Improvising a scene with Al Pacino in an Oscar-nominated film. Acting as an extra in “Raging Bull.” Appearing in a nationally televised beer commercial. Directing hundreds of plays. Cooking up delicious samples of fish at our neighborhood Kroger.
All performed by one and the same person: Carl Pistilli.
You know Pistilli. He’s the one who has convinced kids (and some previously fish-averse adults) all over East Dallas to actually eat fish.
Shop at Kroger on Mockingbird, and you’ll see Pistilli there most days, back in the meat and seafood department, cooking at his little station, his much-used electric skillet sizzling with garlic. His coveted samples of tilapia, sea bass and salmon go fast.
Little do most know, however, that Pistilli comes to Dallas by way of New York City theaters and Hollywood movie sets. His story of ultimately landing in Dallas, spatula in hand, is circuitous and fascinating.
Born and raised in Cleveland by Italian parents, Pistilli is a first-generation American who discovered acting at age 13 when he was cast as Frances Flute in his school’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He recalls, “I loved it and wanted to do more.”
Pistilli sought out the Cleveland Playhouse Children’s Theater, making the crosstown trek by bus several times each week for acting classes and rehearsals. By the time he was 17, he had done 25 shows.
Despite his passion for the stage, Pistilli’s parents believed his interest was a “passing fancy.” They insisted he decline the offer of an apprenticeship at the playhouse and go to college, a decision that, to this day, Pistilli regrets. Kent State University was not his cup of tea: “I hated it, resented it, loathed it.” A year later, he left to move to New York City and enroll at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
About a year later, an ad in a trade paper caught his eye: intern director at a theater in Midland, Texas. Eager for the experience and an escape from the hungry life in the big city, Pistilli jumped at the chance.
Over the next few years, he served as artistic director and taught acting at various theaters around the country until returning to New York in 1978 “to make a concerted effort to make a living as an actor.”
Pistilli quickly found work in films, commercials and television. He acted in more than 40 film-TV projects as a principal, and as a background actor in 150-plus movies. A high point, he remembers, occurred during the filming of “And Justice for All.”
He played a small-time crook, appearing in court for sentencing with his defense attorney, played by Al Pacino. Oscar-nominated director Norman Jewison liked the chemistry between the two actors and encouraged them to improvise beyond the script, to “just go with it.” They did, and every word stayed in the film.
Pistilli and Pacino had a “great relationship,” Pistilli says. While working with Woody Allen on “Broadway Danny Rose,” he found the famously quirky filmmaker to be “a weird little man who’s brilliant.” Acting with Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull,” “Analyze This” and “Goodfellas,” Pistilli describes the star as “aloof.” Alan Alda in “Crimes and Misdemeanors”? Nice guy.
Work was steady in New York and Los Angeles but still not enough to make ends meet. So like most actors, Pistilli supplemented his acting gigs with “survival” jobs. At various times, he worked as a bartender, audience recruiter for TV pilots, and product demonstrator for Bloomingdales, Macy’s and Boar’s Head. Pistilli discovered a knack for interacting with and engaging customers.
In 2001, Pistilli returned to Texas when he answered an ad for artistic director at Garland Civic Theatre. He also directed productions at Plano Repertory Theatre and traveled to Long Lake, N.Y, for three summers of directing.
Seeking a change about eight years ago, he answered an ad at Kroger and was hired as a cook/demonstrator. Pistilli drew upon his former experience and sharpened his culinary skills, experimenting with and developing recipes. He is self-taught in the kitchen, his only “training” being through osmosis as a kid, watching his mom, who was “a great cook.”
Pistilli smiles and says he’s very happy at Kroger. “I love cooking great fish with my original recipes, which people seem to love,” he says, and he’s gratified to “introduce so many young kids to fish.” But it’s about so much more than the salmon or the tilapia: “I’m there to be an ambassador of good will.”
Manager Dave Easton agrees. “Every day I’m grateful that Carl is part of our team,” he says. “It’s exciting to see young children approach Carl, shouting, ‘Hi, Carl, what have you prepared today?’“
Does Pistilli miss the stage? “Not at all, not in the least; it’s like a lifetime ago,” he insists, though he adds with a sly smile that he would consider directing again “if the right show came along.” He concedes that “Mr. Carl, the Fish Guy,” is “another role, another identity. But it’s not a phony role, it’s an extension of my personality.”
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