Joe Nipote:
The Car Guy

by Michelle Erica Green

Viper's drivers keep changing, but tinkerer Frankie Waters has been with the futuristic vehicle all along. Actor Joe Nipote started with the series during its 1993 incarnation on NBC and will be back this fall for its fourth season, now in syndication. He's looking forward to another year working with the top-secret 21st-century Viper, a car with the talents of the Batmobile, though its origins are uncertain and it doesn't officially exist.

"I'm not really a car guy," admits Nipote, a stand-up comedian who moved from the midwest to Los Angeles to pursue acting. "I enjoy cars, I appreciate them, but I really don't know my way around a car - I know where to put the gas and where to put the key. I do remember having a really cheap car once, it was a Ford Pinto, and every time I would hit a bump the radio would skip." As for being the tech guy on Viper, "I can't even get my computer up right now."

Frankie didn't start out as the tech guy either - he was initially just a car nut who drove a purple '72 Dodge for awhile. The role has changed considerably since 1994, when, as Nipote describes, "Frankie used to be an annoying caricature of a person from New Jersey with a very thick accent and a big pompadour." When the expensive show was cancelled by NBC and moved into syndication at the end of its first season, most of the cast - which had once featured The Sentinel's Richard Burgi and Babylon Five's Jason Carter - changed, with Jeff Kaake's character Special Investigator Thomas Cole and Heather Medway's Detective Cameron Westlake becoming the leads.

"The producers asked me to change the character a little bit, too," recalls Nipote. "I was going to have some more responsibilities, I was now going to be a full-time cop and really part of the Viper team. So they cut my hair off, I grew a goatee, I lost about 25 pounds, and I became really the mechanic on the show." Paramount relocated the production from California to Canada, where co-creators Paul DeMeo and Danny Bilson's Pet Fly Productions creates the world of the near future in which the series is set.

Viper's high budget allows it to feature special effects and computer graphics like no others on television. The title car of the series is actually two different models, both designed by Chrysler: a red two-passenger roadster, and a silver high-speed "Defender" into which the roadster morphs. Chrysler, which had worked with Paramount on the development of a series to promote their vehicles as exciting and futuristic, donated about a dozen cars and offered advice to the production team about how to use them. The original Viper, an RT/10 Roadster, was destroyed during the season three finale, with a new GTS Coupe waiting to replace it at the start of season four.

The mechanic, however, never learned the details of the elaborate construction of the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang descendant he works on. A theater major who went to college on an acting scholarship, Nipote dropped out with three courses left to become "the morning guy" on a Detroit radio station. He later finished school, but put aside his theatrical ambitions for comedy. "When I was in town, I would try to audition for whatever I could, but I was making a good living doing stand-up - stand-up was going through a huge boom in the early 1980s." When he first went to California, he "walked into the Comedy Store by mistake and I saw those guys up there, and I said, 'Jeez, I could do that.'" So that's what he started doing.

"My goal in life was to make as much money as possible and do the least amount of work," he laughs. "Acting is the best life, if you are a working actor - you do a lot of work to stay in shape and you do a lot of research for the characters, but going to work is really a joy, if you like the people you're working with."

A veteran of Meatballs Part II, Doin' Time, and The Waterdance, Nipote was introduced to the producers at Pet Fly by his manager, who had a relationship with the Paramount Television staff. "He got me the interview for Viper back in 1993 - I was just looking for work back then, I had stopped comedy and made a committment that I was going to devote full time to acting, make or break it. I got the call to go on this audition, I guess it was during pilot season, and I nailed it."

The only remaining member of the original cast, Nipote next year will become the bridge between the original series produced for NBC, which starred James McCaffrey, and the syndicated series with Kaake and Medway. Kaake will be leaving the series next season, with McCaffrey returning to play the role of Joe Astor, the original driver of the Viper. Fans are predicting that Dorian Harewood, who played Julian Wilkes on the NBC episodes, will also make a return appearance. J. Downing, who played F.B.I. Agent Catlett last season, will also be returning, so most of the major players from both incarnations of the show will appear.

"I'm the only original member from the cast," Nipote points out his role as the bridge. "Jim and I have worked together, and J. Downing will return, so it will be J. and I and Heather, she and I have worked together for two seasons, but I'm the one guy everyone has worked with." Nipote declines to choose a favorite season or a favorite co-star: "Everyone is great, they're all professional, the last thing I anticipate is any kind of ego - if it comes from anybody, it'll be from me!"

However, Nipote doesn't sound overly ambitious for his character. "I think Frankie will always be the mechanic, and I think it's a good role for him - with every year, he gains a little more respect and a little more acknowledgement from his associates as to how vital and how integral he is. I would like to make him a little funnier, and just to grow as any character would." The actor is pleased that the web sites and fan mail devoted to the show indicate that his character is popular among viewers, but he's the first to admit that he's not the star of the show. "It's an ensemble, but the car is the star of the show...and I'm really happy with it, since the car can't function without us. I think the viewers understand that without us, there'd be no car."

Nipote just did a mold for the full prosthetics he will have to wear in an early episode in which he goes undercover as a 70-year-old man. "If you're claustrophobic at all, it can really make you think twice about doing this kind of a thing," he notes. "It's really unbelievable - I had them shoot it, I have the video, because it's one of the scariest things I've ever done. Basically, you let three people you don't know cement you with little straws in your nose." As for the other demands placed on him as an actor, "I'm going to be going undercover as a Chippendale's dancer!" That episode, called "The Full Frankie," will be aired early in the fall season, which Nipote is very enthusiastic about: "We have about four of the scripts so far and there's really some great things planned."

The actor is also enthused about a pilot he did this February, another production of Danny Bilson's and Paul DeMeo's called It's True. CBS produced the show, which is likely to air on UPN at mid-season. In this CGI-intensive feature, Nipote voices a troll. "The graphics are incredible, it's never been done before to this magnitude for television," he says, noting that if It's True is picked up, it will also shoot at the Vancouver studio, meaning that he will be able to continue working on it during Viper's production. Nipote is a fan of the city of Vancouver, which he describes as "just a beautiful city, and safe, a lot of different cultures, the air is clean, great place to work."

He's also a fan of his employers, and not just because they give him work. "PetFly is a wonderful organization - it mainly consists of two guys, Danny and Paul, who basically started as stand-ins and became full-fledged writers and producers," Nipote explains gratefully of his employers. "They truly are very loyal, and like a lot of the actors and directors today who work together, you know how Woody Allen has his little group, Danny and Paul are the same way." One need only look at the cast lists from Viper, The Sentinel, The Flash, and The Rocketeer to recognize that certain names recur. The creative duo are famous for their stunts and special effects, but they seem to have an acting troupe of sorts as well.

It's True was by no means Nipote's first experience with voice-over work. He played Stretch in the highly successful Casper feature film, and recently learned that plans are in the works for Casper II. That movie introduced him to the advantages of performing audio-only: "It's almost like stand-up, except I don't have to shower." Nipote also did a CD-ROM for George Lucas, The Curse of Monkey's Island, and just this month finished a second CD for the same company, The Grim Fandango, which will be out later this year; "I play three parts in that."

Nipote has writing experience from having created material for stand-up comedy, and has sold a script with a writing partner. "I'm actually going to try to write a Viper this season, or at least deliver a concept that I think is interesting and fresh for the show - I think it'll feature Frankie," he reflects. A recent addition to the online world who just got a computer, the actor is working on developing his own web site, but is just as glad there isn't a lot of information about him on the web, though he enjoyed seeing Viper's popularity online.

Where would he like to be a few years down the road? "My ambition would be to play Viper out as long as it goes - if it goes another three, four, five years that would be great - and then either have my own half-hour sitcom, or break slowly during the hiatus into getting a great little role in a feature," he replies. A relatively new father, Nipote calls himself "addicted to L.A.," but he comes across as down to earth and relatively serious despite his background in comedy. Take away the annoying quirks of Frankie without losing the focus, and you start to see the resemblance.

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