'Shocking tragedy': Frank Vallelonga Jr., of 'Green Book' fame, has died
Frank Anthony Vallelonga Jr., the former Franklin Lakes restaurateur whose family was the basis for the 2018 Best Picture Academy Award winner "Green Book," has died.
It was his father, the late Frank Anthony "Tony Lip" Vallelonga, played in the film by Viggo Mortensen, who chauffeured renowned pianist Don Shirley — an African American, played in the film by the Oscar-winning Mahershala Ali — through the deep south in the early 1960s.
"When you became a friend of my father, you became his family," Vallelonga Jr. told The Record in 2019.
Vallelonga Jr., 60, was pronounced dead early Monday morning Nov. 28.
Officers had responded to a 911 call around 4 a.m. and found an unconscious male on the street in the Bronx, according to the NYPD. It wasn't until Thursday that the deceased was identified as Vallelonga.
There were no apparent signs of trauma. A 35-year-old man, Steven Smith, was arrested in connection with the incident, and charged with concealment of a human corpse. The investigation is ongoing.
"This is a sad and completely shocking tragedy," said Vallelonga's manager Melissa Prophet in a statement. "Frank was a great guy, father, brother, actor and friend. He will be missed terribly."
More:'Green Book,' the Oscar-nominated film, puts a Bergen County family in the spotlight
"Green Book" was a family affair. The whole Vallelonga clan was heavily involved in the production of the film: Tony Lip's other son, Nick Vallelonga, co-wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay, and several family members appear in the film. Frank Vallelonga Jr. played his own uncle, Rudy Vallelonga.
"It's a really great story," Vallelonga Jr. told the Record in 2019. He was then the proprietor of Tony Lip's Italian Restaurant and Pizza on Franklin Lake Road, named after his father; the restaurant was the site of a blowout Oscar party on Feb 24, 2019, the night "Green Book" took the Oscars by storm, winning three out of five nominations. The restaurant has since closed.
"The movie is unbelievable," Vallelonga Jr. said. "Not only because it's my father's story. It's the way they portray it, and the actors, and the way it was shot, and the way the movie flows."
Both Vallelongas, junior and senior, were actors.
Frank Jr. appeared in "The Birthday Cake" (2021), in episodes of the CBS show "The Neighborhood," and in "The Sopranos." Vallelonga Sr., who died in 2013, appeared in "The Sopranos" as Carmine Lupertazzi, and in small roles in "Goodfellas" (1990) and "The Godfather" (1972).
In the 1960s, though, Frank Anthony "Tony Lip" Vallelonga Sr. was best known as bartender, doorman, maitre'd and eventually general manager of New York's famous Copacabana nightclub. His nickname referred to his gift of gab.
He was a well-known character who hobnobbed with celebrities — Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and Louis Prima were his drinking buddies. "They respected him," Frank Jr. told The Record.
But he was merely a bouncer, in 1961, when he was tapped for a special assignment: to chauffeur Dr. Don Shirley, a prodigious talent who had created symphonies and operas and been hailed as a "genius" by Igor Stravinsky, on a concert tour of the deep South. This was at the height of Jim Crow — and a chauffeur who was also a bodyguard seemed like a wise precaution.
An unlikely friendship
"Green Book" is about the growing, if unlikely, friendship between these two very different men. And it is also, Frank Jr. told The Record, an accurate picture of his father.
"My father was who he was," Frank Jr. told the Record. "He always said, 'You have to be comfortable inside your own skin. You treat people with respect, and you'll get respect. But if you disrespect them, you let them know it.' "
The Oscar wins for "Green Book" — the name refers to the travel guides for Black Americans in the segregated South, created by a Hackensack postal worker Victor Hugo Green in 1936 — came with their share of controversy.
Some called it a a throwback to "Driving Miss Daisy" — a cross-racial buddy movie with the white guy cast in the role of savior. But many adored the film. And for Frank Jr., it was also moving portrait of both his father, and his father's philosophy.
"That was who my father was," Frank Jr. said. "He would tell us, you don't judge nobody by their color. You don't judge them by whether they're black or gay or whatever. You judge them as a person."
The restaurant that Frank Jr. opened in 2017, as a nod to his dad, was also a tribute to the whole Vallelonga family. On the menu were items from the family files: Angela's Famous Meatballs (named after Frank Jr.'s wife), Linguini Alla Tony Lips, Tony Lips Nonna Pizza.
It was, Frank Jr. said, a family worth celebrating. "Anyone was invited to my house for a plate of macaroni," he told The Record. "My mother was really the heart and soul of the family."
The apartment in the North Bronx that we see in the film is the one that Frank remembered growing up in until around 1971, when the family moved to Paramus. This was where Tony Lip, his wife Dolores, and their two kids lived during most of the years that Tony worked at the Copa.
"That whole apartment, when I walked onto that set, it was like I was walking into that apartment in the Bronx," Frank Jr. said. "To a T. It was surreal to see that, seeing the table, seeing the kitchen, the TV and the record player exactly the way we had it — there was always music on in the house — and in the Christmas scene to see the Christmas tree decorated exactly the way my mother would decorate it. It was very emotional."
USA TODAY contributed to this article.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Frank Vallelonga Jr. son of the man who inspired Green Book has died