Audiences mistakenly believed Vito Scotti's characters were played by different actors
He might be one of the most convincing character actors on classic TV.
In the first season Addams Family episode "Art and the Addams Family," Grandmama looks up "Picasso" in the phone book to find an art teacher.
On the other end of the line is Sam Picasso, an Italian man unrelated to the famous painter by the same name, who agrees to come to the Addams mansion anyway, despite not being an artist.
Comedy ensues, and in particular, the brand of comedy that only character actor Vito Scotti could deliver.
Known as a man of a thousand faces, Scotti was trained in the Italian commedia dell’arte style of theater. That meant he liked joining ensemble casts where he could improvise in stock scenes, endlessly exploring how far he could take his characters within the bounds of TV episodes where he featured.
Considered a lost art today, this style of performance is what Scotti believed set him apart as a character actor.
On The Addams Family, his portrayal of Sam Picasso was so funny, the series brought him back to revive the character in the second season.
In 1964, a TV critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette praised his performance, proclaiming, "Character actor Vito Scotti has a field day in the role of a phony artist."
For Scotti, who acted in hundreds of TV and movie roles in his long career from 1949 to 1995, he preferred doing character work, as opposed to seeking starring roles.
"I sacrificed recognition to practice my craft – that of being a character actor," Scotti told the San Bernardino Sun in 1982.
His passion for acting started at the age of 7 when his vaudeville-performing parents "pushed him onstage."
"Now nobody can get me off," Scotti joked to The Lincoln Star in 1968.
That year, Scotti departed from his beloved character work and joined the cast of The Flying Nun, after producers created a character just for him. It was his second time as a TV star, following a short stint on the sitcom Life With Luigi in 1953.
"I didn’t want to be tied to any one series before this," Scotti said of joining The Flying Nun. "I was having too much fun playing different parts, but the part of Capt. Fomento was written expressly for me. It’s perfect for me and fits me like a glove. I have a free reign on the part, and I can do as I wish with it."
In short, it was the perfect vehicle for Scotti’s rare brand of comedy.
And after more than a decade playing a variety of roles, where he said many audiences actually believed that his roles were all played by different actors, he was ready for a little recognition from fans.
He was ready to show them his true face.
"I accepted the series to get some personal identification, to let them know what I really look like," Scotti told The Baltimore Sun in 1968.
Over his long career, Scotti said the only job he ever took on that he regretted was one of his earliest.
"On my first trip to Hollywood from New York, they asked me if I worked with animals," Scotti said. "I said sure. I’m thinking of dogs and cats. So, they put me in a Hindu show, and I’m supposed to ride an elephant and walk around with a tiger. I was scared stiff. So, the animal trainer starts bawling me out. He tells me I’m making his animals nervous because I’m afraid. The trainer tells me how safe it is to work with animals and calls me a coward. Then I look at his back – he’s got his shirt off – and it’s a mass of scars, and there’s a shoulder blade sticking out. And he is telling me it’s safe."
Scotti did eventually conquer that fear of working with animals, though. On The Addams Family, he notably appeared in an episode featuring Kitty-Cat, the family’s pet lion.
Despite his stand-out performance on The Flying Nun series, Scotti struggled to be recognized for his immense talent by producers as much as by fans.
He told the St. Joseph News-Press that even after 50 years of working in theater and Hollywood, he was still forced to audition.
"The younger producers and the younger casting people don’t know me, although I think they should," Scotti said. "So, they ask me to audition for them. And I do it, but I don’t think I should have to after all these years."
Toward the end of his career, Scotti dealt with some struggles at home, including helping his daughter Carmen, as she became one of the first patients to undergo a pioneering spinal replacement surgery.
After going through that hard time with his family, Scotti used his small fame and ample fortune from all his acting work and started the Carmen Fund to help other disabled high school students afford the medical treatments that they needed.
For Scotti, he had ample free time to support the Carmen Fund, alongside his acting obligations, because sliding in and out of different characters became second nature and he didn’t have to waste much time preparing for any role.
Whether he was playing Carol Burnett’s landlord or an immigrant baker in The Godfather, his improvisational skills only got better with time.
"After nearly 50 years of acting, I just change the makeup and the characterization follows," Scotti said.