The recent Academy Awards placed the spotlight on the movie “Green Book.” The winner for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor, it had also been nominated for Best Actor and Best Film Editing. The film screenplay was co-written by Nick Vallelonga, son of the film’s main character. Set in 1962, when the Don Shirley Trio was set to embark on a concert tour, including dates in segregated southern states, world-class pianist Shirley hired Tony as his driver and bodyguard. The name of the film “Green Book” refers to the name of a travel guide for black motorists in the segregated Southern states. While in the movie the trip lasts for eight weeks, the extent of the tour was actually a year and a half.
Vallelonga’s wit and quick tongue had earned him the nickname “Tony Lip” and took him from the streets of the Bronx to New York’s legendary Copacabana nightclub and a long acting career. Born in 1930, Tony grew up amid Depression-era poverty in a rough-and-tumble Bronx neighborhood. He was able to use words, rather than muscle to make his way in the world. He left school in the seventh grade, but he was street smart enough to avoid falling in with the neighborhood’s criminal element. 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 the screenplay “Green Book.”
When Viggo Mortensen, who was nominated for Best Actor in the film, received the script recounting Tony’s tour of the South with Don Shirley, he was hesitant. “Tony’s whole social, economic, ethnic background was different from me,” said Mortensen. Still, he found Tony appealing. “The main thing that I liked about him 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 and then maître d’ at the Copacabana Club in the 1960s. Although a working-class guy, he became friends with some of the biggest names in show business, such as Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin. As he rubbed elbows with the rich and famous, Tony himself could barely afford to pay his family’s rent.
Between his time at the Copa and his touring with the Don Shirley Trio, Tony became smitten with show business. He met Francis Ford Coppola at the Copa and his persuasive nature landed him his first acting job – one of the wedding guests in “The Godfather.” Following that first acting job, Tony had a long run as a character actor. He moved his family to New Jersey, residing in Paramus. Tony passed away in 2013, but according to his son, anyone who wants to get a sense of the real Tony Lip need only look at Mortensen’s performance in the movie.