Veteran actor and former Marine Corporal Joe Lisi gives us a no-holds-barred interview about his life before the Corps, times on the streets with the NYPD and what he holds true to today about his service. We Are The Mighty spoke with Lisi on growing up in NYC, serving there as a police officer in elite units and then moving on to show business based on his childhood dream.
Lisi was born in Brooklyn and raised in NYC by a native-born family of the city. His father was Italian, his mother was Irish and both were in the Navy during World War II. His dad came back home from the Navy and had married his mom during the war. The Lisi family settled in Queens and Lisi went to a parochial elementary school. The family was a household of eight. As siblings they played in the neighborhood with kids of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage. His family then sent him to public high school which he graduated from in June 1968. In August of that year, he went to work for NYPD. There were a lot of Vietnam Veterans in his academy class in '68 and they were early veterans of the war. Lisi was officially hired into the police trainee program.
Lisi joined the department as a civilian employee in his trainee capacity. He shared, “The only thing that kept us from being cops was we were 18 where you had to be 21 to be a cop. We were cocky then too.” He did clerical work and met an administrative aid that only had one leg. The disabled individual was dependable, low-key, didn’t have much of an ego and was driven. Lisi found out he was a Vietnam veteran and a Marine and his name was John Devine. Lisi said, “I just admired him and the way he composed himself. I decided I wanted to be like him and I had to get permission from the police commissioner to enlist in the reserves.” There was a noticeable difference between Lisi before and after. “I was told by an NYPD Sergeant that the difference was stark, where before I went to Parris Island and after where the sergeant couldn’t believe the change in me. The Sergeant was impressed with my work ethic and character even more so upon my return.” The NYPD Sergeant was a World War II veteran as well.
Lisi went to boot camp that was only eight weeks long because of Vietnam. He was promoted to PFC out of boot camp and his MOS was as a Radio Relay Operator since he was joining the 11th Communications Battalion in NYC. It is currently the 6th Communications Battalion in the Marine Corps Reserves. He went to radio school at the original Montford Point, worked in the motor pool for 8th Marines in CLNC on vehicles and drove Marines around the base. He stated, “I remember walking around Manhattan in my Alphas and having people spit at me. Thankfully, that has changed due to President Reagan reinstilling pride in the military.” Lisi stayed in the Reserves for three years.
He was called to active duty for the 1970 Postal Strike, “We protected the mail and did an outstanding job. My Marine friends call me the postal warrior.” There was a point where Lisi had to do undercover work for the NYPD and ran into an issue with the Marine Corps Reserve. “I had to do an undercover assignment and needed to keep my long hair, where the Marines said that wasn’t going to be allowed and they honorably discharged me. I got a letter from my police commanding officer asking my battalion commander for lax grooming standards.” He goes on further, “I also offered to go to drills in my civilian clothes to keep my hair long for police work and keep the honor of the Marine uniform. The battalion commander said no and the Marines needed to downsize post the war anyways.”
Lisi said, “I wanted to be an NYPD officer and an actor when growing up. I was inspired by The Untouchables TV series with Robert Stack as Elliot Ness. We used to play The Untouchables in the street as kids where I was the only kid that wanted to be Elliott Ness.” He stated, “I asked my father for his blessing to be a cop where I told him, ‘If I don’t become a cop then who will?’ He understood that and gave me his blessing.”
Many values carried over from his service in the Corps to the NYPD. He stated, “Honor, courage and commitment are hallmark traits that go in hand with integrity, perseverance, honesty and always doing the right thing. Even if no one is looking at you. Be goal-oriented as well.” Lisi goes into troop welfare with, “The most important thing is to take care of your Marines first. I ran my undercover units the same way, I took care of my officers. I grew the unit based on being tough, fair and taking care of my officers where I credit the Corps with those standards.” He ran the undercover unit for the NYPD for a while and the special projects unit in the narcotics division. He grew the unit from five officers to over forty officers. He believes his reputation was as a “tough and fair boss based on (his) Marine Corps training.”
His first acting role came in the stage play Arsenic and Ole Lace and he auditioned for a role. He got the part of a small role of a uniformed cop. Lisi didn’t know much about acting and he learned a lot from being part of the production. He said, “I had such a great time and loved it so much. My wife at the time encouraged me to be an actor because of my experience.” He studied acting at the HB Studio, Stella Adler and with Bill Esper at the Neighborhood Playhouse. He would go to an audition during lunch and run lines with a fellow detective while driving to the appointment. Lisi was a Captain in the NYPD in 1989 and was cast as a Captain in a police TV show set in NYC at the same time. The show was called True Blue. He said, “I had a lot of responsibility as a police officer running different divisions to include a narcotics unit where I made more money in a day playing a TV cop than I did in a week as a real police officer.”
Lisi was given his break by a fellow police officer and retired detective Sonny Grosso as he hired Lisi on his first job which got him his SAG card. Grosso is most known for being the basis for, and an advisor, on the book turned film The French Connection. Grosso was a Korean War veteran and worked on The Godfather as an advisor and he then turned to producing in his later career. Lisi met Sonny in the 1970s before Lisi had started moonlighting as an actor and then they reconnected in the 1980s when Grosso was producing TV and he was acting.
He said, “Being on set and working with the crew you become close. It has similarities to a unit or my time in the Corps.” Lisi said his favorite projects include The Sopranos, Third Watch and Take Me Out, for which won the Tony Award for Best Play, in London and on Broadway. Lisi shared that the most fun project he has worked on was Almost Home on 32nd street written by a Marine named Walter Anderson. It was about a Marine coming home from Vietnam. "I played the alcoholic father and a World War II veteran. It was a wonderful play with great reviews.”
He shared about hiring veterans if given the opportunity: “Absolutely, running police department units I definitely wanted veterans, especially Marines where they already had a leg up. I knew veterans were dependable and we could count on them. I had a bunch of Marines in my unit in the department. One of my best detectives was an Army Airborne Vietnam veteran. We know they know how to be part of a team. Veterans are more reliable and responsible where even if things go awry you will get the truth from them in most cases.” He further elaborated, “Veterans are also usually loyal people who are truthful. If the boss needs to know something you have to tell them the tough news. Marines are definitely like that with the boss and will tell them the real deal even if it’s not pretty.” He shared emphatically, “If the differentiator is military or not, you have to go with the veteran. On Third Watch, my stand-in John on the show was a Vietnam veteran where he was the first guy in and last guy out. A stand-in job can be very tedious where he was the best.”
He is very proud of his continued friendship with fellow veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, Colonel Jack Jacobs, U.S. Army (ret.). He stated, “Jack hangs out with a lot of Marines. He loves Marines and comes to all of our dinners. I recommended he be made an honorary Marine. It went up to all the channels and came back denied, unfortunately.” Lisi has now been retired from the NYPD for over 30 years and he still keeps in touch with some of his friends from the department, especially the veterans. He also speaks with the local officers at a station that is right on his block. A lot of Marines are on the local station’s force and he has relationships with them.
Lisi believes we need more Marines in show business and publications. He shared, “Marines need to write their stories and do the veteran writing workshops. Fordham University offers a veteran writing workshop. Today there are more ways to get it out than ever before. Once you have a story, it needs to get sent to a studio or development house by an agent. Marines have to learn how to write, write with them or for them where it’s all about exposure. There are a lot of military shows and special ops shows that need Marine writers.” He said about hosting an Iwo Jima dinner every year in Queens, “We get about 85 Marines there and we still have a few Iwo Jima survivors. I got to tell you, these Iwo Jima survivors come in hunched over and using canes where we have two Marines helping them to their table. Once they are in the presence of those young Marines for about 10 minutes, they turn back to being 20 years old again. You get to see them come to life!” He said, “The young Marines are like in awe of them.”
He shared about his next goals with, “I never want to retire from acting. I am going to be 70 in November and want to just keep working.” Lisi talked about his new business venture with, “My current entrepreneurial pursuit outside of acting is where I am involved in a cocktail lounge that serves pizza named Bar Dough in NYC. The opportunity was offered to me while driving back from Camp Lejeune North Carolina with Pete Fitzpatrick who was a corporal of Marines.” Fitzpatrick was in Beirut when the barracks were bombed. He shared, “Pete says we’re gonna open a bar and I said, ‘Okay.’”
He stated, “A lot of Marines go there where we had a two-star Marine General come in who enjoyed the place.” Lisi is thrilled about the restaurant and the clients it attracts, “I am getting fan mail from people that remember Third Watch' and The Sopranos where they are sending the fan mail to Bar Dough, so it's kind of a revival! I am getting three or four letters a week with some of it coming from overseas.” He shared about the bar’s charitable work as well with, “We sent 500 pizzas to USNS Comfort while in port, we sent pizzas to Sloan Kettering and the Army units in town staying in the hotels, we sent pizzas to the Army mortuary soldiers at Bellevue dealing with like 300 deaths a day. A lot of friends and fellow Marines made those donations possible.”
The Corps made a strong imprint on Lisi’s mind, body and soul -- it has made a lasting overall effect on his life and for those around him.