Actor Gardenia dies at age 71

Vincent Gardenia, the Italian-born, Oscar-nominated performer who had an award-winning career as a character actor in films and on stage and television, died yesterday in Philadelphia of a heart attack. He was 71.

Gardenia, who was in Philadelphia for the play “Breaking Legs” at the Forrest Theater, apparently was stricken in his room at the Benjamin Franklin House, said publicist Jeffrey Richards, his spokesman in New York. The play had started its run Tuesday night.

Gardenia earned two Oscar nominations for his roles as a baseball manager in “Bang the Drum Slowly” in 1973 and as the father in a quirky Brooklyn family in the 1987 film “Moonstruck.” Among his numerous awards was a Tony for his performance in “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” in 1972 and an Emmy in HBO’s “Age Old Friends” in 1990.

Gardenia, who estimated he played 500 roles in a career that dated back to age 5, was recently seen as Roxanne’s father on “L.A. Law” and as Joe Pesci’s father in the film “The Super.”

“If it were up to me, I’d work 52 weeks a year,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer last week.

Gardenia was born in Naples, Italy, the son of Gennaro Gardenia Scognamiglio, a star of the Italian stage. The family moved from Milan to America when Vincent was 2 and settled in Brooklyn, where he remained.

It was as part of the “Gennaro Gardenia Company”–with plays written by the father and a friend–that Gardenia began his acting career.

He went on to star in countless plays, movies and TV shows, including “Ballroom” on Broadway, for which he received a Tony nomination, Neil Simon’s “God’s Favorite” and “California Suite”; the movies “The Hustler,””The Front Page,””Heaven Can Wait” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”

He also appeared in 10 episodes of the TV series “All in the Family” as Archie Bunker’s neighbor.

Richards’ office did not know of any survivors. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.