Grrr! A Bronx Tale

Over the weekend, actor Lillo Brancato Jr. was allegedly involved in a botched robbery attempt with his druggie pal that resulted in the slaying of a New York City police officer.

"Sopranos" fans might recall Brancato as the gangster who tried to put a hit on Michael Imperioli's character — Christopher — in season two of the HBO series, and who cried "Mommy" right before getting shot multiple times by Tony and one of his henchmen.

NYPD officer Daniel Enchautegui didn't get to call for his mommy before he was shot to death on the sidewalk outside the home that two thugs broke into.

In fact, the hero cop shot back eight times, hitting Brancato and Steven Armento with several shots. Armento and Brancato were in stable condition at a New York hospital.

The real shame here is that the morons broke into an empty house, apparently looking to score some valium from a local drug dealer. Little did they know the dealer was dead and the house was empty, resulting in a tragedy that didn't have to happen.

This is a sad case of life imitating art. But since when did "street cred" apply to actors?

In the rap world, "street cred" means everything. Rapper 50 Cent is famous because of his gangster lifestyle. Eminem talks about his life on the streets, and countless others practice what's called "Gangster Rap," where killing cops and smacking "hos" upside the head make for popular lyrics.

Now it seems actors are jumping on the "street cred" bandwagon.

Brancato is not the first actor portraying a mobster to get into trouble in real life. "Sopranos" kid Robert Iler plead guilty to mugging a couple of tourists in Manhattan after season one of the hit show.

Actor Vinnie Pastore, aka "Big Pussy" of "Sopranos" fame, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of attempted assault after slamming his girlfriend's face into the stick-shift of his car. Nice guy.

Even acting great Robert De Niro was rumored to have carried a gun everywhere he went while filming his Oscar-winning role in "The Godfather: Part II" in the 1970s.

The difference, however, is that De Niro is a trained method actor. Method is an acting style De Niro learned in the famed Actor's Studio under legendary teacher Lee Strasberg. The style emphasizes an actor's use of his real emotions based on experiences in the actor's life.

But that's the difference between a trained actor and one yanked off the streets and thrust into the business of make-believe.

In De Niro's "A Bronx Tale," Brancato was plucked from a beach to play lead character Calogero, a kid who worshipped the local mafia family and yearned to be like them.

In the film, Brancato's character learns that his father, a "square" bus driver played by De Niro, was right all along — being a gangster is not the way to live your life. Unfortunately, it wasn't a lesson he learned in real life.

Brancato was discovered by a talent scout for De Niro's flick because of his resemblance to the legendary actor and his spot-on impression of characters De Niro played in various films.

At the time, Brancato told interviewers he didn't want to be an actor, "he wanted to be De Niro."

This guy didn't belong in any movie. He belonged in school, or in a career based in reality. Alas, when the Hollywood Siren calls, her draw trumps everything. We live in a culture where celebrity worship runs rampant.

Brancato, Pastore and Iler are nothing but two-bit characters who believe they really are gangsters. They can't separate reality from their fantasy lives of make-believe. In New York, we call these guys "cardboard gangsters." The problem is ... these clowns are dangerous.

I knew a few wannabes when I was an actor in the New York City off-Broadway play "Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding." Not the actors — mind you — but people in an audience that interacted with the actors.

I had several occasions where I had to look over my shoulder after a show because some idiot fancied himself a connected guy, and was looking to teach my character, "Johnny Nunzio," a lesson after busting their chops during the show.

These guys were so stupid they couldn't understand that I was acting. I remember one guy smacked his wife upside her head because she danced in "the dollar dance" with the actor playing "Tony," and it wasn't like she was the only one. There was a line of women waiting to dance with him. It was part of the show.

Nowadays, some Hollywood talent scout would look at that kind of reaction as an authentic character who would make a great actor for a certain part. Yeah, that may be, but fast forward to a decade later and where do you think that great actor will be?

See Lillo Brancato.

The point is whether it's Hollywood or the NBA, young kids who are thrust into the spotlight and paid big money before they are ready to deal with that kind of lifestyle often end up worse off than if they worked their way up in the business. If they earned it.

If Brancato earned his parts because he sacrificed and studied and trained, he wouldn't have taken it for granted. He wouldn't have shot himself up with drugs. And he might have become a good actor. After all, he showed a lot of promise in "A Bronx Tale."

But most important, Office Daniel Enchautegui might be alive today.

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