Saturday Night’s Children: Tony Rosato (1981-1982)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
For such an Italian-Canadian SCTV character success, it’s surprising that Tony Rosato and his larger-than-life delivery — compared in his early days to that of John Belushi (who he also impersonated) — never made much of a splash during his run on SNL from 1981-1982. The producer/cast member shake-ups of the early 1980s and the 1981 Writer’s Guild of America Strike can soak up part of the blame, and it didn’t help that the show already had a powerfully charismatic Jersey Italian in Joe Piscopo. Still, while Rosato wasn’t necessarily a breakout star, he maintained a fiery energy and straight-man stability that helped brighten parts of SNL during one of its darkest eras.
Rosato was born in Naples, Italy and raised in Halifax, Ottawa, and Toronto, Canada. He dropped out of the University of Toronto, where he was studying chiropractic medicine, to pursue his gaining interest in performing improv at Second City Toronto, which led to his hiring at SCTV for its third season in 1980. On SCTV, Rosato played the inebriated TV chef named Marcello Sebastiani and delivered decent impersonations of Lou Costello, William Conrad, Danny Thomas, Tony Orlando, Ella Fitzgerald, and Woodstock organizer Chip Monck.
Alongside Robin Duke, Rosato was hired at SNL starting its April 11, 1981 episode helmed by NBC producer Dick Ebersol. SNL went on an immediate hiatus after this one episode due to the 1981 WGA strike, and Rosato and the cast wouldn’t return until the following season.
Rosato had two recurring characters — New York call-in radio show host Vic Salukin and the old Italian “Papa” based on his Second City character “The Groom” who appeared two times. He also impersonated several celebrities like Captain Kangaroo, Rip Taylor, Richard Nixon, Lou Costello (a reprisal of his SCTV impression), Ed Meese, Ed Asner, and Yasser Arafat. Though Rosato could pull off louder and sillier performances (like in his SNL Newsbreak “Emergency Broadcast Network” segment), he excelled most at playing husky working-class Italians as well as the token straight-man foil to cast members like Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky, and Joe Piscopo.
At the end of SNL‘s seventh season, Ebersol fired Rosato, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Christine Ebersole to make room for new players. Rosato found steady work after that with American and Canadian television roles on Amanda’s, Seeing Things, Hot Shots, Hangin’ In, and most notably his role as Arthur “Whitey” Morelli on Night Heat from 1985-1989, which earned him a Gemini nom for Best Supporting Actor. He also played Luigi in The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 TV show in 1990 and appeared in Maniac Mansion, Street Legal, L.A. Law, Relic Hunter and TV movies One Police Plaza, Hands of a Stranger, Sadie and Son, The Diamond Fleece, and more. He’s also done voice work for over 70 different animated series including The Busy World of Richard Scarry, Pippi Longstocking, Rolie Polie Olie, Little Bear, Flash Gordon, Sailor Moon, Franklin, and Atomic Betty.
Here’s where Rosato’s story tragically veers from the typical single-season SNL bit player: In 2005, he was arrested on criminal harassment charges after complaining to police that his wife and infant daughter had been abducted and replaced with “imposters.” Instead of getting mental health treatment, Rosato was kept in maximum security prison while awaiting conviction for two years, which was more “than any other convicted prisoner in Canada has ever spent on the same charges.” To his credit, Rosato’s comedic instincts remained even during his imprisonment — one letter he wrote to his lawyer included the line “Please, I beg of you, look into this before I become like Jessica Lange in Frances.”
After his release from prison, Rosato was sent to a psychiatric facility where he was diagnosed with Capgras syndrome. Despite their struggles, Rosato and his wife reunited following his release from psychiatric care 19 months later and subsequent probationary period, which ended in 2010. He’s since reentered the Toronto improv scene by taking classes at Second City with plans to start up his own touring troupe. As for why he returned to his Second City roots, Rosato said in an interview earlier this year: “Well, because I hadn’t done improv in a long time. And it’s a skill, as you know. You have to stay fresh with it otherwise you start losing that sense of gravity that any good improviser has, that sense of courage, and strength.” For a man who has already made the Second City mainstage troupe, succeeded as an SCTV star, faltered on SNL, and been trapped in prison with nothing but his thoughts and schizophrenic delusions, it’s surely a testament to Rosato’s dedication and love for comedy (and the kind of humility so rare yet essential to recovery) that he’s started all over again from level 1 improv classes at his own alma mater.