It sounds like the start of an old joke: A Jewish Long Islander and an Italian-American actor walk onto a movie set . . .
Actually, it's a fair description of the making of "Friends and Romans," a new comedy about chronically typecast Italian-American actors who decide to showcase their talents by putting on a Shakespeare play. Written and directed by two Jericho High School alums and shot partly in Carle Place, "Friends and Romans," opening Friday, stars Michel Rispoli, Annabella Sciorra and a host of instantly recognizable character actors. It's part "GoodFellas," part "Guys and Dolls."
"We really didn't want to insult Italian-Americans; we wanted them to be in something they'd be proud of," says screenwriter Gregg Greenberg. "This is a family movie, and we wanted to portray them in a positive light."
Greenberg, a full-time journalist for TheStreet.com and a part-time playwright, got the idea for "Friends and Romans" several years ago while mounting a stage play that featured Italian-American characters. While auditioning actors, Greenberg noticed that virtually all had been in "The Sopranos."
"Some just had a line or two," says Greenberg. "I kept thinking: What are these guys gonna do when 'The Sopranos' goes off the air? New York is going to be full of Mobster No. 3s."
Greenberg sent the resulting screenplay to various festival contests and finally got it into the hands of producer Michael Mailer (son of author Norman Mailer), who in turn connected him with director Christopher Kublan ("Giving It Up"). Though the two had never met, Greenberg and Kublan discovered they both attended Jericho High during the late 1980s. That common ground helped when they began rewriting the script and inventing new characters, says Kublan.
The production really kicked into gear when Rispoli, himself a "Sopranos" alum, came on board. "When Gregg gave me this script, I said, 'I know this whole world, I know these guys,' " says Rispoli, who plays the lead role, a struggling actor named Nick De Maio.
Still, Risopli had some objections to the original script, which itself fell prey to stereotypes. One early scene called for Nick's wife (Sciorra) to stir a pot of tomato sauce while encouraging their teenage daughter (Katie Stevens) to eat.
"Do you even have any Italian friends?" Rispoli asked Greenberg. "This is like from my mother's generation." For his part, Greenberg pleads ignorance: "I'm a Jewish kid. I don't know what goes on in an Italian household."
After helping rewrite the script with Kublan, Rispoli began making calls to other actors, including Tony Sirico, aka Paulie Walnuts on "The Sopranos."
After successful screenings at festivals -- including this year's Boston International Film Festival, where it won the Indie Spirit Award for best picture -- "Friends and Romans" was picked up by Paladin Pictures for distribution.
"It's a family movie, there's no violence, no cursing, no sex," says Greenberg. "I think audiences really appreciate that."