Last month Carl Capotorto's Twisted Head hit the bookshelves. The memoir traces his life in the Bronx decades ago, from his father's "Pizza and Sangwheech Shoppe" to the Summer of Sam. This week he told us a little bit about what life was like in New York back then, how the Son of Sam killed his childhood friend, and his role as Little Paulie Germani in The Sopranos.
Can you tell us what it was like to grow up in the Bronx in the 1960s and '70s? Yes I can. In fact, I wrote a book about it. Let me summarize it this way: only in the Bronx of those years could a kid grow up in a place called Cappi's Pizza & Sangweech Shoppe, survive the Son of Sam, and work at a McDonald's managed by Curtis Sliwa.
Do you miss anything from that era of New York? I miss everything, from frothy egg creams and games of Ringolevio…to leather maxi coats and the birth of disco. But I like living in the present.
How do you think the area has changed in the decades since then? My old neighborhood has changed a lot ... and then again, not so much. It's more densely populated now, more developed. And the faces are different. Where you used to see mostly white ethnic families, you now see mostly black and Latino families. But the area remains what it has always been: a diverse collection of hard-working people striving to climb higher up the social ladder. (Don't spread it around too much, but the Bronx is the last great frontier of lovely, affordable housing in New York City.)
Who was one of your favorite neighborhood characters during that time? Alexis, a forty-something madwoman who walked around with crazily mismatched outfits in electric shades of red and orange, her boobs spilling out of her blouse, her face a painted mask. She had only two teeth in her head -- both long and yellow -- sticking straight out of her mouth. She talked to herself a mile a minute, and sometimes had screaming fights with imaginary foes. Rumor had it that she had once been a very beautiful, highly paid prostitute...but had lost her mind to a nasty bout of untreated syphilis. (We were told that she still turned tricks in the wilds of Bronx Park.) I found her terrifying and heartbreaking in equal measure. But there were dozens of others. Don't get me started.
How did the Son of Sam personally effect your life? He killed my childhood pal, Valentina Suriani, and her boyfriend, Alex Esau, in the early morning hours of April 17, 1977, right outside of Val's apartment building, as the young couple sat smooching in the front seat of Alex's burgundy Mercury Montego. Val and Alex were among Son of Sam’s earliest victims, when he was still known only as "the .44 caliber killer." The double murder marked the end of innocence for me and my crew. Nothing was ever quite the same after that. (The killer was still on the loose that summer...during the Big Blackout. We roamed the pitch-black streets with our hearts in our throats, unwilling to surrender our freedom to this rampaging pyscho.)
How did you get into writing? I had always loved to write and found that it came naturally to me. From an early age, I assumed that I’d make a career of it somehow. When I got to college, I decided that journalism was the practical way to go. But my heart wasn't in it. Creative writing was much more my thing. A wonderful teacher named Helene Moyik called me into her office one day, and praised my short stories.
"There's so much dialogue in them," she said. "Why don't you try writing a short play?" I took her advice...and had the first real Eureka moment of my young life: I was a playwright. Eventually, I expanded into screenwriting and TV writing, but otherwise never looked back. (Thirty years as a dramatist prepared me well to write TWISTED HEAD, my first book, the early fruit of a new creative calling.)
And acting? Jump cut to 1984. I am a graduate student of playwriting at Columbia University. My first full-length play is selected for the O'Neill Conference, a big deal at the time, where fellow writers include August Wilson and John Patrick Shanley -- both of whom become good pals, especially Shanley (a kindred Bronxite). He and I return to the O'Neill the following summer, in 1985, and solidify our friendship. Some months later, he calls to ask if I will audition for FIVE CORNERS, his first movie.
"No thanks, John," I say. "I don't act."
But Shanley never takes no for an answer.
"Sure you do. I heard you read your plays. You’re a natural. Plus, you know this character. You can play him with your eyes closed. Just try it."
I end up going to the audition…and discover that I LOVE acting. Suddenly, I want the part of Sal Inzio more than anything else. After nine or ten callbacks, I get the role. (The director, Tony Bill, knew I had no prior experience and wanted to make sure I wasn't a fluke.) Thus began a modest career in which I did a movie a year for the next five years. (MAC, written and directed by John Turturro, was the last of these.)
I hadn't worked as an actor in seven years -- didn't even have an agent anymore -- when I got the call to audition for THE SOPRANOS. David Chase had seen MAC, and was considering me for the role of Ralphie Cifaretto (eventually played by Joey Pantoliano). Eight auditions and two months later, David said that he thought I was terrific in the part, but that I was “reading too young” to play Tony Soprano's nemesis. Several weeks later, I was offered the role of Little Paulie.
“You mean you want me to come in and audition?" I asked Georgianne Walken, the casting director.
"No. This is an offer," she said. "You've auditioned your little ass off." I was flattered. No one had ever referred to my ass as "little" before.
What was your reacting to the end of the Sopranos? Would you have written it differently? I heard the ending months before it aired, at the final "table read" -- a sit-down reading with the full cast just prior to shooting, which we conducted for each and every script, one of my favorite parts of the job. The now-famous "cut to black" ending didn't seem quite so harsh on the page...but then again, we were all preoccupied by the fact that it was the last time we'd be reading a new script together. When I watched the final episode at an HBO screening on the night it aired, I was as shocked as anybody else.
"Oh, no," I thought. "It's a trick ending. You can't do that." (I kept this opinion to myself.)
But then I went home and watched it again...and saw in a flash its absolute brilliance. I understood at once that it could not have ended any other way. I think THE SOPRANOS is a genuine masterpiece; the final moment of the series is, for me, a parting stroke of sheer genius.
Please share your strangest "only in New York" story. The time I attended a gay marriage ceremony in the Bronx...with Curtis Sliwa performing the nuptials! It was 1977. I was working at the McDonald's on Fordham Road. Sliwa was my manager. (This was years before he founded the Guardian Angels…and then became a right-wing radio talk show host.) Ralph, a co-worker, the first mincing queen I ever met, was planning to wed Vinny, his longtime boyfriend, and recruited Curtis to serve as a kind of mock minister. At the reception, which was held in the community room of a South Bronx project building, Sliwa danced “the robot” all night long, way too intensely, sweating profusely and poking out his moves in a freakish trance. (I write about all this in the book. I haven’t hurt from Curt’s lawyers yet, so I guess he hasn’t read it.)
Was were your theater classes like in New York, and can you talk a little bit about the visit from Tennessee Williams? I had a hip, young drama teacher in high school who staged several ambitious productions in which I performed bit parts. The most thrilling of these was WEST SIDE STORY, for which our teacher recruited Italian and Jewish kids to play the Jets, and black and Puerto Rican kids to play the Sharks. After rehearsal, she’d convene “rap sessions” so we could discuss the parallels between the musical and our own lives.
Marlene (she insisted we call her by here first name, a total novelty in those days) also took us to a series of afternoon symposia, sponsored by a city outreach program, in which hundreds of high school students from all five boroughs assembled in the Winter Garden Theater to gawk at various luminaries and ask them stupid questions. Tennessee Williams was the liveliest: he arrived late and stumbled onto the stage wearing his overcoat, with a bottle of booze sticking out of the pocket.
“Al Jolson used to perform in this theater,” he said. “Back then, there was a runway leading to the back of the house and out the front door. I wish it was still here.” When a precocious student asked why he never wrote comedies Williams quipped: “You apparently haven’t read my plays.”
Afterwards, on the street, I was approached by a reporter working the Broadway beat, a character right out of Damon Runyon.
“Whadja think?” he asked. I told him that I was disappointed. Williams was “one of my heroes” and it was disturbing to see him drunk and belligerent on stage. I was mortified to find my words in print the next morning, and pray to this day that Williams never saw them.
Which New Yorker do you most admire? My mother. Seriously.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York? I'd tousle its hair, loosen its collar, get it tipsy again. The city has become too straight-laced, too uptight. Dozens of neighborhoods, once gritty and alive, have become sterile bedroom communities. I'd curb the excessive “development” of every nook and cranny, and figure out how to restore rents to affordable levels. I’d institute a “one percent rule,” where all major corporations operating within city limits are required to donate 1% of gross profits to the arts and education. I’d revivify the city’s nightlife – Giuliani all but destroyed it – and encourage the return of funky little theaters, galleries, clubs, and music halls. I’d stop turning every other other storefront into a bank, phone store, or haute couture boutique. I’d institute a barter system, repeal the Rockefeller drug laws, and, above all, develop the World Trade Center site already!
What's your current soundtrack? Classic disco and deep, soulful house music. I’m an aficionado from way back, and will take this music to my grave.
Yankees or Mets? I'm from the Bronx. Do I have a choice?
Best cheap eat in the city. Mee Noodle Shop on 9th Avenue at 53rd Street. But there are many. New York is a bargain if you know how to work it.