Kevin Connolly tells John Spano's tale in 'Big Shot'

Former Islanders owner John Spano.

Former Islanders owner John Spano. (Credit: Newsday file photo)

Kevin Connolly is excited -- about how his Islanders are playing, and about the fact that his movie about the Islanders is set for its world premiere Friday at the Tribeca Film Festival.

But the actor / director would be even more excited if he has to update the film before it makes its TV debut on ESPN in October.

"I was thinking, plenty of time to go in and re-cut that third act!" he said last week from California, where he was putting the finishing touches on "Big Shot," his documentary about the brief, notorious reign of owner John Spano.

"There can be tweaks. If the Islanders make some noise -- my lips to God's ears -- and make a dramatic run to the Cup, yeah, things can change."

Forgive Connolly, 39, his exuberance. Like most longtime Islanders fans, the Patchogue-Medford High alum has had little to cheer for in recent seasons, so the team's recent hot streak is cause for celebration.

It serves as a neat contrast to the Spano saga of 1996-97, one of the oddest episodes in NHL history, when a man who turned out to be a fraud was allowed to purchase a storied franchise.

Focusing on Spano, who was convicted of bank fraud in 1998 and spent more than four years in prison, was not Connolly's idea. Originally, he was set merely to narrate, but when another director dropped out, he stepped in, not anticipating how much work would be involved.

"I had visions of me sitting in a cool editing room in Santa Monica, Calif., cutting together old Islanders highlights; it didn't work out that way," he said. "But it's been a tremendous experience."

Connolly, best known for his role as Eric Murphy on the HBO series "Entourage," said of the opportunity to make a film for ESPN about the Isles, " 'It's a dream come true' would be sort of putting it mildly."

Even as he told Spano's tale, he insisted on weaving in the story of the Islanders themselves and what they mean to their community.

"In the editing room, they were like, 'Kevin, we can't do nine minutes on the Islanders' comeback against Pittsburgh [in the 1982 playoffs],' " he said. "My first cut was three hours long. But you have to understand that's what is so great about '30 for 30' is what they really want are human stories with sports backdrops."

Hence Spano, a figure Connolly found compelling and sympathetic. (Spano is scheduled to attend the premiere.)

Connolly had enough material without Spano, including an interview with Newsday's John Valenti, whose coverage helped expose the scandal. "Newsday is like the hero of the movie," said Connolly, who played former Newsday columnist Bill Nack in "Secretariat."

But getting to the former owner would be a coup. Initially he met with Spano's attorney, Nick Gravante, and insisted he "was not looking to do a hatchet job." Rather, he said, "I really did want to tell a fair and balanced story with more of a 'Catch Me if You Can' vibe."

The pitch worked. "John, I would strangely consider a friend in a weird way," he said. "We have had our ups and downs. We've had our battles and our screaming matches -- some pretty nasty ones -- but we always seem to end on common ground.

"I don't think John is a bad guy. I think he's someone who would have preferred the movie not happen, but it did, and I think he knew it was in his best interest to participate because we were doing the movie with him or without him.''

How might viewers feel about the one-time owner?

Said Connolly: "You're going to walk away saying, 'Hey, man, say what you want about this guy, but he took a crack at the ultimate American dream.' He said in the movie, 'Was it worth it? The repercussions were massive. It altered my life. But for four months, I owned the Islanders.' "