John Fiore was still trying to figure out what to do with his life after he’d graduated from Somerville High. He went to Bunker Hill Community College and briefly attended Northeastern and learned one thing: “I didn’t want to go to school anymore.”
He’d never even been in a high school play. “But privately there was something in me with artistic thoughts,” he recalled.
Fiore wasn’t wrong. You might remember him best as detective Tony Profaci during the first eight seasons of the NBC crime drama “Law & Order,” or as mobster Gigi Cestone in HBO’s “The Sopranos.”
Now 62 and living in Stoneham, Fiore will play former Edgartown police chief Dominick Arena in the film “Chappaquiddick,” about when Ted Kennedy drove off a Martha’s Vineyard bridge in 1969 and his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. The film is set to be released later this year.
Fiore’s road to the big time took some curves. After quitting Northeastern, he landed a job as a court officer in Cambridge, where he got to wear a nice uniform and pick up a decent paycheck. Fiore took it a step further, enrolling at Suffolk University and earning a degree in criminal justice.
“I even thought about law school,” said Fiore, who was 27 at the time. But holding him back was a persistent thought swirling inside him since he’d taken a college acting course. “I’d been poisoned by acting, by the bug,’” he said.
Chasing an acting career isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s humbling and rife with rejection.
“I did industrial films to make a buck,” Fiore said. He did community theater, and landed a few roles at the prestigious Gloucester Stage Company.
He took day trips to New York, “slipping photos under the door of agents, hoping to get a bite.”
He got cast in two soaps, “As the World Turns” and “One Life to Live.” Fiore hired an agent and landed the role in “Law & Order” in 1990.
“That turned out to be the ballgame,” said Fiore, the boost he needed. The recurring role on the New York police drama also included the “Law & Order” movie. He was staying busy, playing a mobster in “The Brotherhood” on TV and appearing in “Meet the Parents” and “Mystic Pizza,” among other films.
Then, in 1999, “ ‘The Sopranos’ came along,” Fiore said.
David Chase had created a groundbreaking series for HBO. It was a career-changing audition for Fiore, in front of Chase and about a dozen of his staff. Whether he got the part or not, Fiore was going to leave an impression by wearing a pair of suede leopard shoes you could spot a mile away. He told Chase, “You may see a better actor than me today, but you won’t see a [expletive] better pair of shoes!”
Chase laughed. He must have appreciated Fiore’s spontaneity and grit. Fiore got the part of Cestone, who eventually joins Tony Soprano’s crew.
“I hadn’t even read the whole script yet,” said Fiore, who waited a week before he got the call that the part was his. “When you leave an audition it’s always ‘Great job, thanks for coming in,’ but you don’t know how many guys auditioned for Gigi. But when I left I thought I had a chance.”
Fiore was in 13 episodes of “The Sopranos” before his character suffered a fatal heart attack while sitting on the toilet in his gang crew’s hangout.
“The show was appointment TV on Sunday nights,” Fiore said. “I was hoping it never ended.”
After a career lull, he’s excited about appearing in “Chappaquiddick.”
“John’s caliber of talent, his expertise as an actor, shined through for the role,” said Angela Peri, director of Boston Casting, which provides talent for movies filmed in the region. “He was fantastic.”
Not bad for a Somerville kid who never dreamed he’d make a living in front of glaring, hot lights. “It was a great place to grow up,” Fiore said. We were baby boomers. The neighborhoods were bustling with children. Irish. Italian. We were into sports. It was a lot of fun.”
He remains a north-of-Boston guy, haunting the restaurants of Gloucester, easing his way to Cape Ann, taking in shows at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly. Occasionally, he’s recognized as the guy from “The Sopranos.” Fiore makes appearances at restaurants and casinos, and calls it “a sort of fame.”
Tough business, this acting thing. But John Fiore’s not belly-aching. “I got to be inside this machine,” he said. “I’ve had chances.”
It was never about the fame. It was always about the work.