, everything he did was actually for the benefit of another character, such as taking Dr. O’Hara’s office, in order to give the pregnant emergency room chief quicker access to the bathroom. But then his kid Charlie, played by Cannavale’s son Jake, dies of an overdose.

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Dr. Cruz continues to be a shit to everyone around him even as he is trying to save his son’s life, reminding Jackie Peyton that he is a shit and will continue to make life miserable for her. You feel bad for the guy, but shit, he’s too much of a shit for you too want to cut him any slack. And then he comes back the next season for a quickie with the nurse, disrupts her date with someone completely right for her, the cop Jackie’s on the first date with, and continues to be this officious malignancy at the hospital during his exit interview.

We should really hate the guy. Have fun hating on him like he was King Joffrey on Game of Thrones or something, but we can’t. It’s not just that we know his backstory and are empathic. It’s because of how the damaged Dr. Cruz is hanging tough with tears welling up in his eyes and no room to spill over. It’s all Cannavale. It’s pure acting that is so raw and effective we love this guy, care deeply for him.

Cannavale moves so easily between comedy and drama, from the evil clown on Modern Family to the guy who almost gives Louie CK a heart attack on Louie, he can be counted on to find new ways to get at the punch lines without ever losing his grip on the characters’ reality. Vinyl, being on HBO, will surely give him a chance to merge these gifts into what will surely be an instant classic. HBO has the sense to give its series enough breathing room for comedy and drama to coexist in the rawest of shows. They even got Ray Romano to play an ambiguous part, everybody’s going to love that, right?

The trailers for Vinyl have shown Cannavale’s record producer dancing with wild abandon at punk clubs in Studio 54-ready leisure suits. The guy is fired up by the new sonic blast he is going to shoot across the bow of the music industry. Punk rocked the godfathers of music during that era and I can’t wait to see Richie Finestra cut the grooves into Vinyl.