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Michael Imperioli Says ‘Lean on Me’ Director John Avildsen Was ‘Not Very Nice’ on Set

Michael Imperioli is reflecting on his first Hollywood gig, one that made him believe he was a “horrible” actor.

“The Sopranos” actor recalled during an interview with The New Yorker his movie debut in 1989 film “Lean on Me,” directed by John Avildsen. According to Imperioli, Avildsen left a less-than-ideal impression, and was “not very nice” to the child actors on set. Imperioli was one of the extras who had a line in a crowd sequence; his scene was ultimately cut from the final film.

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“My first experience on a movie was ‘Lean on Me,’ which was directed by John Avildsen, who did ‘Rocky.’ And he was very impatient. He was not very nice, to be honest,” Imperioli said. “I think he was overwhelmed because there were, like, a thousand high-school kids in this. He made me audition in the cafeteria during the lunch break with, like, hundreds of kids. It was horrible. I had one line.”

Clearly, the experience stuck with the “White Lotus” Season 2 alum.

“What happens is, we’re in the auditorium, which is full with extras. Morgan Freeman’s onstage reading out these characters’ names, calling them up to the stage where he’s gonna expel them, and every kid has a reaction. He calls my name, and my reaction is, ‘Hey, I’m gonna be a star.’ But I’d never been in front of a camera,” Imperioli said. “This was the eighties. There were giant Panavision cameras, and I didn’t know where to look. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I mumbled the line thinking maybe they won’t notice me or something. And then [Avildsen] comes and starts giving direction. He goes, ‘And you with that “Gonna be a star,” you’d better give me something or you’re out of here!’ I was horrified. I think, ‘I’m horrible, I suck.'”

Maybe Imperioli should have brought him a Cutty and water.

Working with Avildsen was the exact “opposite” of collaborating with Martin Scorsese on “Goodfellas,” which marked Imperioli’s (actual) feature debut onscreen. Imperioli famously plays the mob’s gopher Spider who is shot in the foot by Joe Pesci’s character.

“A year later, I get ‘GoodFellas.’ And Scorsese was absolutely the opposite [as Avildsen],” Imperioli said. “He comes to my little honey-wagon trailer and says, ‘If you have any questions, come and get me.’ He says, ‘Don’t feel shy. It’s good if you treat the actors like the character.’ Which was really helpful, because now I don’t have to be a fanboy. So when we go on the set, he made me feel so comfortable.”

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