By Tammy Scileppi
If you enjoyed “American Graffiti,” or grew up in Queens in the 1980s, or spent your teenage years cruising up and down Main Street, you’re bound to connect with “Cruise,” a nostalgic feature film coming out later this year.
Set in Whitestone during the summer of 1987, this coming of age story centers around an Italian-American teen named Gio Fortunato, played by rising actor Spencer Boldman, whose character is loosely based on executive producer Gino Cafarelli.
Like many guys his age, Gio spends his free time driving around with his buddies while checking out all the pretty girls driving by in their cars — much like young Gino back in the day, before social media became king.
“The film was inspired by me, and my nights and days cruising ‘Franny Lew’ — Francis Lewis Boulevard — back in the ‘80s. My neighborhood back in the day was like the nights of ‘American Graffiti,’” said Cafarelli, who grew up in Flushing on 33rd Avenue, and has a supporting role in his film. “That was how many young people connected with each other in those days. Our social media in the ‘80s and early ‘90s was Francis Lewis Boulevard.”
The year 1987 was especially memorable for Cafarelli. It was the year he graduated Holy Cross High School (located on Francis Lewis Boulevard). He was 17 and it would be the last summer of fun before going off to college at St. John’s University.
The producer recalled his free-wheeling days driving around without a care in the world in his 1981 Cutlass Supreme with a custom electric blue paint job, and blasting his favorite song, “Running,” by Information Society. It was the era of freestyle dance music.
“Your car smelled great. All washed up. Windows down. Music blasting on a summer day or night. No better feeling. You felt on top of the world.”
Cafarelli said his favorite “parking spots” were in front of Pioneer bank on Francis Lewis Boulevard and the parking lot at Parsons Boulevard and Willets Point Boulevard, a mile or two away from Franny Lew. It may sound boring now, but for Gino and his friends, that was their world, and it was an exciting time. That summer was their last hurrah before parting ways and going off to college.
“I hung out mainly in Flushing, Whitestone and Bayside, and then on some off-Franny Lew nights, my friends and I would visit other cruising spots and go into other neighborhoods, like 86th Street in Brooklyn, and Central Avenue in Yonkers. The clubs we would frequent in Queens were Avanti in Bayside and Paleds in Rego Park,” Cafarelli recalled.
As the son of immigrant parents from Pietrapertosa, Italy — Cafarelli described them as “old school Italians” — he got plenty of inspiration for his part in the film, playing “Gio’s” dad opposite Kathrine Narducci (HBO’s “Wizard of Lies,” “The Sopranos”), who plays his wife. The leading lady love interest is played by Emily Ratajkowski (“We Are Your Friends,” “Entourage,” “Gone Girl).
You may have seen Cafarelli on popular TV shows like “Blue Bloods,” “CSI,” “Dexter,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and “Nurse Jackie,” to name a few. He was cast as Vinny Pitts in an episode of “The Sopranos,” and had a cameo role as Joe Pesci’s bodyguard in “The Good Shepherd.”
The seeds for “Cruise” were sown when Cafarelli posted his very first reel to YouTube and was subsequently discovered by Robert Siegel, writer/director of the Oscar nominated film, “The Wrestler.” In 2009, Siegel offered him the supporting lead role of Jeff Aufiero, a fast-talking attorney, opposite actor/comedian Patton Oswalt, in Siegel’s film “Big Fan.”
“I filmed a short story pitch presentation in 2012 titled ‘Franny Lew,’ and showed it to Siegel. I told him about my days cruising, and how those days and nights should be told in a story. We moved forward, he started writing the screenplay and eventually directing the film as well,” Cafarelli said. “Currently, a few distribution companies are looking at the film before it’s released in a few major cities theatrically.”
Cafarelli recently directed the short film “Bricklayer’s Poet,” which screened March 15 at Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image during the ongoing 8th Annual Queens World Film Festival.
He will also be appearing in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” as Mayor Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia, in a scene in which he attends an event thrown by Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) for Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). The movie is set for release in 2019.
In his work, the actor and producer says he has always tried to balance an interest in his cultural heritage with a desire to move beyond a strictly Italian-American experience.
Like “American Graffiti,” perhaps “Cruise” will remind viewers that you just can’t stay 17 forever.