Tony Lip: Just like the old days

By Robert Mladinich on January 8, 2019
Tony Lip: Just like the old days
While working at the Copacabana, Tony Lip became friendly with LaMotta and Graziano.

Tony Lip’s most notable role was playing Carmine Lupertazzi Sr. for three seasons on HBO’s hit television series “The Sopranos”…

The wonderful film “Green Book” stars Viggo Mortensen as Anthony Vallelonga, an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx who served as a driver and bodyguard for Don Shirley, an African-American jazz pianist during the latter’s tour through the Midwest and Deep South in 1962.

The film’s title is named after the Negro Motorist Green Book, which served as a guide for black travelers in need of food and lodging during the days of segregation.

Over the course of their journey, the duo experience many travails but become close friends and allies during the racially tumultuous times.

Vallelonga, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 82, worked for 12 years at the Copacabana nightclub in New York. He also had a successful acting career as Tony Lip, whose most notable role was playing Carmine Lupertazzi Sr. for three seasons on HBO’s hit television series “The Sopranos.”

When Lip’s character died of a heart attack while playing golf, the actor was sad to see him go.

“When they were shooting the scene of me in a coffin, I fell asleep,” Lip said in November 2005, while taking in a live boxing show at the Schuetzen Park ballroom in North Bergen, New Jersey, with former heavyweight contender Chuck Wepner. 

“It took them a lot of takes to get the right shot—so I really fell asleep. Imagine that!”

Lip, who resided in New Jersey, had been a maniacal boxing fan for his whole life. He was a regular fixture at club shows and other boxing-related events throughout the New York metropolitan area.

While watching then-undefeated Colombian sensation Joel Julio batter Hicklet Lau around the ring, he recalled listening to a fight between Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta on the radio when he was a young man.

Those pre-television days, he said, provided some of his best boxing memories.

“I think I enjoyed listening to the fights more than watching them,” he said. “Your imagination would go wild. Back then, listening to fights [involving] guys like Jake [LaMotta] and Rocky [Graziano]—your heart would race with excitement. They were real neighborhood heroes.”

While working at the Copacabana, Lip became friendly with LaMotta and Graziano, as well as scores of other influential people. It was his casual acquaintance with a film producer that led him to his first film role as a wedding guest in “The Godfather” in 1972.

One thing led to another, and he soon became a regular in films with Italian-American or organized crime themes. He played Frankie the Wop in “Goodfellas,” Nicky Bad Lungs in “29th Street,” Vito Pasquale in “Who’s the Man?” and Philly Lucky in “Donnie Brasco.”

He’s also appeared in “Raging Bull” and “The Pope of Greenwich Village.”

“I never took an acting lesson in my life,” said Lip, who refused to divulge his age, as well as a lot of other things about himself. “But it’s something I love. I wish I started earlier.”

“He’s a natural,” Wepner said with a chuckle. “I’ve known Tony for 30 years. He’s a helluva actor. Sometimes it doesn’t look like he’s acting at all. Maybe he isn’t.”

Working with the cast and crew of “The Sopranos” was like no other set Lip had ever been on. He said James Gandolfini, who played the lead character Tony Soprano, kept everyone laughing and that life on the set was more like fun than work.

“We told a lot of jokes and had a lot of laughs,” Lip said. “Everyone was so easy to work with. All those things you hear about actors—nobody was like that on the show. A happy crew made it a healthy show.”

At the time of this interview, a book that Lip co-authored with Steven Prigge had just been released. It was called “Shut Up and Eat” and listed the favorite recipes of 39 Italian-American celebrities.

Among them were comedian Pat Cooper, as well as actors Danny Aiello, who also wrote the forward, Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Chazz Palminteri, Drew DeMatteo, Talia Shire, Tony Sirico, Robert Loggia, Robert Davi, and Gandolfini.

“The book is doing dynamite,” Lip said. “I hear they can’t keep it on the shelves in some stores. That’s great news.”

While discussing the book, Lip was distracted by Julio’s fourth round TKO of Lau. When asked for an email address so I could forward the publication date of this story, he motioned for me to get that from his friend, a burly fellow who was sitting to my right.

“What do you want it for?” he asked gruffly. “What are you going to send?”

When I told him, his position softened a bit and he passed it along.

“Nice to meet you,” Lip said as I made my way over to Wepner, who was sitting two seats to his left. Directly on Lip’s left was Wepner’s lovely wife, Linda.

“I hear there’s gonna be another show here in February,” Lip added. “I’m looking forward to it. I enjoy these fights more than the big fights. I enjoy the winners and the losers. Even the losers fight with their heart. At [club] fights like these you get great crowds—just like the old days.”

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  1. ron stacy 01:01pm, 01/13/2019

    The Rock was a great an honorable champ, but he was human, and made mistakes, and had his little quirks, just like all of us. Liked his women, did a little loan sharking, but it is what it is! Hell nowadays, with a record like that, and the quirks he would of been a politician !


  2. peter 07:16pm, 01/08/2019

    Tony Lip is an interesting boxing fan—actor—author. I have always loved seeing how the sport of boxing—from its very beginning—has managed to intertwine itself, in a meaningful way, with almost every aspect of American culture—politics, entertainment, literature, music, and painting. This excellent article by Mr. Robert Mladinich underscores that fact..

  3. Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers 06:39am, 01/08/2019

    Mobsters and their nicknames. haha. Some sound like porn stars. Johnny Sausage, Joe Bananas and Cock-Eyed Lou to name a few. Luigi Tommaso Frato aka “Lew Farrell” aka Cock-Eyed Lou, had either a brother or a son, forget which, that was on the same plane that crashed and killed Rocky Marciano. No doubt that Marciano’s squeaky clean boy scout image MIGHT be more fiction than fact.

  4. Jim Crue 06:04am, 01/08/2019

    Terrific story, thanks for posting it.

  5. Pete The Sneak 05:15am, 01/08/2019

    What a great story and write up Robert. Heck, now I’m going to go and see Green Book . Wasn’t aware it had a story line about Anthony ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga. Being a Bronx Kid myself and having heard of Anthony, I’m a bit embarrassed I didn’t pick up on that. As it is, I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Thanks…Peace.

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