We all get the same 24 hours a day, but what actor Paul Picerni managed to do with his across six decades in Hollywood is remarkable.
Raising eight children with Marie, his wife of 63 years, Picerni, now 87, played in 63 motion pictures and guest starred in 455 television shows. His most prominent role was on the acclaimed TV crime-busting drama “The Untouchables” as “Lee Hobson,” the sidekick to Robert Stack’s “Eliot Ness.”
What drove his success? “Oh gosh, I had tremendous desire. I wanted it so badly,” Picerni remembers. “You have to have tremendous desire to be a professional actor. Then you have to have the talent and the training, and you have to create the opportunities.”
Picerni felt the desire and discovered his talent in high school and then as a World War II Army Special Services entertainer. He later became a bombardier and flew 25 combat missions. After the war, he moved from New York to California in 1946, enrolled at Loyola University and joined the Del Rey Players as Loyola’s first drama major. In June 1950, he missed his graduation ceremony to play in “Breakthrough,” a Warner Brothers war picture that led Picerni to a seven-year contract and roles in dozens of films, including “Operation Pacific” with John Wayne and “Mara Maru” with Errol Flynn. Picerni is proudest of being the romantic lead in the 1953 horror classic “House of Wax” with Vincent Price.
After his silver screen contract ended, Picerni turned to the small screen. “Working for three seasons on ‘The Untouchables’ was the experience of a lifetime,” he says. It was rigorous — long hours, nighttime shoots, physical tests — but the show raised his profile worldwide. Picerni’s TV work included guest spots on many iconic shows, such as “Dragnet,” “Batman,” “Gunsmoke” and “Kojak.” Telly Savalas, the star of “Kojak,” was his best friend for almost 30 years.
The bright lights didn’t blind Picerni to how his Catholic values and education underpin his achievement. Even 60 years later, his gratitude to Loyola is as fresh as the ingénues in old movies. “The priests were unbelievable men and great teachers,” he says. “They taught me how to live the proper way and not get too wacky as some people in the picture business do. I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to marry an Italian girl, and I wanted a good family. It all happened just right for me. I thank the priests who helped outline my life and my direction.”
Editor’s Note: I am sad to report that Paul Picerni passed away on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011, about a month after this profile was published. Tributes to him appeared in the Hollywood Reporter, theNew York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily News.