“It’s impossible to understand the way we grew up, unless you’ve lived it,” says actor, screen writer, and producer William DeMeo of his Gravesend upbringing.
DeMeo, who got his big break in “A Bronx Tale” and has had roles on “The Sopranos” and “Analyze That,” has been spotted around the old ‘hood a lot these day shooting his upcoming movie “Back in the Day,” about a Bensonhurst boxer who gets taken under the wing of a Brooklyn mob boss after his mother dies and his father is forced to leave town.
In the movie, which is being produced by Paul Borghese and comes out this spring, DeMeo plays main character Anthony Rodriguez, acting alongside Shannen Doherty, Alec Baldwin, Danny Glover, and actual Brooklyn-born boxer Mike Tyson. DeMeo’s 17-year-old son Cristian makes his acting debut as a younger version of Rodriguez.
William DeMeo stars in his upcoming film “Back in the Day.” (Courtesy of William DeMeo)
DeMeo is simultaneously working on an exciting side project, a documentary about 86th Street back when it was a cruising and shopping hotspot — literally taking us through a time portal to Bensonhurst “back in the day.”
The way DeMeo tells it, he set up a Facebook group for “Cruisin’ 86th Street” on a whim while reminiscing about old times with co-producer Robert D’Aleo. With minimal effort, the page soon accrued thousands of followers, and people who grew up in the neighborhood began sharing their old photos of big hair and shiny cars.
The doc’s trailer naturally begins with the opening scene of “Saturday Night Fever,” the 1977 hit movie that started it all, with John Travolta as “Tony Manero,” strutting down 86th Street eating a slice of Lenny’s Pizza. It also feature interviews with Bensonhurst-born actors Joseph D’Onofrio and Steve Shiripa, and “Brooklyn’s Own” DJ Joe Causi.
“The goal is to get an interview with John Travolta,” says DeMeo, who hope to debut the documentary sometime after “Back in the Day” hits theaters this summer.
The filmmaker sat down with us this week to talk about growing up in Brooklyn, Italian stereotypes, the movie business, and more. Here are the highlights:
On growing up in Gravesend
“When I look back, I can’t even believe some of the things that happened and the experiences we had. We grew up in a very tough neighborhood. We experienced things differently. We grew up very different than my son grew up. We grew up in the mob capital of the world. We grew up among the most feared mobsters ever. You know, that’s how it was. We grew up with more of an edge, you knew that you had to respect others, because there were consequences. We learned how to treat other people. Because I feel like there’s a lot of people from different areas, they don’t know you are going to get a beat down if you speak to someone the wrong way. And I would respect the busboy as much as I would respect the billionaire.”
On Italian stereotypes
“The one thing that sometimes bothers me is that people think we grew up classless, and so many people went on to do very good things. Sometimes I don’t like the stereotype we get, and sometimes they overemphasize on our accents to make us out to be Marissa Tomei in ‘My Cousin Vinny.’ That’s not really how it really was. We didn’t know much better. We talked a certain way, because that’s the way we grew up. We had street smarts. And not everyone was in the mob. I mean there was no place anywhere in America that had more mobsters than Brooklyn — but it is what it is.
On being cast in mobster roles
“The mobster roles are always fun. No matter how you slice it, people can say they’re bored of mob movies as much as they want, but there is alway an audience, and playing those kinds of characters is fun. To be someone you’re not. To be able to play someone with that type of power, I mean look at what James Gandolfini did on ‘The Sopranos.’ That’s just a perfect example of every Sunday night, the whole world was watching ‘The Sopranos.’ But Brooklyn was so much more than that.
On having Brooklyn pride
“I just take great pride in being from Brooklyn. The one great thing about growing up in Brooklyn is that, as a filmmaker, there are so many stories to tell, because we didn’t grow up ordinary. In no way, shape, or form did we grow up ordinary, and I think that makes me a better filmmaker and a better actor. I have so much to do in my life and it’s just these experiences, there is so much to draw from as an actor.
“The best part about my movie ‘Back in the Day,’ was filming on my block that I grew up on, and filming in my mother’s home — I haven’t done that since my first movie. Being on my block shooting — its funny — growing up so many ppl are gone, and as you get older you lose touch with people and people move to Long Island, and they move to Jersey … But I noticed that a lot of people still live there, and so many people came to the set — people I haven’t seen in 15 years. I can’t even explain the support I get from my neighborhood.”
On Cruisin’ 86th Street
“What I’m trying to capture with the documentary is how we grew up together, what we experienced together, what we experienced driving down the street, seeing hundreds of people. Back then there were hundreds of cars on 86th Street. People socialized, it was fun, the music, everything — the way people dressed, the way people cared about their cars — every car shined, everyone took pride in their cars, in their appearance, in going out. You wanted to almost outdo the next guy coming down the street. Today it’s not like that. I’m just trying to bring back something that I was fortunate enough to experience.”