By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jul 20, 2018 at 2:56 PM

There are worse ways to start one’s on-screen career than starring in a movie with Robert De Niro.

That’s how it began for actor Louis Vanaria, appearing in the icon’s 1993 directorial debut "A Bronx Tale" as Crazy Mario. Since then, he’s made a nice career of small character roles and bit parts, working on set next to the likes of Martin Scorsese ("Wolf of Wall Street"), Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish (the upcoming crime drama "The Kitchen"), and Ol’ Blue Eyes himself Frank Sinatra.

Like Sinatra, Vanaria’s artistic reach goes beyond the screen, singing classics old and new – as well as his own music – on stage across the country. It’s that passion that brings him to Milwaukee this weekend, performing at the Miller Lite Oasis stage throughout Festa Italiana. But before he takes the Festa stage, we chatted with Vanaria about working with Hollywood legends, the time he got lost looking at De Niro’s famous mole and what love came first: the acting or the singing. 

OnMilwaukee: When people think of Italian singers, they often think of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, the classics. How do you balance singing those standards while also singing the original material you’ve written?

Louis Vanaria: The stuff I’ve written has to be strategically put into the set. Because the people have a short attention span – I mean, I do, too! – so I’ll put an original song in between two very well-known songs, and I’ll try to hold them for the three minutes. I don’t do too many of my own songs; maybe I’ll do two in a set. That’s my limit. The rest of the stuff is all some Sinatra-esque, some ‘50s, some ‘60s – I try to cover it all.

So that’s what the show’s going to be like at Festa?

Yeah, but I am using a 10-piece swing band, so I want to make the most of that. I usually work with a four-piece band, but this is ten pieces, so I want to do songs that really swing and that can make the band sound the best it can be. We got "Zoot Suit Riot," "Jump, Jive An' Wail," stuff that works for a big band.

What passion came first: singing or acting?

My passion was always singing and writing my own music, but I didn’t know how to go about it. When I was really young – I’m talking three or four years old – I used to do Elvis. I had an Elvis suit on and used to do all the gyrations. But then, when I was 15, I did a pilot for CBS which didn’t go, and then when I was 16, I did "A Bronx Tale." And after I did "Bronx Tale" and got some notoriety, people wanted to hear me sing. So even though singing was first for me, it wasn’t first for everybody else. Acting kind of fell in my lap first, and that’s what gave me the ability to sing for people – because all of a sudden, people were more interested in me. Because they remembered me as Crazy Mario.

Where did that love of singing come from?

My family was music lovers, but none of them were performers or musicians or anything like that. But my mom, she is pretty hip; she listens to today’s music. And my father used to listen to old opera like Guiseppe Di Stefano. So I got a really wide spectrum of music, and I fell in the middle. I like Sinatra and Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole. And I love ’60s music. I think that was probably the best generation for music.

And I try to do it all. I play the crowd. When I sing at restaurants or at club dates, you have to look at the crowd. If they’re older people, we’ll do older music. If they’re young kids, we’ll do some from today – some Justin Timberlake or Bruno Mars stuff. But my love is the big band sound, so I’m excited to come to Milwaukee and play with the band.

On the acting side of your career, you’ve worked with some incredible performers and directors: Robert De Niro, Frank Sinatra, Martin Scorsese. What was it like being on set with some of these legends?

The experience was great, but when you’re directing, there’s so much to think about. They don’t really have time to shoot the breeze with you. It’s all work, work, work, work. So I kept things the same way – even though I would’ve loved to talk with them and have a cup of coffee and ask them about the things they’ve done. But I tried to keep it as professional as possible.

The first director I worked with was on the pilot, but after that was De Niro. And he was directing for the first time – and I felt like it was my movie debut, so we were both feeling our way around. I mean, obviously De Niro knew what he was doing better than me. (laughs) But in retrospect, he was probably one of the best directors I’ve worked with, because he was an actor. So if you had a question about the scene, he’d pull you over on the side and always talk to you one-on-one – never in front of the other actors. Other directors don’t have the time to do that because time is money, so if you’re doing something wrong or they need something from you, they’ll probably just yell it at you in front of everybody and it’s kind of embarrassing.

But De Niro always pulled you to the side – probably because he had the money to do it, but also because he never wanted to embarrass or influence another actor. That was nice. He was the best at that, at talking to the actors. He never lost his patience with us – and a lot of us were first-time actors, but he never lost his patience. And I’ve seen every director lose his patience on set.

That was probably the actor in him coming through.

Exactly. And he talked very calmly and very slowly and made sure we understood. And sometimes when you’re talking to De Niro or Scorsese, you get lost in their face. They’re talking to you, and I remember, with De Niro, I was looking at his famous mole. I had no idea and completely lost what he was saying. He said, "You got it now?" And I said, "I’m sorry, I didn’t hear one word you said." (laughs)

Same thing happened with Sinatra. When I met Sinatra, I was in Toronto shooting a movie called "Young at Heart" that Tina Sinatra produced. The last couple pages of the script were not there; they kept the last few pages so nobody knew the ending, which they do a lot for shows if there’s a twist. I had no idea what the twist was going to be and I didn’t care – but the twist was that Frank is there. So I got to talk with him for five minutes, and I can’t tell you one thing he said to me, because I was hypnotized by his blue eyes. He had the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. I just got lost, and I have no idea what I said, or what he said, but I got a picture with him, and that’s like my prized possession.

It was like meeting Bugs Bunny, somebody you love but he’s not meet-able. He’s such an icon that I didn’t think I could ever stand in front of him or talk to him like I did.

What is it like performing at an Italian festival like Festa, dedicated to heritage and history and the culture?

I’m 100 percent Italian – American Italian – and when I do my acting and singing in other places, they’re not interested in your ethnic background; they’re interested in what songs you’re doing. But I like to talk about my Italian heritage, and I will. And I feel like these Italian festivals that I’ve been doing now are more welcoming to the Italian Americans.

My girlfriend (JoAnn Robertozzi of Italian singing trio Tre Bella, also performing this weekend at Festa Italiana) has a non-profit called Ti Piace about bringing Italian culture to underprivileged people all over the world. And I’ve been involved in that, so now I’m quicker to talk about my heritage and sing Italian stuff. 

Louis Vanaria will perform at Festa Italiana at 3:30 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. For more information, visit Festa's website

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.