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Jersey Whirl

Before there was Tony Soprano, there was Joe Piscopo, the original "Joisey" guy. Then came the Hollywood flameout and ten years in the wilderness. Now he's tied his comeback hopes to Newark's revival: If he can make it there, he'll make it anywhere.

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Even a would-be entertainment mecca needs a power-lunch spot, and Arthur's Downtown, a clubby, mahogany-paneled symbol of Newark's revival, is the Morton's of what those who share the dream are already referring to as Hollywood East. So it is that at a prime table on a sunny afternoon the man on whose star power a few million in venture capital has been wagered is soaking up adulation. Joe Piscopo.

The other reason to tune in Saturday Night Live during the Eddie Murphy years, Piscopo had a near-breakthrough role opposite Michael Keaton in Johnny Dangerously, a brush with thyroid cancer that led to a disastrous love affair with the gym, an even more disastrous affair with the family baby-sitter, and then . . . nothing. Ten years of zip. Tim Kazurinsky's career was a supernova in comparison.

Joe fell off the cultural radar for a while. But he can laugh about it now that he's signed production deals for Bloomfield Avenue, an HBO mini-series, and Jersey Girls, a blue-collar Designing Women about some ladies who own a beauty parlor, for NBC; nabbed Danny Aiello to star in his company's first big film, The Last Request; and lined up a writer for his biopic of swing maestro Louis Prima.

It's been seven years since Piscopo took stock of his life in Hollywood and moved back to Jersey. At 50, Joe's scary Muscle & Fitness cover-boy physique has softened into a suit-and-tie suburban-Jersey dad's (he married the ex-baby-sitter, Kimberly Driscoll, in 1997, and they have a 2-year-old daughter), and his Sinatra-tribute show, a lounge act Joe performs at hotels and casinos, is doing gangbusters in the hinterlands. Even his acting career has rebounded -- Joe's had parts on Arli$$ and Law & Order. But what Piscopo and the doormen, and sous-chefs, and random Newark pedestrians who shout, "Hey, Joe!" as he walks down the street are really excited about is his new distribution and production company, Avellino Entertainment.

"No matter who you are, if you're Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford, you're a working stiff," says Piscopo. "There's always someone over you calling the shots."

Formed as a partnership with television producer Sol Feldman and two top executives from investment firm Fidelco, Avellino has two missions: to make money, naturally, and to help rebuild Newark as a high-tech Tinseltown on the Passaic.

They're not alone. You've perhaps seen something about the ritzy New Jersey Performing Arts Center or its neighbor, the cute Newark Bears baseball stadium. Both are part of the Newark renaissance along with IDT, a $1.2 billion-a-year telecom that just last year moved its headquarters from Hackensack. "Newark is light years ahead of Manhattan in terms of broadband capability," says IDT's Gil Nielsen. When the newly formed Avellino started scouting locations for offices last fall, word quietly spread to Howard Jonas, IDT's founder, who was looking for a good gimmick. The upshot? "We like the association with a recognizable celebrity," IDT president Jim Courter says of their offer to sponsor Piscopo's company. "He might not be as recognizable as some people, but he adds pizzazz."

"With Joe's help and Joe's vision," says Nielsen, the man who brokered the deal, "we want to make Newark the broadband-entertainment capital of America." With two rail lines to Manhattan, a major airport five minutes from downtown, and hundreds of thousands of square feet of empty space available at a fraction of Manhattan prices, Newark could be the next Burbank. Or as IDT's Yehuda Wurtzel confidently predicts, "This is the next middle-size thing."

Piscopo met Feldman after appearing on cable's USA Live with Bertice Berry in 1996. Joe was looking for a producer; Berry suggested he call Feldman, who'd been working in television for more than twenty years. Together, they did a show about at-risk children, Positive Impact TV, which aired in 1999.

"Sol shot this thing for nothing," says Piscopo. "I said, 'Hmm, I bet we could do this with entertainment.' "

And so the Avellino business model was born. With Fidelco's Marc Berson (Piscopo's longtime pal) helping to write the business plan, the duo raised nearly $5 million to distribute five-to-ten film projects a year. "The concept of low-budget movies is a niche that we can exploit," says Berson. "Avellino is lean and mean."

"It's not that we won't do schlocky," explains Feldman. "We just won't do sleazy."

In addition to free rent at the proudly low-budget IDT, Avellino is eager to do postproduction and sound work for others, rent out its facilities at IDT, make industrial-safety videos -- whatever it takes to undercut the big boys in TriBeCa and Astoria. "We will beat any price," Joe promises.

Piscopo is scouting Newark locations for Bloomfield Avenue, the mini-series he pitched to HBO in the wake of The Sopranos' Jersey-Italian chic. "I'd like to do a sort of Vinny Knows Best," he cracks, still wondering if there isn't room for a more positive portrayal of Italian-Americans, "where all the Italian-Americans are doctors and engineers. Wait, make that Vincent Knows Best."

Meanwhile, Joe's thinking about his dream project, Saturday Night America, a knockoff of Sábado Gigante, the wacky variety-and-product-placement show that is so popular in Latin households. Maybe he could shoot it at the Performing Arts Center with a radio simulcast, and maybe outside they could put in a Jersey "walk of fame" saluting the stars who were forced to abandon Newark to find fame and fortune back before it became Hollywood East. "I want to get Shaq in here," he says. "I want to reach out to Queen Latifah and my old pal Eddie Murphy."

Downtown Newark's commercial rebound hinges in part on the state legislature's final approval of funding for a new arena to house the Nets and Devils -- likely but no longer a lock since Christie Whitman left. They've both seen the bottom, Piscopo and Newark, and with a little luck, neither's going back. "Worst-case scenario, it's going to take a little longer than people thought," he says. "Worst-case scenario for me, I'll open a club in Newark called Joey Palomino's."


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