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TeeVee Awards 2001: Best Hour Actor

At TeeVee, we like to prove that we're freakishly proficient television watchers by giving acting awards to actors you might not have considered twice. We argue for craftmanship that enhances a plot, acting talent that breathes life into implausible characters, or performances that leave us addicted to an otherwise average show.

We don't give the nods to the usual suspect. Heck, last year's winner, Martin Starr had to endure an entire essay wherein the writer kept assuring audiences that yes, we meant the kid on Freaks and Geeks, not the guy playing the President over on The West Wing.

So you might expect this year's Best Actor award to go to someone in a show that hasn't quite taken America by storm. For example: Ed is a wonderful little show, but it's no West Wing or Sopranos in terms of buzz. If someone was opening a pool on how we'd vote, the odds would be favorable for crowning Tom Cavanagh with the Best Actor honorific. Martin Starr was even on Ed this year -- surely that has to mean something in our quirky, elitist little voting system.

Except it really doesn't. And while Tom Cavanagh's name was bandied about early in the nomination process -- much the same way Bill Bradley enjoyed a brief flirtation as a presidential candidate -- he dropped out of the race quickly. His co-star, The State alumnus Michael Ian Black almost won for his portrayal of bowling-employee-cum-Dadaist-entrepreneur Phil Stubbs.

Black played Phil as the secular equivalent of a fast-talking circuit preacher, drowning would-be marks in a fusillade of oratory that made no sense if you actually tried to listen to the words. Phil Stubbs was all about fine Corinthian turkeys and the Tao of bowling, and it took Black's fine absurdist timing to make it believable.

But in the end, Black got beaten. And -- in a shocking deviation from a group that has a thing for doomed causes among its Best Actor awards, not to mention that it's a group that contains several cheap bastards who won't pay for HBO -- we gave the awards to a Sopranos cast member. Ostensibly, this would be our equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.

Except we didn't give the award to James Gandolfini. Don't get us wrong -- Gandolfini gives a fine, fine, super-fine performance as the middle-managing Mafia don; he is the living metaphor for all the themes of familial conflict and class warfare that play out across each season of The Sopranos. Jimmy G put in his usual good work, but our eyes were elsewhere this season.

They were on Ralphie Cifaretto's appallingly bad hair. Ralphie, who is the walking, talking embodiment of a migraine headache, has hair from eighties -- long in the front, orange and overprocessed. It's goofball hair. But the face that peers out beneath it -- Joe Pantoliano's mug -- radiates evil.

The genius behind Pantoliano's portrayal of Ralphie lays not in flamboyant, cape-swirling, moustache-twirling evil, but in how quickly he switches between seeming ordinariness and sheer sociopathy. Pantoliano gave a full-bodied performance of someone who is incapable of thinking about anyone else; in the episode after he arranges to have his fiancee Rosalie's son hit, he grumbles that he's going to go spend the night at his goomah's house because Rosalie's grief is annoying him.

Ralphie understands cause and effect only as they apply to him, and we know that he knows that because Pantoliano shows us how Ralphie thinks -- the careful aversion of his gaze when Tony looks at him too long, the sudden fury that twists his features when he perceives himself getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop, the careful mask he assembles when he's placating his fiancee or chatting over dinner at the Sopranos' place.

Pantoliano's careful characterization of Ralphie -- his portrayal of someone who embodies Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" -- will probably be overshadowed by the one episode in which he beat his pregnant stripper girlfriend to death. It's a pity, because that one episode was only a flashpoint, a warning that this is a character whose mind works best when it's skittering quietly through the dank places other, better psyches rarely go. For showing us the way ordinary evil works, Joe Pantoliano takes the prize.

Additional contributions to this article by: Lisa Schmeiser.


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