Anthony Vallelonga’s quick wits helped him realize a classic American dream

By Paul Plunkett

“The Melting Pot” is often used to describe America, but it also describes what shapes the lives of Americans — put separate ingredients together, add some heat, and something new and special emerges.

That’s one way to look at the life of Frank Anthony Vallelonga, better known as ‘Tony Lip,’ the real-life figure played by Viggo Mortensen in “Green Book.” Vallelonga’s wit and quick tongue took him from the streets of the Bronx to New York’s legendary Copacabana nightclub and a long acting career, including roles in “Goodfellas,” “Donnie Brasco” and “The Sopranos.”

Born in 1930, Tony grew up amid Depression-era poverty in a rough-and-tumble Bronx neighborhood dominated by wise guys. The ‘Lip’ nickname stems from his gift of gab; he was able to use words instead of muscle to make his way. He left school in the seventh grade, but he was street smart enough to avoid falling in with the neighborhood’s “made” guys. He did a tour of duty in the Army in the 1950s, stationed in Germany, before settling down with his wife, Dolores. They had two sons, one of whom would go on to write a screenplay about a moment in Tony’s life: “Green Book.”

When Mortensen received the script recounting Tony’s tour of the South with the Don Shirley Trio, he was hesitant. “[Tony’s] whole social, economic, ethnic background was different from me,” Mortensen says. Still, he found Tony appealing. “The main thing that I liked about him,” he says, “was his heart. As coarse as he seems at first, he actually turns out to be a man of his word.”

Tony’s magnetism came in handy during his years as a bouncer, then maître d’, at the Copacabana in the 1960s. “He’s just a working-class guy,” observes Mortensen, “yet he’s friends with Bobby Darin, Sinatra. He rubs elbows with all these important people, even though he’s just barely making the rent the whole time.”

Maybe it was the touring with the Don Shirley Trio, maybe it was hobnobbing at the Copa, but Tony caught the showbiz bug. When a young filmmaker named Francis Ford Coppola met Tony at the Copa and offered him his first role, an uncredited bit as a wedding guest in “The Godfather,” Tony’s life took a new direction.

He had a long run as a character actor, mostly playing gangsters, culminating in his recurring role as Brooklyn mob boss Carmine Lupertazzi on “The Sopranos.”

Actor Vincent Curatola, who worked with him on the show, says, “Tony had a hard exterior, but once you got to know him and you made him laugh, I’ll tell you, that was a shining smile.”

Tony died in 2013. But if you listen to Nick Vallelonga, anyone who wants to get a sense of the real Tony Lip need only look at Mortensen’s performance.

“I see my father,” says Vallelonga of Mortensen in the role. “The way he smokes — because my father smoked a certain way — lit a cigarette, the way he sat, he’s got all of it down.

“It’s very eerie but in a good way.”

Two letters Tony Lip handwrote to his wife, Dolores, during his tour of the South with Don Shirley