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There's Something About Geno


"Polo," he said. "It's nice, isn't it?"

Durante was in a particularly good mood, because first, Penelope Ann Miller and Richard Dreyfuss had been at the table next to us and asked if they could take his picture; then Jake LaMotta came over and complimented Geno on his clothes. Durante explained that the two of them had met in the sixties at a strip club where LaMotta was a bouncer.

We got to Marylou's. Coffeecake had been pestering Curatola all night for a speaking role in The Trial. He took the name Coffeecake for himself because it is the name of the character he played in A Bronx Tale, his motion-picture debut. He grew up with Chazz Palminteri, who wrote and starred in that movie and gave him a role.

Unprompted, Coffeecake began reciting the lines he uttered six years ago in A Bronx Tale, from the basement craps-playing scene.

"Wait a minute," he said. "What?"

In the movie, the character of Frankie Coffeecake had got his nickname on account of his bad skin, which is spongy, "like a Drake's coffee cake." He played him as a lovable loser, a dreamer, someone who was happy to belong, a guy whose presence was such a jinx they put a towel over his face when somebody else rolled the dice.

"Dave is gone," Coffeecake announced. "It's now Coffeecake. It's internationally known. It's all Coffeecake. I walk down Belmont Avenue, the Puerto Rican kids yell out, 'Hey, Cakes! Hey, Coffeecake!' "

Curatola winced, looking around the table. Sirico and the actor Ray Serra were involved in a conversation about how nobody who ever knew Carlo Gambino could tell he was a millionaire, because his business was his business. He had died in his bed, with his shoes off.

Then Sirico said, "I'm going in the kitchen to take a piss, and I'm leaving. As Joe Pesci says to Frankie Vincent in Raging Bull, 'Fellas, go fuck yourselves.' "

"De Niro is a real director," Coffeecake said. "De Niro directed me in A Bronx Tale. When Chazz Palminteri and I were kids, we went to see Mean Streets, and the same weekend we saw Bang the Drum Slowly. We said, 'This guy De Niro's gonna be something.' Chazz, his success inspired me; when Hollywood recognized these guys I grew up with, that was a big day for me. Bobby De Niro said you can train Hollywood people for a million dollars and they never have the naturalness that I have."

Coffeecake crossed his arms in a pouting gesture and went back to shouting dialogue from a script, this one imaginary. "Come on!" "What the fuck?"

He stood and began shadowboxing. "I'm Coffeecake from the Bronx Tale, Geno!"

"Sit down, Dave," said Curatola, who normally is warm and self-deprecating but now was skittish. "You're not in the Bronx now. By the way, A Bronx Tale was a movie with a couple of stars and a bunch of amateurs. They printed 62 new sag cards on that one."

Coffeecake lifted his drink in salute. "To the Cakes," he said. "It's not enough just to sit in the top of the Vatican. You have to get up and walk through the Vatican." He broke position and said, "I should write this down. It's very philosophical."

When Curatola wouldn't give coffeecake any lines, it seemed unfair; he was lording his superiority over perhaps the sweetest and most loyal of the lot. Then Tony Sirico made noises about being too busy to act in The Trial. He had three films to shoot over the summer and a multiyear contract for The Sopranos (on which, it would turn out, Curatola landed a guest-star part), and at the time he was up for a lead role in the HBO prison series Oz.

Curatola got upset. He said he felt he was doing Sirico a favor by giving him the lead role.

"Vince is cracking up," Sirico told Durante on the way home. "But watch. Give the guy a run, and then he'll be back."

It got to the point that Curatola and Sirico could barely acknowledge each other's presence. Curatola and Big John even worried Sirico would abandon The Trial and thought of an alternative storyline in which another character would pull off the hit the script called for Sirico to do. Curatola made Elaine's his turf. Sirico claimed Marylou's and the West Bank Cafe, in Hell's Kitchen. Communication between them had to be conducted through Durante, both of them making pleas for his respect and loyalty.

"I'm like the captain of a ship, and I have to keep my men in line," Curatola explained to the table -- looking mostly for Durante's reaction -- after a painful tantrum. When Coffeecake had teased Curatola that his head was getting too big from sitting at Elaine's table, Curatola called Coffeecake "a loser" for having "no job, no money, no family, no career in movies."

Coffeecake tried to stammer a reply, but the words didn't come. He looked defeated and eventually said, "Okay, Vince."

"Okay? Okay? You live like a teenager on summer vacation, okay?"

"The gang is not what it used to be," Durante said recently. "A lot of them don't want nothing to do with each other. Things changed." Indeed they did. Over the course of filming The Trial, Durante was somehow persuaded to take a role not only in the movie but in Chris Noth's TV series Exiled (playing a cop, no less, alongside Curatola). Everyone considered it a coup, getting Durante to do this. At last, the silent muse speaks!

I asked Durante if he thought he'd finally sold out. After all, his notion of his own celebrity was so impossible to dent that he had once, in a prideful moment, called this line of acting "a false pretense," in which the charge was that "you're paid to basically water yourself down." He gave his word that his integrity had been left whole by the experience and, in fact, he was keen for more. "I'm thinking, I was always a ham, an entertainer," he said. "So I figure, Why not? Now I'm working on getting my sag card."


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