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Joe Pantoliano: Mental Illness Hits Home

The award-winning actor talks to WebMD about his personal brushes with mental illness and why he's working to raise awareness.

Why?

The competition [to be in show business] is so much greater now.

You're now an author and you collect rare and first-edition books. You've come a long way.

It's the gift of reading. I'm big into Harry Potter. I love that book. If only there had been something like that for me [as a kid] ... The first book I ever read was given to me by my history teacher after he saw me in the play. It was Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice because he knew I would relate to it. There was that, and The Valachi Papers and The Godfather, and then I got into Salinger. The books that I collect are the books that changed my life.

What's the one thing concerning your health that you wish you'd done as a child?

Not eat salami and mozzarella.

You still eat it?

No. I eat Lipitor [a cholesterol-lowering drug].

You've appeared in more than 100 films. With such a busy schedule, how do you look after your health?

I exercise. I love cardiovascular. I came to enjoy bicycle riding with my daughter. I love to walk. I'm in pretty decent health. I just had my colonoscopy last week and ... I love those. The stuff they make you drink is horrible, but the drugs they give you are great. But then you forgot you took 'em!

Is acting important for your health? How?

Acting is something that I just love to do. My whole life has been a series of me telling white lies and bright blue lies to get by. I was acting when I didn't even know I was acting.

What is the best health advice anyone has ever given you?

Run, and if you can't run, walk.

What is your best health habit?

Taking my little aspirin every morning.

Your worst?

Cheese. I love cheese. I just love it.

What person influenced you the most when it comes to your health?

My mother, because she was so unhealthy. She smoked four packs of cigarettes a day and ate as much salami and provolone as I did. That was the other thing with mental illness: Nicotine plays a big role. ... She died from stroke and heart disease from the cigarettes. My entire family died from cigarettes. My father from lung cancer, my stepfather from emphysema.

Did you ever smoke?

When I was a kid, I did a play One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and I played Billy Bibbitt. I went to Creedmoor Mental Institution and met some guys who were Billy types. One guy had a tendency of smoking and burning himself with the cigarettes and burning holes in his clothing. I took that behavior and I put it in the show, and by the time the run was over I was smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day.

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