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After years of theater, ads and shows like 'The Sopranos,' Merrillville native lands first starring movie role

After years of theater, ads and shows like 'The Sopranos,' Merrillville native lands first starring movie role

Merrillville native Anthony Patellis wanted to be an actor for as long as he could remember.

After getting his start on the stage at Merrillville High School and Ross Music Theater, Patellis went on to New York City, where he's had a long career as an actor and director. Patellis has appeared in plays all over the world, on television shows like "Law & Order" and "The Sopranos," and in many television commercials, including in Denny's first-ever Super Bowl ad in 2009.

Patellis, a Merrillville High School Class of 1968 graduate, recently realized a longtime dream by landing his first starring role in a movie. He plays the Italian grandfather "Nonno" in "Team Marco," a comedy-of-age dramedy distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films.

"It's a really cool film about the generation gap between kids and older people," Patellis said. "My character is the grandfather from Italy who's an old school kind of guy. Marco is a techno freak living with his single mother in Staten Island who's always on his iPad and devices. The movie starts with a scene where his grandmother and my wife dies so I move in with my daughter and him."

Generational conflict ensues.

"My grandson never leaves the house, but I'm a pretty active older guy who never uses computers and is stuck on the ancient game of bocce," he said. "They clash intensely but throughout the summer bridge the gap between young and old."

Patellis described the film directed by Julio Vincent Gambuto as a family film for all ages.

"It's not a kids' film parents have to sit and suffer through," he said. "He approached it from the point of view of each generation, so there's entertainment for all ages. He wrote it without judgment and from everyone's point of view so everyone can take something away from it."

Gambuto and B.R. Uzun are credited with penning the screenplay for the movie, which will be released for rental on television platforms on Nov. 20 and then on streaming services 90 days later. Patellis believes the movie – which has been screened at film festivals all over the world including the Mill Valley Film Festival in Marin County, California and the Berlin International Film Festival in Germany – would have gotten a theatrical release in movie theaters if not for the coronavirus pandemic.

"At this point, they're only releasing blockbuster-type films and then only with a limited run," he said. "But the entire country can rent it right from their living room."

After decades of working in theater and television, Patellis was thrilled to star in a movie.

"It's really exciting for me to have my first starring role in a feature film," he said. "I've done a lot of television like 'The Sopranos' and 'Gotham' but never got to star in a feature film."

Patellis, who is Greek, often has been cast in Italian roles like Nonno over the years, including in the off-Broadway production of "Tony n' Tina's Wedding" and as a Junior Soprano-like mob boss in a Denny's Super Bowl commercial. He was a stand-in for Stevie Van Zandt's Silvio Dante when they filmed the pilot of "The Sopranos."

"He had never acted before and kept coming up to me during the shoot saying he felt like he was overacting and was terrible but the director kept telling him to give more and more," he said. "I told him to do what the director said and he had everybody in stitches. He was so funny. Everybody there at the time including James Gandolfini was a nobody back then. It took two or three years for it to get picked up. I was walking in Manhattan when I saw a billboard and said, 'there it is.'"

He later appeared in a memorable episode of the landmark HBO show, as a high school principal whose mother socially shunned Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri's mother in a retirement home.

"We grew up in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn but I'm not a gangster," he said. "He comes to my high school to talk to me about my mother excluding his mother at card games and eating with the girls. He tries to bribe me with some luggage. I don't talk to my mom and he comes back to my high school with some guys and they break my arm and rough me up like that."

In the role of Nonno on "Team Marco," he was inspired by grandparents and uncles who came to Northwest Indiana from Greece.

"They barely spoke English but communicated through gestures," he said. "They had a kindness and solidness as people, which is what I think is the biggest source for this character. He reminded me of my grandfathers and that whole generation that came over from Europe, whether Greece, Italy or Yugoslavia. I grew up around that so the opportunity to play a character like this was rich for me. It was in my bones, in my DNA."

Patellis first started acting as a sophomore at Merrillville High School and appeared in "The Music Man" that Ross summer stock theater founder Jerauld J. Reinhart directed.

"I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be an actor," he said. "I continued in theater when I went to Indiana State University and then I moved to New York City. I did theater because when I was growing up in Indiana there was no film or television industry. Theater was what you did if you wanted to act."

He's had a successful career as a stage actor, performing on a worldwide tour of "West Side Story," in a production of "Shear Madness" at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., and as Malvolio in a staging of William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. He's performed in major theaters around the country and in 17 countries on three continents.

When he first went to New York City, there were few television opportunities other than in soap operas."

"That was all that was filming there in those days," he said. "It was all blonde hair and blue eyes and gorgeous women. I was more of a character actor with an ethnic look, a southern European look. It was good news for me when people like Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro came along."

Patellis went on to land television roles in police procedural dramas like "Crime Story" and "Law & Order," where he portrayed several roles including a detective who uncovered the graves of immigrants a coyote was murdering after bringing into the country. He got into directing to help pay the bills and landed many roles in commercials such as for Wendy's and in a Claritin ad that aired during the World Series for a few years.

"It was kind of a dream of mine to star in a film," he said. "My heart and soul is in acting."

He's toying with the idea of writing himself into a show he's now producing and writing with producing partner Brittany Portman through their production company Brit-Tony Productions. They filmed a pilot with actor Jon Lovitz and Catherine Curtin from "Orange is the New Black." 

They plan to pitch their show "Hooked" to Netflix and other streaming services.

"It's about an awkward young girl who grows up in a cult in update New York in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains," he said. "She breaks out and goes to Brooklyn on her own for the very first time. With her upbringing, she doesn't quite know how to act. It's a comedy with dramatic overtones."

It's loosely based on Portman's sheltered upbringing on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. They also have a few other projects in the works but none so far along as "Hooked," which is being shopped around by a literary agent in Los Angeles.

While Patellis's career has taken him around the country and world, he still finds time to periodically return to the Region, where he still has family and friends.

"It would make me very happy if people I grew up with who are still part of my heart watched this film," he said. "It would be a thrill to me. I'm very proud of this film. It's heart-warming, intelligent and relevant to the times we live in." 

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Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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