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Written by Timothy Sexton
Robert DeNiro was the guiding force behind Raging Bull actually getting made, having brought LaMotta’s autobiography to the attention of director Martin Scorsese. DeNiro famously transformed his previously slender body into a muscle mass of middleweight boxing machine in order to convincingly play LaMotta in his prime and then took several weeks off during the middle of production to lose his muscle mass and pack on 60 pounds of flab to play LaMotta after he has retired and let his physical appearance go. The result was not just an Oscar-winning performance for Robert DeNiro, but elevation to legendary status and a wholesale change in the approach to film acting which has seen subsequent performances by a multitude of actors include substantial amounts of weight gain or lost.
Joe Pesci had only managed to land one role and was about to call it quits on his acting career when he was cast as Jake LaMotta’s long-suffering, pugnacious and scarily hilarious brother Joey in Raging Bull. As his boxing manager as well as brother, Joey is charged with the nearly impossible multitasking responsibilities of managing Jake’s violent tendencies both inside and outside the ring. During filming, DeNiro actually broke one of Pesci’s ribs during a scene where Joey acts as Jake’s sparring partner—a take that was actually kept in the film! For his performance, Pesci was named Best Supporting Actor of the Year by the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, but lost out at the Academy Awards in a controversial decision by the makers of Ordinary People to submit Timothy Hutton’s nomination in the Supporting Actor category despite the fact that Hutton played the main character with the most screen time in that movie.
Moriarty’s only acting experience had been in amateur stage productions when she auditioned at age 17 to play Jake LaMotta’s second wife, Vickie. The blonde, husky-voiced newcomer stunned many with her ability to hold her own against Robert DeNiro at the peak of his career in his greatest performance in scene after scene in which he was menacing or threatening and Moriarty was charged with soothing, taming or fighting back against him. Moriarty joined DeNiro and Pesci in being nominated for an Oscar for her performance.
Frank Vincent commenced a series of performances in Martin Scorsese films playing gangland characters with Salvy in Raging Bull. Salvy is a low-level mob operator whose primary job seems to be to use his connection with Joey LaMotta to convince Jake to that he doesn’t stand a chance of getting a shot at boxing for the championship title unless he plays ball with the mob. The price that Salvy plays for getting his job done is a vicious beating by Joey—including his having a car door slammed against his head. Vincent would also play a mobster who receives a beating from Joe Pesci in Goodfellas before finally getting his revenge by playing a mobster who gives Joe Pesci’s character a beating in Casino.
Tommy Como is the mob boss for whom Salvy works in his effort to get Jake LaMotta to come into the fold. Como is based on a real-life mobster named Frankie Carbo whose underworld nickname was the Czar of Boxing. Carbo essentially ran the business of professional boxing in New York City throughout most of the 1940s and 1950s. By the time Colasanto appeared as the soft-spoken but strangely menacing Tommy Como, he had already been acting in Hollywood for more than two decades as well as directing episodes of TV classics ranging from Columbo to Logan’s Run. Nevertheless, it would be just two years after his performance as a mob boss that stardom would finally arrive for Colasanto in the form of a character as far removed from Tommy Como as possible: the beloved Coach on the first three seasons of Cheers.
Theresa Saldana plays the minor role Lenore LaMotta, Joey’s wife and Jake’s sister-in-law. Two years after the release of Raging Bull, Saldana was brutally attacked by a mentally unstable fan who had been stalking her after developing a fixation on her inspired, in part, by her performance in the film. Upon recovering from the attack which resulted in her being stabbed ten times by the crazed “fan” Saldana went on to found the Victims for Victims advocacy organization which was instrumental in helping to pass several pieces of legislation aimed at reducing the ability of stalkers to gain personal information which could be used in planning future violent attacks.
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