“You’re a good guitar player,’” said Ric, after my set at Vox Pop, in his gruff Brooklyn accent. I noticed the crumbs on his shirt. He was typing on his computer, sitting across from my son, Theo.
I thanked him for the compliment. “What are you working on?” I asked.
“I’m working on a screen play,” said Ric. In New York everyone’s working on a screenplay, or a novel. Everyone’s a fucking star. I didn’t know if it was a “real” screenplay or not. But I didn’t care. I liked him right away.
Almost immediately, we started talking about film. I quickly learned that Ric knew everything: the directors, screenwriters, the back stories, the financing behind the film. Who fucked who. Eventually he’d quote lines from movies in the voices of the actors, or imitate directors shouting commands to the cast.
“Who’s this little guy?” Ric asked, referring to my son.
“This is my Theo,” I said. Theo blushed slightly.
“What are you eating, Theo?” Ric asked my son, calling him by his name.
Theo looked at me, not sure if he should speak.
“That’s the Vox Chicken Cordon Blu sandwich,” I said, speaking for him.
“That’s my favorite sandwich here,” Ric said excitedly. Theo smiled. Another crazy friend of dad’s. Ric never took his eyes off the sandwich.
“You must know a lot about film,” I said.
“I should,” he said. “I studied film at NYU.”
“Who’s your favorite director?” I asked.
“Rosselini,” said Ric without hesitation. “’Open City Rome’, ‘Paisan,’ ‘German Year Zero’ are amazing films in my opinion,” he continued, rocking back and forth. “Rossellini made ‘Open City’ on borrowed money. He had to make films to pay for his gambling; he was always in debt. That’s why he made so many films, some of them brilliant, some awful. ”
“Do you like Fellini?” I asked.
“I like him,” said Ric, his left eyebrow pointing upwards. “Fellini’s not my favorite director.” He then told me the story about Fellini’s directing debut in “Variety Lights.” Ric repeated this story many times over.
The compassionate man I came to know was moved by the compassion expressed in those Rosellini films. Post-‐war Italy was beaten down, humiliated and defenseless. Ric understood those emotions.
I only learned years later that Ric directed the Beastie Boys videos, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and “You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Party”. I told Ric that I knew Joe Bruno, one of the actors in “You Gotta Fight.”
Later Ric ran into Bruno at a Beastie Boys event.
“Bruno, do you know Mike Fiorito,” asked Ric, “he said grew up with you in Astoria.”
Bruno looked blankly at Ric. Ric said Bruno had kept up his punk-‐rock madman image. Shaved head, no eyebrows. Crazy blue eyes. Bruno’s the guy who smashes a bottle on his own head in the video. That wasn’t trick photography either. That was Bruno.
“I don’t know no Mike Fee-‐or-‐ee-‐to”, said Bruno. He paused and sucked down half can of Budweiser, Ric said. Then, rummaging through his catalog of names and faces, he said,” wait, you mean
Ric said no, you say it Fee-‐or-‐ee-‐to.
Bruno asked, “that’s French way you say it?”
And so from then on I was Fa-‐ree-‐to to Ric. In our emails back and forth we had lots of nicknames for each other. I called Ric “Fra Menello,” “Menellowitz” and “Rico Suave”. He called me “Mikey,” “Fa-‐ree-‐to,” or “Fra Michele.” There were many more names. The email where we decided to call each other Fra Menello and Fra Rito was our way of saying we loved each other.
Somehow I was always behind the eight-‐ball with Ric. I didn’t see “Two Lovers” when it came out, even though Ric wrote the screenplay. Maybe I was too consumed with work, being a father to two kids, trying to write and play music. No excuse.
When I finally saw “Two Lovers,” I called Ric up. “It was amazing,” I said. I apologized that I
hadn’t seen it two years earlier. I was gushing with praise. Underplaying it, Ric said “yeah it was good.”
“The dialog was great. The photography was beautiful,” I said. Ric knew I meant it.
I said that it reminded me of a Luchino Visconti film; I couldn’t remember the title. Ric said that it was based on “White Nights” by Visconti.
Then it all really hit me: Ric is the real thing. I was now a friend and a fan.
“Why aren’t there any Italian characters in the film?” I asked Ric. “It’s based on a Visconti film, you’re the screenwriter, and Isabella Rosellin is the main actress.”
“The Director James Gray says he can’t develop Italian stories,” said Ric.
“We can only be dego mobsters in Hollywood?” I asked.
“What do you want from me?” asked Ric. “I’m the screenwriter.”
A few weeks later, talking to my friend, David Evanier, he said that his book, “Making the Wiseguy’s Weep” was in the hands of a producer. I had read David’s book and loved it so much, I had written to him. Discovering that we both loved Italian music and, all art in general, we had since become close friends. They needed a screenwriter, David said, someone who understood the material, the world of Jimmy Roselli. I told David that I knew a screenwriter who’d completed films and was a personal friend.
I introduced Ric and David at a café near my apartment. They couldn’t stop talking. They shared favorite films, authors and singers. It was like two stars meeting on a collision course. They exploded into something bigger, more powerful and beautiful.
Later David said “”where’d you find this guy?”” Ric knew everything. He understood the world of the book: New Jersey and New York mobsters, the Italian neighborhoods they came from, Brooklyn and Hoboken. And he was the real thing, he was a credited screenwriter.
During that year Ric was writing the script he, David and David’s wife, Dini, would come over to ”
“our house. We watched Ric’s selection of films: “Mafioso,” “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” “Rome Open City” and “Terra Trema.”
My wife Arielle made spectacular dinners for everyone on film nights. “”This is the most delicious meatloaf I’ve ever had,”” Ric said the night we watched “Christ Stopped at Eboli.” Arielle was inspired by Ric’s enthusiasm; she’d make dinners especially for him.
For a few months, we watched Ric’s list of films, as if the films were informing the writing of the script. He was creating a world; we were all participating in the creation of this world.
Ric came bounding into the apartment with no socks on. He’d yell, “Hey Travis,” and Travis would run away, scared.
“Come on, Travis, it’s Uncle Ric.”
Then Travis would come back, sit on Ric’s lap. As much as I loved our film nights, I know Ric loved the feeling of family.
The night he read the first draft of “Making the Wiseguys Weep” Arielle prepared brisket from her Mario Batoli cookbook.
Before the food came out, we listened to Roselli and other Italian singers like Claudio Villa, Sergio Bruni and Mario Merloa. Ric was chomping on potato chips, getting crumbs all over. It actually drove me pretty crazy.
“Ric, try to use the plate so you don’t get crumbs everywhere,” I said.
Ric looked into my eyes. He had a smirk on his face.
“If you’re going to have a friend like me, you gotta put up with shit like that,” he said. It wasn’t said in an angry or rude way; it was very matter of fact. It wasn’t so much an apology but more an explanation. I vacuumed the crumb bits on the couch and on the carpet even before dinner came out. I couldn’t bare seeing crumbs on the carpet.
During dinner Ric said, “This is the best brisket I’ve ever had,” making loud slurping sounds, chewing loudly. It was moving to watch him eat food with such relish. It was like you were missing out on something.
After dinner, we settled in. It was time to read the script. Ric voiced each part. In his screenplay Ric peopled the book with his uncles, his aunts, his mother and father. It was very personal. He knew these people, knew their subtle accents. I could see the dark wop faces as Ric spoke. There was a nostalgia and a sadness in Ric’s screenplay that wasn’t in the book. When he finished reading the script, Ric seemed depressed, like he’d taken out a piece of himself to write this story. My friend Angela had said she cried when Ric read the screenplay for her a few nights ago; now I knew why. David went to the bathroom and by the time he had come out Ric had left. “Tell David I said goodnight,” he said, as he walked out the door, his voice sad. I gave him a hug and he was gone. That was the last time David saw Ric.
Ric died from a heart attack only a few weeks after he read the play to us.
When I met Ric’s uncle Pat and cousin Vinnie at the wake, it confirmed that our friendship went beyond the time we knew each other. They reminded me of my mother and father’s families. They were dark wops, too. When I had shown up at the hospital to see Ric after his fatal heart-‐attack, they greeted me with hugs, sat me down and asked me how I was doing.
And that’s why we all loved Ric. He cared for you. He’d try to find that one thing you did that was special, encouraging your talent. He didn’t harp on the many things that you did poorly, though he didn’t pull punches. He told you what didn’t work, but he’d emphasize your strengths.
The last time he came to the 773 Lounge, I improvised a vocal over my friend Humberto’s guitar playing.
When I finished Ric said, “That was your finest moment.”
“What did I say?” I asked. I couldn’t remember. It was improvised and I’d had few beers, so it
just came out of my mouth without considering the words. And it left my brain just as easily.
“I don’t remember what you said. Some shit about a dog’s nose, the rings of Saturn and the
olive oil,” said Ric. “Whatever it was, it was brilliant.”
If Ric said it was good, it was good and you believed it.
And now, aside from the memories, and looking forward to seeing “Making the Wiseguys Weep” become a film, I have the emails. Ric often sent a furious fuselage of emails. Typically he would respond in separate emails to different topics in your email.
I wrote him saying that after all these years I’d finally seen “Variety Lights.”
He wrote back retelling me the story that he’d told me a million times. Formerly a gag writer and screenwriter for Rosellini, Fellini was given the opportunity to co-‐direct “Variety Lights” with Lattuada, who also directed “Mafioso.” Rosellini offered Fellini the directorship if he could get one of the star actors to accept less money for the film.
Maybe a day went by; I wrote back and asked Ric if he liked “Variety Lights”. He talked about it
so much that I assumed he loved it. He wrote back saying, believe it or not, he’d never seen the film. It
cracked me up that I’d long anticipated seeing this film on Ric’s recommendation and yet he’d never seen it. That was Ric. He could inspire you to do what you most wanted to do in a way you couldn’t completely understand. But this was a skill he had. Ric made you reach for your highest without beating you up. He tricked you into being better and you didn’t even notice.