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Sad ending for De Niro protégé

‘Bronx Tale’ actor now faces murder charges
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the dozen years between that sunny summer afternoon at Jones Beach and a frigid winter morning in the Bronx, life went terribly wrong for Lillo Brancato Jr.

It was in July 1993 that the handsome teen strolled out of the Atlantic Ocean and into a Hollywood career. A casting director on the beach was blown away by the kid’s dead-on impressions of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. The young unknown was hired to star opposite his idol, De Niro, in the movie “A Bronx Tale.”

Last weekend, Brancato, now a 29-year-old with a serious drug habit, got caught in a burglary attempt with another man and ended up in a gun battle that left a police officer dead, authorities say. The actor is facing murder charges.

“Actor’s Bronx Tale Goes Bad,” read one tabloid headline.

“This is deeply disturbing news, a tragedy beyond comprehension,” De Niro said in a statement.

“A Bronx Tale” featured Brancato as De Niro’s son in a role that would have remarkable real-life parallels years later: Brancato played a young man torn between two worlds — his father’s honest, hardworking life as a bus driver, and the high life led by a glamorous neighborhood mobster. The physical resemblance between De Niro and Brancato alone was enough to make their on-screen relationship plausible.

Back then, the charismatic Brancato was described in a New York Times profile as “friendly, earnest, sweet-tempered.” He entertained De Niro by imitating Al Pacino.

Offstage dramaBrancato’s career never exploded after his film debut, but work was steady: He appeared in more than a dozen films and several TV roles, most notably in “The Sopranos,” starring as a bumbling, wannabe mobster who gets whacked by Tony Soprano.

In the past year, though, the drama in Brancato’s life was all offstage. He was arrested twice on drug charges: for heroin possession in Yonkers, N.Y., and for being under the influence of a narcotic in Hermosa Beach, Calif., authorities said. He entered a substance abuse program.

Neighbors described loud fights with his on-and-off girlfriend, while his appearance suffered. His frame was scrawny, his skin tinged yellow.

If Brancato was an actor who played some bad guys, his alleged partner in the break-in and shootout last weekend was the real thing. Steven Armento, 48, was a low-level Genovese crime family associate until he was banished for drug addiction, authorities said.

“A lot of the people Lillo was hanging out with didn’t have his best interest at heart,” said Brancato’s manger, Garianno Lorenzo. “They were out to take advantage of him. Lillo only did harm to himself, with drugs. Never to someone else.”

A true ‘Bronx Tale’According to authorities, the actor and the older man were drinking together at the Crazy Horse Cabaret strip club in the Bronx before deciding early Saturday to break into a basement apartment nearby and steal some Valium. Armento carried a .357 Smith & Wesson handgun; Brancato was not armed, police said.

Investigators believe Armento tried to enter the apartment through a broken window but couldn’t fit. The skinnier Brancato could, but he emerged empty-handed.

The sound of shattering glass awoke off-duty Officer Daniel Enchautegui, who lived in the neighborhood. He grabbed his badge and gun and confronted the men in an alley. A fierce gun battle erupted, with Armento firing first, police said.

The officer was hit in the chest. Though fatally wounded, he managed to empty his eight-shot pistol, hitting Armento six times and Brancato twice, police said. Backup officers caught a bloodied Brancato trying to get into his car. Armento had collapsed nearby.

Both men remain hospitalized. Armento was charged with first-degree murder, which carries life without parole. Brancato was accused of second-degree murder, punishable by 25 years to life. He was ordered held without bail Friday, despite his lawyer’s argument that it was Armento who fired the fatal shot.

“He’s in physical pain. He’s in emotional pain,” defense attorney Mel Sachs said of Brancato outside the hospital. “He recognizes the tragedy here, but he’s not responsible for it.”

Two days before the shooting, Brancato was ticketed for disorderly conduct after his ex-girlfriend’s twin sister summoned police. When officers arrived, Brancato was sitting in the middle of the street. “Don’t you know who I am?!” he screamed.