Gravesend-born actor, director, and writer William DeMeo is back home, filming a TV show about realistic mobsters in 1980s southern Brooklyn. “It’s definitely the next hit mob street series, I have no doubt in my mind,” he told us last night at the shoot.
The Neighborhood – currently in production – set up shop at Bensonhurst’s iconic and recently shuttered Vegas Diner with a team of actors, producers, and crew huddled around tables, calling takes, and shouting commands.
We caught up with DeMeo in between scenes, chatting about his history with nightlife at the Vegas. “The Diner is such a landmark. It was like a club, everyone came here,” he said, nodding to the diner’s owner who stood in the back wearing headphones, watching the monitors.
DeMeo – who is both the director and lead role — plays a multi-faceted Brooklyn mob soldier named Benny Zerletta, who faces the choice to fulfill his mother’s dying wish or his duties as a made man in a notorious crime family.
The show paints a complex picture of the figures who ruled Bensonhurst’s streets in the 1980s. “The Sopranos was Jersey, it was more current — they were hiding out in malls to talk,” DeMeo said. “But this is the 80s, and it’s Brooklyn — guys are in front of social clubs, and kissing each other on the cheek in the streets. You could probably name a dozen notorious mobsters in Brooklyn at any time, that’s just the way it is.”
Appealing to the generation of Brooklynites who look back on the neighborhood’s history is important to DeMeo’s vision.
“I want people to feel like they did when we were at the diner in the 80s, and you had to walk on eggshells because of these guys,” he said. “You could be in a place like this at night, at any moment someone could get a ketchup bottle over their head. Straight up.”
And for the show, timing couldn’t be better for hitting Brooklyn’s nostalgia soft-spot. “I feel like God put me here — you can’t get a location like this,” he said.
DeMeo’s biggest challenge for this project was to portray the complexity of his characters without sinking into easy cliches. But that’s what makes his portrayal honest and unique, he said.
“He’s not just some neighborhood mobster, not just a guy with pinkie rings,” he said of the lead character, talking passionately about Zerletta’s love interest, and his struggles with family and religion. “There’s so much balancing. He’s a problem solver, made guys were problem solvers.”
DeMeo, show biz veteran, got his big break in A Bronx Tale, sparking a star-studded career that includes roles on The Sopranos, Analyze That, & Southpaw. He’s also written and directed, including Back in the Day with Alec Baldwin, Wannabees, and Cruising 86th Street, a local favorite documentary about the cruising and shopping hotspot (we spoke with DeMeo about that project in 2015).
The Neighborhood is shooting its first two episodes, with possible airtime as early as later this year, featuring co-stars James Russo, Louis Lombardi, Paul Ben-Victor, Leo Rossi, AJ Benza, Nick Turturro, Ken Lerner, Christina DeRosa, Natalie Guercio from Mob Wives, fellow Brooklynites Joe D’Onofrio and Patrick Borriello, and local boxing legend Paulie Mallagani.
The cast is also studded with locals who play extras at the diner — roles they’ve played IRL, at the exact shoot location.
“I grew up around the corner,” said Nataly ‘Nat Mo’ Mor, waiting for her camera entrance. “I miss this diner already, I used to come here after going to the Limelight.”
DeMeo, who has made five of his own films, wanted to direct the first two episodes of series, to lay the foundation for his creative vision. “I want to blow their minds,” he said.
When discussing his goals for the show, DeMeo’s sights are way higher than network syndication. “I want to win an Emmy,” he said in a low, determined whisper. “I will not settle for nothing less. I’m looking to make a big impact.”