There’s little in life that can prepare a teenager for the moment she spots her father wearing a dress, chain-link belt and platform boots with six-inch heels — especially when it’s not Halloween. As soon as Phil DeNiro entered the room, his daughter, Teri, burst into such an uncontrollable fit of laughter it nearly led to tears.
For 23 years, DeNiro has guarded Sarasota streets dressed in a different uniform — a police uniform.
During a volunteer party at Venice Theatre, the local patrol sergeant reignited a passion from his youth and proved that it’s never too late to get discovered. Last May, DeNiro, while belting out Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” during karaoke, caught the attention of everyone in attendance. So much so, in fact, that he was offered a lead role in “Jesus Christ Superstar” without auditioning.
Although DeNiro may not have prior acting experience, he is no rookie to the performing arts. In his younger days, he dominated the stage as the front man for several rock bands.
“I’ve been to the theater countless times watching my kids in plays, but I never considered acting at all,” DeNiro said. “I love music and that’s a leg-up for this play, because it’s a rock opera. It’s been a fantastic learning experience to see firsthand what it takes to put on a play and to see all of the extra efforts my kids have been doing for the past years.”
What could be more fun than watching your dad take center stage in a crazy costume? Performing along with him, of course. The DeNiro family has been rehearsing together for the past six weeks: Teri dances in the musical; her brother, Tony, plays Judas; and DeNiro plays Caiaphas.
“I’m so proud of him,” Teri said. “I never saw him doing this, and now that he is, it’s just amazing. My dad always plays the good guy, but I think they found in him, though, that he can be dark and scary. Performing with Tony (my brother) is fun because we are super close, and we just always talk about everything. He’s always there for me.”
Every day when DeNiro enters the theater, he drops his good guy morals at the door and transitions into the dark and evil high priest, Caiaphas, who sees Jesus as a threat to the Roman Empire and plots to arrange his death.
“I love playing the villain,” DeNiro said. “It’s very refreshing after being a police officer for 23 years. By the time my 12-hour shift ends and I come in, there are usually cookies on the table, so I get to have whatever I want.”
Because this is his first show, DeNiro refuses to let the actors or the audience down. He’s doing everything he can to come out on top — not only memorizing his own lines, but also the lines of every actor in the play. He’s embraced the role so completely that when he drives through town, you’re likely to catch him singing along to every song on the soundtrack.
“You have to want to learn the part,” DeNiro said. “I see how hard the kids are working and am investing the same amount of time. It’s a real eye-opener to see young people act so responsible.”
When asked how he felt about his chunky platform boots required for the role, DeNiro said, “I fell down like three or four times when I first put them on. I started practicing running up and down the stairs as many times as I could. I sympathize with our heel-wearing population — this will be the last time I wear these.”
Tony DeNiro was impressed with his father’s acting skills from the beginning. He remembers sitting in the audience the first time he watched his father on stage.
“It’s an interesting feeling, because I’m always up on stage and my family comes and watches,” he says. “I love doing this with him. He came in modest and did what he had to do. He wasn’t trying to show anyone up. But in the process, people came up to me and told me he’s amazing. It was a natural thing for him.”
Tony DeNiro on “Jesus Christ Superstar”
“We’ve gone to church our entire lives. Most people just go through the motions of being Catholic or Christian. When you actually have to try to get into the characters’ minds, it takes it a step beyond just listening to the Bible. It opens up a new door. Especially as Judas, when I actually portray him and think about it, it helps me get to know him and helps me to build a better relationship with those in the Bible.”
Contact Loren Mayo at [email protected].
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Jesus Christ Superstar”
WHERE: Venice Theatre, 140 W. Tampa Ave.
WHEN: Performances start at 8 p.m. Thursday, July 28 and run through Saturday, Aug. 6.
COST: $24 for adults and $12 for students
INFO: Call 488-1115 or visit www.venicestage.com