Who Was Tony Lip?
Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga (July 30, 1930 - January 4, 2013) leveraged his roots as a working-class Italian-American to become a bouncer who hobnobbed with entertainers and an actor of moderate success. In the 1960s he was hired as a chauffeur and security guard for African-American pianist Don Shirley, an experience dramatized in the 2018 film Green Book. Vallelonga later carved out a niche playing a tough guy on screen, most notably as crime boss Carmine Lupertazzi on the hit HBO series The Sopranos.
Movie: 'Green Book'
The 2018 film Green Book, starring Viggo Mortensen as Lip and Mahershala Ali as Shirley, centers on the real-life odd couple story of Vallelonga driving Shirley through the American South for a series of performances in 1962. Written by Vallelonga's son Nick and directed by Peter Farrelly, the film claimed the People's Choice Award at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and generated Oscar buzz, though it also drew backlash for perpetrating Hollywood tropes about race relations and redemption.
Nick, who met Shirley at age five, began interviewing his father and Shirley in the 1980s with the hope of turning their experience into a movie. He said he received the blessing of both men, his father instructing him to include the ugly moments that exposed his own racial prejudices, though Shirley requested that the movie not be made until after his death.
As Carmine Lupertazzi on 'The Sopranos'
Prior to his portrayal in Green Book, Lip was best known for the role of New York crime boss Carmine Lupertazzi on the HBO series The Sopranos. A member of the older generation, his character once admonished James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano for wearing shorts, though he also showed respect for the antihero by noting he'd be "proud to call him my son."
While he appeared in fewer than a dozen episodes between 2001 and 2004, the popularity of The Sopranos was such that Lip was recognized by fans on the street. Nick recalled how his father would receive a hero's welcome when visiting Italian sections of New York City or Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
At the Copacabana
Lip met Shirley while the former was employed as a bouncer at Manhattan's Copacabana nightclub. Ultimately working his way up to manager until the venue closed in 1972, Lip befriended many of stars who frequently dropped by, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole. He often described how he was on "Tom Jones duty" when the Welsh heartthrob performed at the club, tasked with keeping excited groupies off stage.
Lip's presence at the Copacabana also led to the next phase of his career: When director Francis Ford Coppola arrived one night in the early 1970s, in search of Italian-Americans to round out the cast of The Godfather (1972), he determined the burly, charismatic Lip to be a perfect fit.
'The Godfather,' 'Goodfellas' and Other Roles
Following his brief showing in The Godfather, Lip made uncredited appearances in other acclaimed films like Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Raging Bull (1980), before settling into a niche as a stereotypical wise guy. He portrayed real-life mobsters in Goodfellas (1990) and Donnie Brasco (1997), eventually compiling more than two dozen credits over 35-plus years in the industry.
Although he had no formal training as an actor, Lip drew praise for his natural talents. "He had something that it takes a lot of veteran actors a lot of effort to do," said Mortensen. "He had an ability to relax. Just breathe and be calm... There's a stillness about him. It exudes a certain kind of a threat."
Frank Anthony "Tony Lip" Vallelonga was born on July 30, 1930, in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. Parents Nicholas and Nazzerena had recently arrived from Italy, and within a few months they relocated the family to New York City borough of the Bronx.
Raised in a working-class Italian area, with neighbors that included future Gambino crime family head John Gotti, Vallelonga learned to fend for himself on the streets. At around age eight, he acquired his famous nickname, for the lips that kept moving and enabled him to talk his way out of sticky situations.
Hairdresser to Bouncer
Finished with school by the ninth grade, Lip briefly pursued a career in professional baseball as a teenager, playing in the St. Louis Browns organization. After serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, he went to school to study hairdressing via the G.I. Bill, eventually landing a gig with the Radio City Rockettes.
By the end of the decade, Lip was putting his social skills and fists to use as a nightclub bouncer. He worked at the Monterey Club in the Bronx before moving downtown to the Peppermint Lounge in Manhattan and elbowing his way into the limelight at the Copacabana.
At various points, Lip also worked as a garbage man and competed as a dancer and bowler. Later in his career, while finding his footing as an actor, he served as a hotel and pizzeria manager.
Wife and Children
Vallelonga was married to wife Dolores from 1958 until her death in 1999 and had two sons, Nick and Frank Jr. Like his father and brother, the younger Frank pursued acting roles before establishing a pizza restaurant in New Jersey.
Book: 'Shut Up and Eat!'
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