Vinny Vella, Actor and Pulse of Little Italy, Dies at 72
Who’s better than you? Vinny, that’s Who.
Little Italy residents this week are mourning the loss of Vinny Vella.
The local legend, and character actor, died of complications from liver cancer on Wednesday (February 20) at the age of 72. He is survived by his wife Margaret-Anne, and his children Benjamin and Anthony Hernandez, Lauren and Jennifer Vella, and Vinny Vella Jr., who resides in Florida with his wife and two kids.
Thoughts, prayers, and fond memories of the neighborhood fixture were shared on Facebook and Instagram, where friends, neighbors, and family posted photos and reminisced about Vella’s life. The undercurrent throughout was that of bemoaning the loss of the very Little Italy that Vinny had come to represent.
While best known for his heart-stopping performance as Artie Piscano in Casino, and playing the role of Jimmy “the rat” Petrille in The Sopranos, it was the story of Vinny’s early life captured by local filmmaker John Huba in the 1999 documentary, Hey Vinny, that endeared him to the neighborhood.
In the mid-1990s, Hey Vinny could be heard called out more than a few times a day as Vinny sat perched outside of Albanese Meat Market on Elizabeth Street, hanging out with his friend Moe the Butcher. In those days, Vinny was the eyes and ears on the street at a time when finding an apartment meant finding the guy in the ‘hood that was in the know. For many newbies to the old school neighborhood, Vinny was the go-to-guy for info on newly vacated apartments, where to park the car, not to mention which girls were newly single.
In 2016, both Hey Vinny and the newly released documentary, Mulberry Street, by director Paul Stone, were coupled as a double-feature for a past vs. present look at Little Italy as part of Elizabeth Street Garden’s “This Is Little Italy” film event. The outdoor screening brought together hundreds of people, including lifelong residents, in support of Vinny, and the garden, and provided an opportunity to reflect on how the neighborhood has changed. Monsignor Sakano of Old Saint Patrick’s fondly remembers Vinny humbly approaching him after the screening and apologizing for the profanity he used in the 1990s documentary.
A few months later, Vinny gave a rousing speech at a rally to save the garden which garnered wild applause and hugs for his unabashed statements against the City’s plan to raze the garden. After which, he joked about adding “community activist” to his resume.
Vinny filmed his last role opposite his longtime friend Robert DeNiro in Martin Scorsese’s highly-anticipated feature, The Irishman. His posthumous appearance is as a butcher in the epic biopic of Jimmy Hoffa set to premiere on Netflix next fall.
Even as Vinny battled his illness, he continued to charm locals and tourists alike with his tongue-in-cheek wise-guy routine while visiting his area haunts. No longer hearing his catchphrase greeting to locals lucky enough to have known him – “Who’s better than You?” – is a tough pill for this neighborhood to swallow.
He is already missed.
“As long as I can make people laugh, tell stories, have my friends and my family around me… Hey, who the hell’s better than me?”
-Vinny Vella’s last line in Hey Vinny, filmed in 1999.