Thursdays after closing, Geno Durante has a private appointment at Jasper’s, a hair salon on Avenue U in Brooklyn. Not long ago, he sat in the chair of the man he knows as Alex the Sicilian barber, who has been doing Mafia members’ hair for 30 years. Durante was only in for a styling, because he’d had it cut the week before.
“You like De Niro?” Alex asked.
“Yeah, he’s good, but he’s getting to be the same in everything,” Durante said into the wall mirror.
Sammy Davis Jr. came on an AM station. “Now, there was a piece of talent,” Durante said. “When you think about it, there was nothing Sammy Davis couldn’t do.”
Geno Durante is a short and thick-chested man who over the past couple of years has become a popular figure with a number of Italian-American actors, directors, and Mafia soldiers. He is particularly admired by actors who play Mafia soldiers, who seek to imitate what they repeatedly describe as his “real” quality. You can often find Durante late at night at Elaine’s or at Marylou’s, a restaurant in Greenwich Village, or at any of a handful of after-hours bars on the West Side, along with people who range from show-business hopefuls you’ve never heard of to Antonia Dellacroce, whose father, Aniello Dellacroce, was John Gotti’s mentor in the Gambino syndicate, to Danny Aiello, Chazz Palminteri, Dominic Chianese, Eric Roberts, Harvey Keitel, Dabney Coleman, Joe Pesci, and De Niro.
You might say Geno Durante is an inspirational figure to these people. He had, through the sixties, a loose friendship with the Gallo faction of what is now the Colombo crime family, working as a bartender in a few clubs overseen by its associates. And so actors occasionally request his counsel when playing gangsters. His cultlike status is evidence of just how deep into a hall of mirrors the mob’s relationship with the movies has traveled.
Not long ago, the director Abel Ferrara approached Durante at Marylou’s and asked him to take a walk outside. It turned out Ferrara was planning to make a film based on the story of the Gambino hit man Roy DeMeo, whom Durante once knew, and wanted to enlist him as a consultant. “None of the people around today have the information you have,” Ferrara told him. “You lived it.”
Durante, an electronics supervisor at a factory in Brooklyn, arranged his time sheet to give him Fridays off so that Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights he could drive his Coupe de Ville, a 1988 model with only 13,000 miles on it, down the equable silence of the Belt Parkway into Manhattan and stay out drinking wine spritzers and settling arguments and telling dirty jokes and complimenting waitresses on their figures until it is light out the next day.
Some of Hollywood’s interest in Durante, if you want to call it “Hollywood” and “interest,” has to do with the way he looks and dresses and carries himself. Durante is 67 years old, with a lead-white pompadour that rolls across his head in a motherwave, a strong chin, and blue eyes made liquidy by cataracts. His walk is more of a relaxed march, like that of a boxer taking the ring before a bout. His style of dress is equal parts high pimp and City-of-London wideboy gone Carnaby Street dandy, with a streak of good old reliable Nathan Detroit on the side.
The actor Chris Noth saw Durante another time at Marylou’s. He kissed him on both cheeks, goombata-style, and said by way of greeting, “Let me put you in my next movie. I love the fucking clothes you wear.” At this particular moment, Durante was wearing a double-breasted pink jacket of shantung silk and salmon-colored linen trousers, the slubby textures of which stood in contrast to the candied finish of his end-on-end, black-on-black shirt and his satin tie (also pink). His jacket narrowed to the waist, with a double vent and four buttons on the cuffs (real buttonholes) and lapels halfway to Canarsie. His pants had two rows of reverse pleats and creases that held their edge and cuffs that broke across his instep. His shoes were dainty, pointy-toed black slip-ons he calls cockroach catchers, because of the way you could line one up with the corner of a room.
Durante wears a square-edged gold ring with a hypertrophic garnet-colored solitaire on one pinky finger and, on his other pinky, a very intricately cut ring with five diamond chips in the middle of a raised gold base. “It’s the nice high raise on it that makes the ring,” Durante said. The ring was designed by Durante’s brother, Chick, who was a designer for Cartier. “Chick’s signature is the high raise,” Durante said.
“A lot of guys don’t wear pink,” Durante said as Noth turned his attention to someone else at the table. “I like pink.” He has jackets of aquamarine, jade, copper, banana yellow, and maroon. He bought four silk jackets just like the ones he had before he went to Vegas and went up a size on account of the buffet tables. This forced him to get rid of about ten other jackets, giving them to a drug dealer who used to hang out at some of the spots Durante likes. Durante has ten more for him already. “I got 200 ties, cheap and good,” Durante said. He buys clothes at Barneys and he buys clothes at the faceless department stores on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. “I’m a tonal dresser, which means I just dress to suit colors and tones. I always liked a Harlem style of clothes. I was wearing purple suits before it was purple suits.”
Durante has a double-tiered, wall-to-wall closet fifteen feet long, with a ladder for the upper track’s clothes, but his wardrobe is so big that it spills into his basement and most of his garage. He has more than twenty suits, 50 sport jackets, 100 dress shirts, all on hangers, and on the two levels of shelves he has 50 pairs of shoes. “I’m like a Filipino queen,” he said.
He takes meticulous care of his wardrobe. “Summer clothes, you got to take them to the cleaners after half a day,” he said. “Pleats are a pain in the ass.” He said that just the night before, he’d pressed and starched 22 dress shirts and hung them on a steam pipe across his den.
“Everything I do I collect,” Durante said. “I started with women; it got expensive. Now it’s magazines, books, old 78 records, Cadillacs. I only got a Taurus and my Cadillac, but the Caddie I treat like a collectible – magnesium wheels and the whole megillah.” He also has more than 27,000 videos, mostly commercial films, though there is a substantial cache of adult titles. His actor friends – Tony Danza, Joe Viterelli, Noth – often phone, trying to hunt down a copy of some obscure movie. Durante rents a minimum of five movies each time he stops in the Royal Video Exchange on Flatbush Avenue, then sets about dubbing whatever he’s brought home, feeding them into the 23 VHS machines stacked like pizza ovens in his living room.
He says that if his wife, Terry, a kindergarten teacher, had a lot belongings, they’d need to throw one of their two adult sons out of the house, but fortunately, she doesn’t. “My wife was never much for things, for clothes,” he told me. “Until she got the teaching job, she was living out of a soft bag.”
Several character actors who form the core of Durante’s social life have been involved in making their own movie, The Trial, to the tune of a $100,000 budget. One night at Marylou’s, Vincent Curatola, one of the film’s co-writers and -directors (“Big John” Hoyt is the other), wrote out a treatment for me: “Mortimer Black, a.k.a. Lucifer, prosecutes Frank Rossi, who leads a miserable life (a wiseguy). Lucifer’s entire prosecution is shown to the jury in a series of flashbacks.” When all appears bleak, “a street preacher, a.k.a. Jesus Christ, appears to Mr. Rossi at the end of the film, promising Mr. Rossi that before this day is over, you will be with me in paradise, thus superseding the jury’s decision to have Mr. Rossi walk the earth for 100 yrs. as a nobody … no more silk suits, no more money … Lucifer is enraged … There will be other souls to win, but not this time.”
The Trial is a mafia comedy in the same grain as The Sopranos and Analyze This, exploring morality, guilt, and neurosis in this era of the mob’s senescence. Production has taken more than two years, with shooting done primarily on weekends and everybody getting paid scale.
Curatola, whose family has a contracting business in New Jersey, couldn’t come from a more different place than the film’s veteran star and the group’s other leading presence, Tony Sirico. Curatola studied filmmaking at NYU night school; before a friend got him into modeling, Sirico did time in Sing Sing and Auburn – once, it’s been reported, for armed robbery. Curatola grew up rich – on his boyhood paper route in Englewood were Soupy Sales, Rocky Aoki, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, George Eastman, and the Wrigley family – and he appeared on the scene at Elaine’s only five years ago; Sirico still lives with his mother in Bensonhurst. Perpetually tan, with a bulbous nose and a handsome, hangdog face, Sirico has worked steadily as an actor since he and Danny Aiello played the Rosato brothers in The Godfather, Part II. He’s had roles in the last five Woody Allen movies, charmingly playing gangsters or cops.
“I been shot on-screen 25 times,” Sirico told me. “I can’t exactly do Shakespeare. In Woody’s movie Celebrity, I play a serial rapist who’s represented by the William Morris agency. I like playing good guys and I like playing bad guys. In The Roaring Twenties, Jimmy Cagney plays Eddie Bartlett, a tough guy with a good heart. When he shoots, he shoots you in the chest; he don’t shoot you in the back. And I watched him do that, and I fell in love with him.
“The Trial, I’m a nice guy in that. You put my character on a scale, he tips to the right, not the left.”
Most of Durante’s friends have roles in The Trial and are even investing tremendous hope in it. But Durante told me he was keeping it at arm’s length. “What the fuck would I want a fucking part in a movie for?” he said one night.
He had just come to Marylou’s, striding that bantamlike stride into the Jerzy Kosinski Room and finding Curatola, Big John, Frankie Gio, Dave Salerno (who is known as Coffeecake), and a few other movie-business candidates. Everybody stood up.
Curatola planted a double kiss on Durante. He is a sleek man with a flying-V of a face, and he wore an expensive-looking herringbone suit and a beige cashmere turtleneck. Durante asked if he’d gotten it from wardrobe.
The whole table was excited about some of the additions to The Trial’s supporting cast. Michael Wright, a black actor who just a few years ago starred in Sugar Hill, was slated to play Mephistopheles (though the plans have since fallen through). Michael Rispoli, who’s in Summer of Sam and The Sopranos, will also appear. Same for the journeyman Victor Argo and, they hope, Chris Noth.
“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.
Until the plant closed earlier this year, Durante worked for Vertrod, a manufacturer of heat-sealing equipment and vacuum-packaging machines, for 44 years, a span calculated by measuring it against his wardrobe and recalling that the year he was hired was also the year he bought a pair of electric-blue, pistol-pocket, twelve-peg pants, which means 1955. He brought in the unions himself in 1960 (Teamsters 917) and was shop steward afterward. He designed most of the models they make. “When I got here, it was just a foot-pedal machine,” he said once when I visited him at work. He opened a C-frame press, painted white and made for sealing medical equipment. “Look how tight that is,” he said.
Though he drew only $1,200 a week, Durante never drives into Manhattan with less than $400 dollars on him, and usually tips 100 percent. “You play the table and the bar at Elaine’s and that’s how it works,” he said. “I’m in there last week for $260.” Durante worries when anyone else tries to pay, because his posse doesn’t tip nearly so well, and besides, Elaine Kaufman isn’t a woman you want to offend by not spending enough.
“I always wanted to be an entertainer,” Geno says. “I was in Japan and then Korea for the last ten months of the war. One day some friends ask me to bartend at an officers’ club. I wrote and performed Trip-A-Let, a three-act comedy show. I got top talent to headline for me. At the Air Force base in Japan, 27,000 troops came to see me.
“After the service, I did comic impressions. I did Ned Sparks, Kirk Douglas. Emory Parnell. Naturally, I did Bogart, Cagney, and Henry Fonda. Henry Fonda’s the medium of the register. If you can do him, you can do anyone. Now I got a four-tooth bridge on my bottom row that makes it so I can only do down-tone people, not up-tone people. I did a routine I called “People That Nobody Know.” It was character actors – you’d seen their faces and heard their voices, but you didn’t know their names.
“I was at a club called Ben Masick’s Town and Country when I saw Billy Daniels singing ‘That Old Black Magic.’ I’d get a hard-on just looking at the guy. He was just so exciting, one of the great black celebrities. The guy was the most unique dresser I ever met – a picture box! I used to run all over just to see his clothes.”
Durante married, ran around, divorced, and eventually remarried. “Those times, if you were a wiseguy, you had to have a girlfriend,” he says. “There were so many clubs in Brooklyn, you didn’t know how to kill your night. I spent so much money, I needed to moonlight. And so I became a very elegant bartender.” First at the Lavender Lounge in East Flatbush and then Thursday nights at the Lock and Key and Tuesdays at the Coco Poodle, where the Gallos went. Eventually, he worked the Wander Inn, Phillip Foffee’s Vanity Fair at 53rd and Fourth, and the Night Cap, at the mouth of Prospect Park.
“I worked around every gangster in Brooklyn,” Durante often declares. He will tell you the story of how a guy known as Ernie the Hawk was discovered dead after being seen in the Coco Poodle. When some cops saw there were holes in Durante’s boat, they thought he knew something about the murder, though the damage to the hull was actually caused by rocks. “I told them all the cops I knew were lousy tippers, and they let me go with a kick in the balls. Later, I see this Jewish gangster, and he jokes with me, ‘Geno, you’re off the hook. Paul Vario took the rap for you!’ Paul Vario, that’s the guy Paul Sorvino plays in GoodFellas.”
Then there was Roy DeMeo, who ran the Murder Machine, a car-theft ring involved in killing 75 people. He used to come to the Lavender Lounge when he was only 16. “He’d stick his nose against the window just to piss me off, and once I grabbed him, said ‘Come in,’ and gave him his first drink,” Durante said. “Later, when he was already notorious, I used to do impressions at the Gemini Lounge, his place. I’d put him onstage and use him as the straight man and I did Pearl Bailey.”
At the Wander Inn, he met Tony Arguello, known as Tony Gawk and “closely associated” with the Gallo wars. “Tony Gawk – the best manager I ever had,” Durante said. “There was Tony Gawk’s version of a movie: Whatever he saw, he’d make it into a mob fable.” For example, after taking in Godzilla at the cinema, Tony Gawk held forth at the Wander Inn with his review: “Godzilla is the biggest, toughest wiseguy who don’t take no shit from no one.” John Frankenheimer’s Seconds he described as “Rock Hudson goes to the mob and asks them for a new life, but then they fuck him, and the moral of the story is, it’s impossible to be happy if you ain’t a wiseguy.”
Durante took me fishing one weekend. He was up around six because he wanted to buy the fresh giant squid, the right lure for sea bass, but the Chinese tackle shop on Avenue C wasn’t open. “I’m surprised they would be closed Sundays,” Durante said. “They’re not religious people, the Chinese.” He said the tub of sliced fluke’s bellies he had in his trunk would do.
His boat, a 31-year-old, 26-foot Luhrs monohull, is named the Tee Gee and Two, for T., Durante’s wife, Terry; G., Geno Durante himself; and their two sons. We were met at the Pilgrim Yacht Club by his son Eugene, who is 27 and looks as though he was built along the lines of a shot glass. Arriving late were Durante’s friend Gerry Murphy and his son Teddy. Gerry was in standard mob leisurewear: stone-washed Bermudas, a band-collared shirt with frogging and a crest on the pocket, and a white tam-o’-shanter.
“Where the fuck you been?” Durante asked. Murphy said Teddy had stayed out all night and overslept.
“I’m still drunk,” Teddy said.
It was Murphy, one of the original wiseguy-actors in the business, who first brought Durante into the scene. Murphy’s the easiest to pick out of the crowd because he is the only guy in town who still wears his necktie in the style of a sixties gangster – under his collar and untied but with one end crossed over the other, the position from Fig. 1 in any diagram instructing how to tie a tie. Durante keeps a snapshot of Murphy standing with Robert De Niro in his wallet, along with these pictures: Durante with Jack Warden, Durante with Cliff Gorman (from The Boys in the Band), and De Niro with a friend of John Gotti’s.
Durante met Murphy on a cruise 21 years ago. They were on the same side in a bar fight, and afterward, Durante introduced himself and said, “Your face is familiar. Didn’t I see you in The French Connection?” Murphy had in fact played a union boss in Once Upon a Time in America and acted in The Brinks Job but in The French Connection did only a small bar scene with Gene Hackman. He had been a construction worker when he met the director William Friedkin, who gave him his first break.
Durante eased his boat into Sheepshead Bay and got himself a drink in the cabin. “Does anyone desire anything?” he asked. He had beer, the makings of gin-and-tonics, and salami. Also, a bucket of tap water. “The sea is bad for the skin,” he explained. “You rinse in fresh water, you get a nice feeling on your hands.”
Teddy was seasick, so he crouched over the latrine hatch and vomited for a while. When his father laughed, Teddy raised an arm in the air and gave him the finger.
“Teddy, don’t be doing that, you fuck,” Gerry said.
Teddy flopped over on his back and passed out in the midday heat. We fished the Tin Can Grounds and Breezy Point, but nobody had much luck with the sea bass. We switched to fluke and tried the deep water outside Ambrose Channel, in the shipping lanes, so our lines couldn’t hit bottom. Everyone put in $5 for whoever caught the biggest fluke. Eugene was the best fisherman, so he took the worst rod and played air guitar while he sat in a plastic deck chair and held the reel between his knees. He didn’t even bother to replace his bait when it fell off. “You don’t need bait when you got my skills,” he said.
Murphy laughed. “Oh, I like that – Skills Durante.”
Durante is crazy about Eugene – he emphasizes the first syllable, so it comes out Yoo-gene – and before I’d left for Brooklyn, he said, “I’m sorry he’s my son, because I go out with him and nobody wants to talk to me; they all want to talk to my son.” Durante’s second child is named James, after Jimmy Durante, who is no relation of theirs. He was in the waiting room when his wife was giving birth and he heard on the radio that the singer had suffered a stroke. “I thought he wasn’t going to make it,” Durante recalled, “then he lives. And Danny Stiles, the nostalgia disc jockey, comes on and says, ‘Jimmy Durante is alive in Brooklyn!’ “
Durante wore canvas Top-Siders, duck pants, a shirt with epaulets, and a necklace that vertically spelled out geno in block letters. It was almost pretty in Ambrose Channel, even if to our left we could still see Brighton Beach and Shore View Nursing Home, and to our right was the sewage treatment plant on Knapp Street. Everyone stared as a beautiful 34-foot mainstream yacht floated within 40 yards of us. There were two black couples on the boat and a few children. “Look at that hull,” Durante said with admiration. “You could sail to China in a boat like that. What the fuck are blacks doing with a boat like that?”
“Dad, knock it off,” Eugene said.
“Sorry, but I’m just posing the question,” Durante said. “I love black women. Black and white, it’s a beautiful mixture. You don’t think if it’s good enough for De Niro, it’s good enough for you or me?”
Teddy woke up, badly sunburned, and made himself a sandwich. Like Eugene, he has been working in the New York Police Department. Eugene said he had just put in for an assignment in the 70th Precinct, host to the Abner Louima incident. “They’re getting rid of all the scumbag cops,” he explained. “The Seven-Oh’s going to be the cleanest squad in the entire force, the best place to train.”
“Now I can see how you used to be a social worker and backpacked around Europe,” Teddy said. “You got that idealistic philosophy.”
“My own fucking son is a pig,” Murphy shouted over. “I got a little granddaughter who’s smarter than him. The other day, I bought her a present, and I says she only gets it if she tells me the Eleventh Commandment, and without a blink she says, ‘Thou shalt not snitch.’ I said, ‘Now, that is a good girl.’ ” Then he got on the subject of asbestos suits against the city and disability claims people had filed for stunt-scene injuries.
I asked Teddy and Eugene if they ever thought it was weird to be working as cops given the sorts of characters their fathers knew and love to reminisce about.
Times were different back then, Eugene said.
“Most of the shit I saw you don’t even know about,” Durante said to his son.
“And I don’t want to know.”
Everybody was playing it for Durante, running through their wiseguy routines. At one point, I had the biggest fish of the day on my line, a baby sand shark that was more than two feet long.
“Look at that shark making a bitch out of you,” Murphy said as I tried to reel it in.
“That shark’s making a bitch out of you, Eric,” Teddy said.
“The shark’s calling you his bitch,” Eugene said.
When I finally got the shark out of the water, Murphy suggested Teddy shoot it. “Teddy, get your piece,” he said. “You got your piece on the boat?”
Later, Durante caught an eighteen-inch-long sea bass. “I recognize-a that fish,” Eugene said.
“I recognize-a that fish,” Durante said. It was the punch line from a story about Dominic Aniello, a kindly old man he used to bring fishing. The backstory, as they call it in the business, went something like this: They were betting on the day’s biggest blackfish, but hardly anything was biting. Dominic finally caught one and put it in a bucket. While Dominic went to use the toilet, Durante put the fish on his own line.
“Look what I got,” Durante had said as Dominic emerged from the cabin.
Dominic shook his head sternly: “I recognize-a that fish.”
When Durante dies, he will leave behind things in large quantities, and they will be perhaps the most substantial proof of his having lived. All of his fanaticism toward movies and the mob and hanging out at Elaine’s are to him a struggle for permanence, each in a way affording an opportunity to affix himself to a moment in history more indelible than himself. “Collecting is how you make a passion out of a mild interest,” Durante said one night. We had left Elaine’s and were driving downtown, the Thursday-night circuit. He splashed some cologne on his face, from a travel-size bottle he kept in the glove box, and offered me some.
“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.”