Back in 1986, one of the more frequent patrons of Manhattan's theater district was Alexander Dinelaris Jr., a teenager with dreams of climbing onto the stage. He was 18 and unhappy, living on his own in Lynbrook and barely supporting himself with restaurant work. He couldn't afford to see the shows, so he did the next best thing.
"I would take the Long Island Rail Road into the city with whatever cash I had, and I used to go buy some beer," Dinelaris says. "I used to bribe the people cleaning the theaters to let me in while they cleaned. 'A Chorus Line' was at the Shubert, so I would go in and offer them a beer from my 12-pack and sit on the stage and just stare at the seats." Often, Dinelaris would spend the night in the theater or sleep on a corner across from the Port Authority bus terminal.
On Sunday, nearly 30 years later, Dinelaris will be at a very different venue, the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, where the seats will be filled with his fellow Oscar nominees. Along with Nicolás Giacobone, Armando Bo and director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Dinelaris wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," the critically acclaimed comedy-drama that is up for eight more awards including best picture and best actor (Michael Keaton).
"Birdman," about a washed-up movie star (Keaton), whose attempt to reinvent himself on Broadway is complicated by his recovering-addict daughter (Emma Stone) and a volatile co-star (Edward Norton), was one of the best-reviewed films of last year. The Guardian in London praised its "jittery, crazy dialogue," and the Los Angeles Times called it a "surrealist portrait of modern times."
The rave reviews were followed by various awards, including a Golden Globe for best screenplay in the comedy or musical category. Two days after winning, Dinelaris tweeted a picture of his toddler playing with the Globe in her high chair. (Dinelaris and his wife, a marketing strategist from Oxford, England, have two daughters, ages 1 and 4.) As "Birdman" goes into the Oscars, its stiffest competition for best picture would seem to be Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," another critical favorite.
How Dinelaris, 46, came to be involved in "Birdman" is a story that begins at the Criterion Theatre, the now-defunct movie palace in East Rockaway, where Dinelaris lived with his mother after his parents' divorce. Their relationship was "rocky," he says, and he would often escape to the Criterion -- "my nirvana," he says -- and watch repeat screenings of movies like "Being There," "The Great Santini" and "Kramer vs. Kramer."
His first taste of acting came when a teacher at what's now Kellenberg Memorial High School, a private school in Uniondale, cast him as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof."
"It was like a hunger I didn't know I had," Dinelaris says. "When you come from a background where you don't get the attention or approval you need at home, when 7,000 people are watching and listening to anything you say, it fills a place in you. You're that little boy again, and there's a psychological reward you get from it."
"I was just so impressed by him," says Russell Siller, the drama teacher who cast Dinelaris in "Fiddler." "High school kids, you spend a lot of time explaining scripts to them because they haven't been in any plays. But he got the whole idea of what you do when you're on stage. He seemed to have this gift." Siller, who lives in Rockville Centre, still maintains contact with Dinelaris.
Following his lean period after high school, a scholarship from Barry University in Florida "saved my life," Dinelaris says. After studying drama there, he moved to Rockville Centre and focused on writing and directing. In 1992, Dinelaris staged productions at the Floral Palace, a dinner-theater venue on Jericho Turnpike in Floral Park. For a while, he made his living as the owner of Aleanna Restaurante in Woodmere.
It wasn't until much later, however, that his agent sent a copy of Dinelaris' play "Still Life" (staged in 2009 in New York) to Iñárritu. The two met in Los Angeles and eventually began working on Iñárritu's acclaimed film "Biutiful," but Dinelaris bowed out due to creative differences. Nevertheless, Iñárritu approached Dinelaris again for "Birdman."
"He called me up and said, 'I have this idea for a movie! It's insane!' " Dinelaris recalls. "I said, 'Absolutely. We have unfinished business.' "
Dinelaris says his "Birdman" contributions were mostly "banter" and "colloquialisms" -- he's the team's only native English speaker -- but the four men have clearly found a groove. They're also the creators and writers of "The One Percent," an upcoming Starz network drama set in the world of organic farming and starring Ed Helms, Hilary Swank and Ed Harris.
Dinelaris says he's working on a project with Guillermo del Toro, who he says shares his compulsion to tell stories and play make-believe. "You recognize somebody with a similar disease," he says. "I teach writing, and I also see it in the students I teach. You realize, 'Yeah, you've got that bug, too.' "