"So tell me, I get a union card if I act in your movie?" Durante said, baiting Big John.
"Gee, I don't know, Olivier." Big John walked to the bar.
Durante couldn't think of a comeback. "What's with Big John and the baseball cap?" he said finally. Big John had on a cap from the set of a big-budget action movie. "He goes to Elaine's and now he's wearing a cap like all the Hollywood schmoozers."
Curatola, Coffeecake, and Eugene Rondinelli, a 30-ish guy known as Young Geno, ran through some improv exercises while Durante watched. Young Geno took the role of a young thug while the other two were being older thugs.
"I'll do what I gotta do," Young Geno said to Coffeecake.
"You gotta do what you gotta do," Coffeecake said.
"That's no good," Durante interrupted. "You have to do more than just repeat what the other guy says."
For effect, Curatola talked like Pacino in Scarface, lisping like a Castillian. "A guy like yourself comes along, he better watch his step," he warned Young Geno. "You're a cub. We're wolves. We'll eat you."
"You got a big appetite."
"I'm gonna go away for a minute, and when I come back, you'll be gone," Curatola said. "Am I right or am I right?"
One thing Geno Durante isn't is a wannabe or a hanger-on, because, as he himself put it when pressed about what sort of angle he's working in life, "I don't want nothing from nobody."
When I first met him, he had no interest in hustling for roles like his friends, not that he lacked similar opportunities. "A lot of movies have lost out by what he's rejected," another bit player, Mike Squicciarini, told me. "What he forgot, I want to learn."
Joe Viterelli, who played De Niro's fat bodyguard, Jelly, in Analyze This, saw Durante at Elaine's one night and grabbed him by the shoulders. "Nobody screws with you, Geno," he said, and walked away.
"Thank you," Durante said.
"Nobody screws with the union" was Viterelli's most memorable line in the 1996 blockbuster Eraser, in which he played a wiseguy who helps Arnold Schwarzenegger out of a jam at the Baltimore docklands. It's a line Viterelli delivers if somebody in a restaurant asks what movies he's been in. Other times, to mix it up, he'll identify himself as "the boss to Jennifer Tilly's bimbette" in Bullets Over Broadway, and when the interrogator nods his recognition, Viterelli will go into character and say, "Black pearls are supposed to be black."
ne reason Durante is such a figure of respect is that he's always in character, hitting his cues, giving a flawless performance every night. (Thirty years ago, Joey Gallo did this when he befriended Jerry Orbach, the actor who played him in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, although the difference is that Gallo really was a gangster.)
There is a storyboard laid out in Durante's head, a running narrative of his life. The unedited version, just like the three-and-a-half-hour director's cut of Once Upon a Time in America, barrels through a bunch of plot points in the first third of the movie, then runs on adrenaline or some other stimulant most of the rest of the way through, up until the final movement, where things get interesting again and the viewer is left wondering how the story started at point A and so seamlessly ended up at point B, a vastly different universe, before realizing that in fact the two points occupy the same territory, out where the lines of perspective meet. Durante has never lost his fascination with the mob or the movies.
His house, in the part of Gravesend that abuts Sheepshead Bay, is the house he grew up in. His father was an unlicensed plumber, renting rooms from the father of a boss named Sally D'Ambrosio. "I was born in a gangster's house," he loves to say.