“I’ve been married four times — well, six if you count the annulments,” Dominic Chianese candidly admits to Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “Look, I’m 87, and I come from a generation that married their girlfriends!” There’s more than a bit of The Sopranos’ incorrigible Uncle Junior in Dominic, but there’s also a lot more to this father-of-six than meets the eye.
He’s an accomplished singer and guitarist who owes his screen acting career not to the late, beloved James Gandolfini, but to another guy famous for playing mobsters: Al Pacino. “Al was my godfather,” Dominic says of his co-star in The Godfather: Part II and other films. “He always hired his friends, and if it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into the movies.”
Though they’re still close, his true consigliere is his wife of 15 years, Jane, whom he writes about in his new memoir, Twelve Angels: The Women Who Taught Me How to Act, Live, and Love. In the new issue of Closer, Dominic opened up about his marriages, greatest life lesson, and losing James Gandolfini — scroll down to read our exclusive Q&A interview with the actor!
Your Sopranos character made you famous. Did you relate to Uncle Junior at all?
Oh yes, because his sense of humor was very Italian. I grew up in a neighborhood in Belmont [the Bronx, NY] that was more Italian than Mulberry Street [in NYC’s Little Italy]! There were real racketeers there.
What was it like working on the show?
Fun! We’d have table reads every Thursday and I couldn’t wait to get the scripts because they gave me the funniest lines. Everybody has an uncle or grandparent like that, some old geezer who thinks they know it all!
Do you have a favorite memory from it?
With Nancy March and, it was the way she looked at you. She had very powerful eyes. I have a lot of favorite moments, but Jimmy [Gandolfini] was special. I love watching the scene where Tony, this powerful mob boss who was a psychopath, says, “Don’t you love me?” I looked at him and I cried. Junior really did love his nephew but was critical of him.
When James passed away in 2013 at age 51, were you in complete shock?
I was shattered. I cried like a baby. Jimmy was like a homemade wine. I loved Gandolfini, I’ll always love him. All of this is part of the story [in my book]. There’s no false stuff in there. I’ve worked with great people — Pacino, George C. Scott. It’s personal.
Were you intimidated by Pacino?
No, no. He’s from the Bronx. He liked me right away. He heard about me from the stage, saw a talent in me and introduced me to Sidney Lumet. We did movies and a play together, so we’re close. He’s a real friend.
Were you friendly with George C. Scott?
Yeah, because we worked in a bank together as kids. He got me my first TV appearance in [the 1963 to 1964 drama] East Side/West Side.
You did movies like Dog Day Afternoon and All the President’s Men, but it took decades for you to become famous…
I was about 68 years old when The Sopranos began. My wife, Jane, was in my life at that time — she’s the 12th angel [in my book Twelve Angels]. I was living on 81st Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan in a room that was about 17 feet long, 10 feet wide. I had egg crates for furniture!
How did you hang in for so long?
With my mother, I could have shot the pope and she’d say, “Oh, he’s a good kid,” but my father was a bricklayer who believed in tough love. He said, “Get a steady job — you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” I was going to prove him wrong if it killed me! One of the highlights in my life was when he saw me in The Godfather: Part II and said, “You did it! I wish I could do something like that.” I said, “Pop, you were married to Mom for 52 years.” Now I realize he accomplished more than I could ever accomplish.
Your memoir is a big accomplishment.
I started it way back in 2001. I hired someone to type it out — I figured it was easier to talk. There were 400 pages and my wife kept saying, “When are you going to publish it?” I said, “I’ll get to it one of these days.” I reunited with an old friend, Jonathan Sargent, when I sang at the Grand Ole Opry and he happened to be in the audience. I met his son Matthew, who’s a writer, and asked if he wanted to read it. About a month later he tells me he has this idea — he saw an arc with the women in my life — and then he hands me Twelve Angels! He rewrote it, and it was mind-boggling.
When were you first married?
In 1953. I was 22, a kid. I knew nothing about marriage. That lasted 22 months. The second marriage was a farce. We had to get married, because if I didn’t… her father was Neapolitan. That lasted six weeks. The third was six years, the fourth was 12 years…
It’s hard to keep track! How many kids do you have?
I have four daughters and two sons from three different mothers. One is a love child, Lea — she always had my name, but her mother took her to Seattle [as a baby] and we reunited after  years. I have 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Luckily I survived!
What was your longest-lasting marriage?
This one now, to Jane. We married 15 years ago but have been together 25 years.
Why did you marry so many times, and what made this one last?
When [one wife] and I broke up, Al said, “Oh, my God,” because the kids were taken away from me and he knew I had a weakness: I could not be alone. With Jane, the difference was me! I grew up. I finally learned that marriage is a two-way street.
What are your biggest life lessons?
How to really love. That love begins with you, and until you love yourself, you really cannot be a part of a community. I learned that the hard way.
If you could give your 20-year-old self advice, what would it be?
Do exactly what you did. I have no regrets. I was in all the wrong places at the right time — in other words, everything was a learning experience. And look how it turned out. It ends well!
For more on Dominic Chianese, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!