“FBI” star Jeremy Sisto

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Best known as the pencil-wielding team leader on the CBS hit drama “FBI,” Jeremy Sisto has steadily built an impressive acting resume thanks to a devotion to the sorts of details that bring his characters to life.

Telly Savalas had his lollipops. Peter Falk had his trench coat. And Jeremy Sisto has his pencil.

Appearing on the hit CBS drama “FBI,” now in its second season, Sisto’s Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jubal Valentine commands an elite team of investigators in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s New York field office, and he does it all while spinning, chewing and pointing a sharpened No. 2 as if it were an extension of himself.

“On the pilot, I decided to use a pencil because my character is the conductor of different agents. That was my prop,” Sisto told Fra Noi in an exclusive interview. “The audience seemed to really love that.”

Sisto is no stranger to police procedurals, having spent three seasons on “Law & Order” from 2008 to 2010. The pencil was an inspired bit of character-shading the 45-year-old actor brought to the table to quickly fill in Valentine’s backstory in a plot that barely stops long enough for the audience to catch its breath. But Sisto’s creation has taken on a life of its own, inspiring Internet memes and even a humorous Twitter account devoted to the character’s favorite writing instrument.

“Coming onto a procedural, there’s always less of a chance to mess things up as an actor because the audience is partially tuning in to see how these mysteries unfold,” Sisto says. “But you also get the chance to bring in these little character and behavioral things that aren’t necessary to the plot but add a lot.”

“FBI” is a ratings powerhouse, consistently ranking in the top 10 shows on network television in total viewers each week. It has already earned its own spinoff, “FBI: Most Wanted,” along with the potential to crossover into other Dick Wolf-produced shows, including “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.”

But for the Italian-American Sisto, who has effortlessly moved between film and TV with starring roles in shows as diverse as “Six Feet Under” and the ABC comedy “Suburgatory,” “FBI” is more than just an opportunity to play the seasoned boss who knows how to motivate his agents. It’s also a job that keeps him close to home and his family.

“This kind of job is a real gift because the structure is so tight,” Sisto says. “I’ve been doing TV consistently for a long time, and I can’t imagine doing a big film career and jumping around every three months and how that would be with my family right now.”

The show films in and around New York City, and since most of Sisto’s scenes are set inside the field office and shot on a soundstage, the L.A.-based actor says the producers generously work with him to schedule his shooting days so that he can spend half his time back in California with his wife and two children, ages 10 and 8.

“My main intention right now is to get these kids through this childhood in a positive way and help them become the people they want to become,” Sisto says. “It’s really important to have the time and the energy to be there and do that.”

Sisto’s acting career spans more than 30 years, with his earliest roles being on the stage while still in junior high. Both of his parents were performers — his mother, Reedy, was an aspiring actress and his father, Dick, a jazz musician. When the couple divorced, Sisto’s mother moved her young son from their native Louisville, Kentucky to Chicago where Sisto began accompanying his mother to auditions and started reading for casting directors himself. Sisto booked his first big play while in seventh grade, Bertolt Brecht’s “The Life of Galileo,” at Chicago’s famed Goodman Theatre, starring opposite the legendary Brian Dennehy.

“It was a substantial role and a really amazing experience,” Sisto says of the production, which also featured future stars such as Neil Flynn (“The Middle”) and fellow Italian-American Johnny Galecki (“The Big Bang Theory”).

That was the same year Sisto received financial aid to switch from the underperforming public school he was attending in the city to a private school that encouraged the arts and fostered his passion. It also was during those years in which Sisto grew close to the Italian-American side of his family, whose roots in the community run deep. His aunt, Diane Sisto, was the Columbus Day Queen in 1962; his uncle, Dr. John Sisto, was the chairman of Cook County Hospital for 30 years; and his great-uncle, Ralph Capparelli, was a longtime state legislator and Italian-American community leader. His paternal grandparents lived in the area, and the budding actor would spend weekends with them, playing bocce in this grandfather’s yard and enjoying his grandmother’s cooking.

The Sisto family traces its roots to Bari, and years later Sisto had the opportunity to reconnect with the culture while making the 1999 made-for-TV film “Jesus,” in which he played the title character. While shooting the movie, which had Italian funding and support from the Catholic Church, Sisto mentioned his family hailed from Bari and was invited to a festival held annually in Milan to celebrate and raise awareness of the port city.

“I flew there, and I think they were a little upset I didn’t speak Italian. The Italian language unfortunately wasn’t passed down in the family,” Sisto says. “But I definitely feel very connected to the Italian culture. When I’m there, I feel a real kindship and a connection to the place and the people.”

In addition to his television work, Sisto has appeared in numerous films, including his first role at age 16 in the 1991 Lawrence Kasdan-directed “Grand Canyon”; the classic 1995 spin on Jane Austen comedy “Clueless”; the inspirational sports biopic “Without Limits” in 1998; and the Keri Russell-starring dramedy “Waitress” in 2007.

Most recently, Sisto lent his voice to the smash Disney animated film sequel, “Frozen II,” which has now made more than $1.3 billion worldwide. It also proved to be a role that greatly thrilled his young daughter, who accompanied him to the premiere.

“I think it’s a nice level of success for my kids to experience,” Sisto says. “It’s not over the top where people are following me on the streets. There’s a level of respect and they can see what it looks like to have a career as an actor where you’re working hard to get the jobs. I think it’s a positive thing.”

Even though he’s spent more years in the business than not, Sisto says he hasn’t yet tired of the work, especially when the cameras start rolling and you feel in the moment that what you’re doing matters.

“The interest in acting hasn’t gone away,” Sisto says. “I’m always happy to do more takes if the crew is still hanging around. If we’re rolling, I’m happy to keep trying.”

The above appears in the March 2020 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.


About Jim Distasio

Jim Distasio is an award-winning writer, director, editor. His documentary “Sawdust: Life in the Ring,” about the Zoppè Family Circus, was an official selection at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the River’s Edge Film Festival. His documentary “5,000 Miles From Home,” about the impact of World War II on Chicago’s Italian-American community, earned two local Emmys on six nominations. Distasio earned a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where he currently serves as an adjunct lecturer. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Chicago Tribune Magazine, American Profile, Vine Line and Fra Noi.

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