Comedian Sebastian Maniscalco wanted to make a movie for and about his father.
Salvo Maniscalco had immigrated from Sicily to America in 1960 when he was 15. At 18, he became a hairdresser and raised and supported a family in Chicago.
As a man from a different generation and culture, he could be aggressive and embarrassing at times – especially in situations involving different cultures and tax brackets as with Maniscalco’s in-laws – and the setup seemed ripe for a big-screen comedy.
Like anyone dream casting a comedy about an Italian American man of a certain age, one name topped the list: Robert De Niro.
Not that Maniscalco thought they stood a chance landing the two-time Oscar winner, but it couldn’t hurt to try.
Maniscalco had worked on a film with De Niro before, on Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” but it was brief and didn’t exactly establish anything like a friendship where he could, say, call him up.
Then one day he got word that De Niro had the script, through producer Paul Weitz, and wanted to do a table read with some actors in New York. It’s something he likes to do if he’s taking something seriously, he said.
“It sort of lifts it off the page a little bit,” De Niro said.
Between the Sebastian/Salvo relationship and director Laura Terruso’s background as an Italian American with Sicilian roots, he said, “I knew I’d be in good hands on both sides. So we decided to do it.”
The setup for “About My Father,” opening nationwide Friday, is a meet-the-parents situation.
Sebastian brings Salvo to his girlfriend’s family home for the Fourth of July weekend. Ellie’s (Leslie Bibb) family is WASPy and wealthy – Kim Cattrall plays her mother, Tigger, and David Rasche is her father, Bill. Her brothers are played by Anders Holm and Brett Dier. And the culture clashes ensue.
“My rep called me and said, I’ve just been given a script, it stars Robert De Niro and he’s playing a hairdresser,” Cattrall said. “I just thought: I’m in.”
But before they could start filming, De Niro had a little homework to do. He invited the elder Maniscalco to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he was filming Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” so he could pick his brain about everything from being a hairdresser to Sicilian dialect.
“The relationship that he has with Sebastian is great. They’re friends and they talk a lot,” De Niro said. “That’s wonderful for any parent and their child to have a relationship, especially as they get older and have their own life.”
De Niro even arranged for Salvo Maniscalco to meet Scorsese during the three-day sojourn.
“It’s not every day that you send off your father to sit down with Robert De Niro and talk about a script, especially when my father doesn’t really know anything about moviemaking and script analysis and what have you,” Maniscalco said. “But, from what he was telling me, he really helped him with the Italian. …
“He never taught me Sicilian. But he taught Robert De Niro.”
Later, he would call him for refreshers that Maniscalco was happy to oblige – though one time he told De Niro he’d have to call him back. He’d interrupted a pizza dinner. De Niro understood.
And, at least according to some Sicilians who turned out for the Chicago premiere of the film, De Niro nailed it. Someone even told Maniscalco that his Italian was better than it was in “The Godfather Part II.”
“He’s wondering why he wasn’t paid as a dialect coach,” Maniscalco said, gesturing to his father sitting next to him.
“I’m waiting for a paycheck,” Salvo Maniscalco, who did get a creative consultant credit, responded.
The Alabama set was fun too, which everyone knows is never a given with comedies. Holm said that often the more fun a set is, the worse the movie is.
But all are pretty sure that they got the best of both worlds.
“The funniest guy in the whole cast was De Niro,” Rasche said. “He’s just absolutely so charming and so funny and so whimsical and original. And it just breaks your heart.”
De Niro always made time to rehearse. Bibb said there’s often pressure to just do a take and figure something out on camera to save time but with De Niro around, no one was rushing.
“I like being cradled under that Bob De Niro umbrella,” Bibb said.
Cattrall also liked when he would laugh at something happening on camera.
“I think one of the most gratifying things is if you’re doing a scene which he’s part of and the camera’s not on him, it’s on you and you see him after the take and he’s smiling or he’s chuckling. You think, ‘Hey, it must have been OK!’ ” Cattrall said.
Maniscalco, who left Chicago for Los Angeles in 1998 to pursue a career in stand-up comedy, brought Hollywood back to his hometown for the world premiere of the film recently. It was a bit of a full-circle moment for him to be surrounded by relatives, friends and in-laws.
“When we left the theater last night, a lot of people came up and said to me, ‘Man, it made me want to call my father,’ ” he said. “There’s a sense of nostalgia it brings back for people with their families.”
He hopes that it’s a film that brings audiences to the theater with their families and inspires a renewed closeness.
“I grew up in a family where we used to sit down, we used to eat together,” Maniscalco said. “And I know things are different. I know the two parents are now working in the house and maybe it’s not possible. Or technology has taken people in different ways.
“But, I mean, for us as a family, sitting around the table, eating dinner, joking around, really bonded us forever.”