Former Sopranos star now focusing on mental illness

Brian Feldt

Joey Pantoliano has discovered that after acting in more than 100 movies and landing an Emmy Award for his portrayal of a gangster, the entertainment industry might not be for him after all.

Best known for his mafia connections as Ralph Cifaretto in HBO’s "The Sopranos," Pantoliano was in Peoria on Tuesday morning to promote the Partnership for Prescription Assistance "Help is Here Express" bus tour, which helps uninsured and financially struggling people get medicine for little or no cost.

"I’ve done a lot of movies but I think that I like this job better than any part I’ve ever played," he said. "I think it may be my calling now to do service, and if I can be of service because of some of the movies that I’ve been in, then that is good."

Pantoliano suffers from mental depression and joined the PPA tour to help raise awareness of chronic mental illnesses, which affect one out of every five adults.

His new foundation, No Kidding, Me Too!, is trying to rid of the stigma behind mental illnesses and enable those with mental illnesses to identify their disease and seek help without having to feel uncomfortable about it.

"Research has shown that you really can’t get help with mental illness until you get rid of the stigmas that are attached to it," he said. "People are embarrassed to admit it. My cause is to get rid of that stigma. I saw an opportunity for me to get the word out and help (PPA) help people with this."

The 56-year-old actor admitted he joined PPA to plug his foundation, but said he has unexpectedly found new energy within a program that has helped more than 4 million people across the nation in just three years of existence.

"It’s amazing that the purpose of my disease is to make me miserable and to make me constantly sad … yet I can be so happy," he said. "(This tour) is an elixir for me. I am getting a lot more out of this emotionally than I ever thought I would have."

The bus tour is basically a traveling enrollment center for PPA that gives people a chance to see if they are eligible for financial assistance with medicine. About $10 billion worth of medicine has already been supplied to Illinoisans.

For some, the stop in Peoria may represent the one and only chance they have to get medicine that could save their lives.

"This has been an absolute godsend," said Joe Breaden as he broke down in tears just moments after he found out he was eligible for help. "I have nerve damage and most of the money I make goes to my parents. It just seems that when I’m down, it gets really hard and this has been so great."

Pantoliano said he could relate to many of the program’s participants’ problems as he was in the same shoes when he was a child.

"When I was little, we were broke and on welfare," he said. "These people are my aunts and uncles and cousins and brothers and sisters."

Brian Feldt can be reached at (309) 686-3194 or

Help is Here

The Partnership for Prescription Assistance "Help is Here Express" bus tour rolled through Peoria on Tuesday. The tour helps uninsured and financially struggling people get medicine for little or no cost.

For more information on the "Help is Here Express" program or to see if you qualify for financial assistance with medicine, visit