A certain South Philly cheesesteak king — appearing in two movies this month — knows exactly where he’s headed: the Walk of Fame.
The land of seitan, velvet ropes and boob jobs, California is about as far away from cheesesteak country as one can get without crossing vast bodies of saltwater. But on this 75-degree Pasadena day, Tony Luke Jr., the heavily inked, gold-chain-sporting cheesesteak impresario of Front and Oregon, is serving our city’s beloved sandwich to an afternoon party full of Hollywood actors. And while there are no Vince Vaughns or Lindsay Lohans in the mix, there’s still a bit of juice floating around.
There’s Bobby Moresco, newly flush with offers thanks to a little picture named Crash, which he co-wrote and for which he won an Oscar earlier this year. Moresco’s next flick, 10th & Wolf, is about the Philly mob, even though it was filmed in Pittsburgh. There’s Leo Rossi, from Trenton, whose most notable appearance was opposite Jodie Foster in 1988’s The Accused. He’s currently working on Frankie the Squirrel, a movie about the roulette table, chicks, and, yes, La Cosa Nostra, with Justin Guarini and Abe Vigoda. While many professional Italians work hard to overcome the old-world stereotype that every guy in a silk suit is made, most of the guys at this party capitalize on their Goodfellas diction and mannerisms. As one Italian partygoer puts it, in a city best known for its Weinsteins and Goldwyns, “Paisanos have to stick together.”
These guys certainly aren’t A-list. Not even B. They’re just regular guys. But that’s okay. Because they’re regular guys with money and some degree of name. These characteristics combined make them perfect franchisees for Tony Luke’s Old Philly Style Sandwiches. After opening a successful Manhattan franchise in 2003, and recently launching two more, in Citizens Bank Park and at the Borgata — with another one outside of Princeton coming soon — Luke set his sights on Southern California. (Nobody has ever accused Tony Luke of thinking small.) He knew some people who knew some people, and convinced one of his contacts — another paisano — to throw a party with the hope of finding a few investors. Why shouldn’t Bobby Moresco turn his cash flow into a cheesesteak shop in Van Nuys? Get Leo Rossi to open a shop down the street from his house, near the Rose Bowl. After all, there’s no place to get a decent cheesesteak in L.A., so it’s a no-brainer, right?
Luke sees the perfect franchise opportunity in Scott Baio, who just arrived. He’s got a sizeable bankroll, though the big offers haven’t exactly been pouring in. A nice, smooth income source might not be a bad idea. So Luke sells him on a Whiz Wit’. Baio, looking thin and adorable and nearly as young as when Joanie loved Chachi, eyes the greasy meat and orange goo with skepticism. “Is that actually cheese?” he asks Luke, who, at 350 pounds, maybe isn’t somebody you should confront over Cheez Whiz’s nutritive properties. “Just taste it,” Tony says pleasantly. “I promise you. You will love it.” And Baio does. Within a few minutes, he has consumed more calories and fat than he has all week. Still chewing the last bit of Whiz-coated sirloin, Baio tells Luke, “You should really open a store out here. We don’t get steaks like this.” Then he splits.
Tony is generally pleased with the turnout, though the one guy he really wanted hasn’t turned up yet. “Where the hell is Dennis?” Luke asks himself. The Dennis he’s referring to is Dennis Hopper, whom Tony knows slightly. Sure, Hopper has been in as many bad movies as the other actors here — maybe more — but when you’ve played the resident lunatic in such classics as Blue Velvet, Easy Rider and Apocalypse Now, your appearances in Firestarter 2: Rekindled and Waterworld are quickly forgiven. Leo Rossi or Joe Mantegna, who played Joey Zaza in The Godfather 3, could certainly sell a few cheesesteaks. Dennis could sell a whole lot more.
But he never shows. Which really sucks. Because while Tony would obviously love to have five Dennis Hopper-fronted Tony Luke’s shops lining the Strip, what he really wanted to do was show him Rain Dog, his script. Written by Tony Luke. Starring Tony Luke. Produced by Dennis Hopper, Leo Rossi and Joe Mantegna.
If that seems even more unlikely than getting Scott Baio to throw his cash at a Tony Luke’s franchise, it is. But not impossible. And that’s all Tony needs to know. He’s always been a big dreamer. Always wanted to be in the movies. As a matter of fact, he’s got a tiny part in Moresco’s 10th & Wolf. Tony’s got huge plans. One hundred Tony Luke’s franchises in 10 years. His name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Sounds absurd. Farfetched. About as likely as, say, a midget playing opposite Nicole Kidman in a straight romance. But there’s something about Tony Luke that says maybe not.
LUKE FIRST WENT TO LOS ANGELES 25 years ago, when he was a senior at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and still going by Anthony Lucidonio Jr. His inspiration was, of course, that most South Philly of South Philly heroes, Rocky Balboa.
Tony had heard about a party for the cast of Rocky II, which had recently wrapped up filming; he posed as a reporter at the Barclay on Rittenhouse Square, where he hoped to meet Stallone. The security guards told Tony to take a hike. Tony started yelling — nobody, not even a security guard with a piece, told him to take a hike. The guards yelled back. A guy at the party decided to see what the commotion was about, and told the guards, “It’s okay, he’s with me.”
The guy was Burt Young, who played Adrian’s brother, Paulie. Tony didn’t recognize him at first, because Young had lost a bunch of weight since the first movie. “I’m a street guy too,” Young told him, taken with this loudmouthed 17-year-old. “I love South Philly.” The kid had balls. And there was something beneath the bravado. Tony told Young he wanted to be an actor. Young laughed, but the yearning, the blind ambition …
He invited Tony inside, to his table. Tony’s classmates were in school, learning method acting, while Tony hung out with Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed), Talia Shire (Adrian) and the producer, Irwin Winkler. Young gave Tony his phone number in L.A., and told him if he was ever out there to give him a call.
Ever in L.A.? A few weeks later, Tony had dropped out of school, sold his orange Beetle for $1,500, and left his girlfriend of four years to take a one-way flight west.
Tony checked into a cheap motel and dialed the number that Burt Young had given him. Miraculously, not only was it legit, but Young actually told him to stop by his office. He promised to help Tony out, to get him a casting agent. Hanging around Young’s office, Tony met a beautiful blonde. He befriended her, and asked her to show him L.A. “I thought of myself as quite the lady’s man,” Tony says. “I mean, I had the look. I was from South Philly. I was God’s gift to women.” He says nothing intimate ever happened with the woman, and that he doesn’t remember doing anything to piss her off. But one day, he got a phone call.
“Is this Tony Lucidonio?”
“Yeah. Who the fuck is this?”
“This is Jimmy Caan. I’m calling to tell you to stay away from my sister, or I’m going to break every bone in your body.”
“I don’t know any fucking Jimmy Caan” — despite Tony’s affinity for the movies, the name didn’t register — “and I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“James Caan, you punk.”
Then it hit Tony: He was speaking to the guy who played the ultra-violent Sonny Corleone in The Godfather I and II. “Oh, Mr. Caan. Oh my God, I am such a big fan of your movies.”
Caan hung up.
After only a few weeks in L.A., Tony had already managed to enrage a giant. His bridge started crumbling, and it was about to fall apart completely. Tony was running out of money, running out of hope. He had assumed, when he went out, that he’d be doing movies within a week. He still hadn’t even met a casting agent. So he did what any self-respecting South Philly kid would do: “This is bullshit,” Tony Luke told Burt Young. Naturally, this side of Tony’s balls-to-the-wall attitude wasn’t so well received.
“So I packed my shit and headed home,” Tony says.
BACK IN PHILADELPHIA, his acting ambitions crushed, Luke married Frances Henderson, and in 1980, they had Anthony III, the first of three sons. But the family didn’t spend much time together. By day, Tony worked in his father’s commissary, which supplied a number of street vendors around the city with wrapped sandwiches, doughnuts and meatballs. At night, he immersed himself in music, recording songs at Sigma Sound on the waterfront. Music would be his alternate route to fame and fortune. His new dream.
The problem was, Tony wrote R&B. His smooth voice sounded more like Luther Vandross than like any white singers on the radio. The A&R reps couldn’t figure out how to market him, and in Philadelphia, early ’80s, there was no way a white guy from South Philly was going to get airplay on black stations.
There was another problem. Anthony Lucidonio had been a fat kid — at 13, he had a 40-inch waistline. When his buddies were starting to cop feels, Tony couldn’t get so much as a hello from the neighborhood girls. Then, one day, one of his pals told him about a miracle weight-loss option: crystal meth. He dissolved a bit of the drug in 7-Up, swallowed, and was instantly hooked. At 13. Immediately, he started shedding pounds and working out. Now, though, he was in his early 20s, and his crystal meth habit was catching up with him. It was even burning out his sinuses, affecting his voice. And in 1983, Luke overdosed.
“I had everything in my system,” Tony remembers. “Cocaine, meth, Jack Daniel’s, Mad Dog 20/20, herb laced with Raid, Quaaludes. I was at my friend Bruce’s house, chewing on a stick of pepperoni, completely wasted, when his dog, a boxer, came up to me and barked, ‘Hey, give me some of that pepperoni.’ The last thing I remember is running out of his house. And I woke up in the hospital.”
Frances told Tony that he’d never see his son again if he didn’t give it up, and that was enough for him. Tony immersed himself in the family business for the next decade; in 1992, Tony Sr. asked him if he wanted to open up a sandwich shop with him on Oregon Avenue.
Within a few years, it was lines down the block waiting for Whiz Wit’s, roast porks. The shop was so busy that Luke had no time for drugs, Hollywood or the music biz. “But the problem was, people were only talking about Tony Luke when they were hungry,” Tony Luke says. “I wanted my name on their lips constantly.”
So he filmed a series of horrible, campy commercials for the shop, and they became cult hits in the old neighborhood and on local college campuses. “And suddenly people were talking about me,” Tony says, never mind why they were talking about him. “There was a local fraternity that wouldn’t let pledges in until they got a picture with me.”
But this is the thing about Tony: He’s over-the-top corny and absurd, yes, but you meet him, you want to help him. In 1995, a friend brought actor Raymond Cruz, who was in town filming Up Close & Personal, to the shop for cheesesteaks. Cruz’s repertoire wasn’t exactly first-rate — a Steven Segal movie, Walker, Texas Ranger — but his face was very recognizable. Luke posed with him for a picture, and the two hit it off. Cruz said to Tony, “I know you’re not an actor, but what do you think of doing a little part in the movie?”
That, of course, was all Luke needed to hear. Though he was 100 pounds heavier than on his first trip to L.A. — he’d gained the weight back after going off drugs — he got the acting bug all over again. On the set, he befriended Philly native Sal Mazzotta, who invited Luke to appear in The Evil Within, a massively bad horror movie that Sal produced and starred in. Then another Mazzotta production, Mafioso: The Father, The Son. Then Luke started getting calls for commercial auditions. And more movies. If Central Casting could invent a thug, here he was. And Tony Luke started dreaming again.
The cheesesteak franchise party in Los Angeles was nearly a year ago. And while Luke says he’s had some interest from Wolfgang Puck, a Gap executive and a few actors, a Tony Luke’s Sunset Strip is years away. But he isn’t concerned. He knows that everything will work out, as it always seems to these days.
Tony Luke may seem … a little overblown and self-indulgent, a wannabe mafioso. A wannabe Hollywood star. But there really is much more to him than that. The crazy cheesesteak guy from South Philly is actually kind of shy and modest. Last year, when Tony was asked to serve cheesesteaks backstage at Live 8, he invited me to go along and get pictures of him with steaks and stars. It turned out that Tony was absolutely horrified by the idea of approaching people like Paula Abdul, members of Def Leppard — even Stephen Starr. I expected him to say, “Yo, I’m the cheesesteak king of Philadelphia. Take a picture with me.” Instead, I did the talking, got Tony to come over and say hi. The same thing happened after a movie screening in L.A. last fall, when Michael Madsen — who played really bad-ass dudes in Reservoir Dogs, Sin City and the Kill Bill movies — was standing nearby. Of course Tony wanted to meet him, but he just couldn’t bring himself to say hello: “Michael Madsen’s a huge star,” Tony practically whispered. “He doesn’t want to talk to a guy like me.”
This is the guy who once bulldozed his way into a Rocky party?
Then there was a beautiful Iranian woman, a self-described spiritualist and meditation instructor, who was staying at our hotel in L.A. Tony’s Philly and L.A. friends were all stuck on her — especially one guy, who invited her to have breakfast with us. As he flirted shamelessly, giving her a line of patter that probably sounded a lot like 20-year-old Tony Luke, the 43-year-old version sat quietly, eating. The woman ignored the bullshit and started watching Tony. “You,” she finally said to him. “You are a good soul. An old soul. Very real. Very centered, at peace with yourself. Your karma is very strong. I know this about you.”
A little much, maybe, but that’s the effect Tony has on people. Even Hollywood people — Raymond Cruz got friendly with Tony, he says from the set of the TNT crime drama The Closer, because “he’s so down-to-earth, genuine. I can’t stand pretentious people, and Tony is the exact opposite.”
And the karma does seem pretty positive lately. Those three Tony Luke franchises are coming along well. The New York shop has received lots of press and, according to Tony, does $30,000 in sales each week. Plus, Tony is working on a deal that could bring his pork Italian (the best sandwich he makes) to every Acme in the country. He’s still got the bluster. His dream of 100 Tony Luke’s? “Just wait. It will happen.”
And then there’s the really important stuff: This month, Bobby Moresco’s 10th & Wolf is being released, with Tony starring as — okay, he’s got a line, as a mob underboss named Rocco. But, hell, he’s in the same movie as Giovanni Ribisi, Val Kilmer, Dennis Hopper.
Hopper still hasn’t seen the script for Rain Dog, Tony’s movie, about an aging boxer, which isn’t too far of a stretch, since Tony won a couple of boxing and karate championships back in fitter days. And yo, if Stallone can make six Rocky movies, there’s room for a few Tony Lukes. Tony is nothing if not in it for the long haul, this business of becoming Tony Luke: star.
In the meantime, his other big-screen appearance this month is in Invincible, opening on the 25th, starring Mark Wahlberg as Eagles player Vince Papale, the big-dreaming South Philly guy who in 1976 tried out for the Eagles as part of a publicity-stunt open audition and actually made the team. Tony plays a rabid, beer-swilling, overgrown Eagles fan. (See, he can get past the mafioso-thug thing.) His body is painted green. He wears a green cape. He screams at the top of his lungs. He tries out for the team. He gets knocked on his ass. Obliterated.
Come on. You think that’s ever gonna happen to Tony Luke?