Whether as Frank Lorenzo – Archie Bunker’s liberal neighbor in All in the Family – or as Cher’s philandering father in Moonstruck, Vincent Gardenia was a recognizable presence on the stage and screen. He appeared often on Broadway in plays but rarely in musical theater, an exception being his starring role as Alfred Rossi in Ballroom (1978).
Originally named Vincenzo Scognamiglio, Gardenia was born in 1922 in Naples, Italy. He and his family moved to the United States when he was two years old, settling in Brooklyn, New York. In their new home, Gardenia’s father put together a little acting company that performed in Italian, with plots often about children who get in trouble, flee, and then return asking for forgiveness. Gardenia began playing in the troupe at age five and continued to act in his father’s Italian-language company until 1960.
By that time, however, he had already begun to make a name for himself in English-language drama. He played Piggy in the Cherry Lane production of The Man with the Golden Arm (1956) and soon moved to Broadway, with parts in The Visit (1958), starring the Lunt-Fontanne duo; The Cold Wind and the Warm (1958), which featured Suzanne Pleshette, Maureen Stapleton, and Eli Wallach; Rashomon (1959), with Claire Bloom, Oscar Homolka, and Rod Steiger; and The Wall (1960), with George C. Scott.
In 1961, Gardenia played Sergeant Manzoni in Daughter of Silence, a murder mystery set in Tuscany. With his careworn face and square jaw, Gardenia made a good policeman, and he would play cops in several later productions. Also in the 1960s, Gardenia began to appear in film and television, with appearances in Murder, Inc. (1960), The Hustler (1961), A View from the Bridge (1962), and The Rat Patrol (1967).
The 1970s brought Gardenia increased fame on stage and screen. He played Mr. Newquist in Little Murders (1971), a black comedy starring Elliott Gould and Marcia Rodd. Two years later he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the baseball drama Bang the Drum Slowly (1973). He was also a semi-regular on the hit television comedy All in the Family in the 1973–74 season, playing Frank Lorenzo, Archie’s gourmandizing neighbor. On Broadway, he began his association with Neil Simon as Harry Edison in The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971), which also featured Peter Falk and Lee Grant. For his performance, Gardenia won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play. Later work in Simon’s 1970s comedies included roles in God’s Favorite and California Suite. He also took over for George C. Scott in the leading role of Sly Fox, a 1976 adaptation of Ben Jonson’s cynical comedy Volpone.
Gardenia’s sole appearance in a musical on Broadway was his starring role, opposite Dorothy Loudon, in Ballroom (1978). With a book by Jerome Kaas, music by Billy Goldenberg, and lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Ballroom tells the story of Bea Asher, a widow, and her romantic dreams about Alfred Rossi, a man she meets at a ballroom. The musical was nominated for Tony and Drama Desk awards, and Gardenia can be heard on the original cast recording.
Other movies featuring Gardenia include Death Wish, Little Shop of Horrors, and Moonstruck, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He died in 1992.