It’s the early hours in the Bronx as policeman Daniel Enchautegui comes home from a shift. Suddenly, a noise next door breaks the silence. After calling in a possible burglary, Enchautegui decides to go and take a look for himself. But it’s a fateful decision, and soon he will be caught up in a horrific crime that involves an unlikely villain.
That villain had in fact played a TV bad guy in The Sopranos, but this time it wasn’t a scripted crime that he was mixed up in. Instead, his addiction to drugs had led him to a desperate end. And when Enchautegui arrived on the scene, he caught the actor and his sidekick in the act.
On trial for the crime, the actor blamed his attempt to kick heroin for his actions. But what led him from the set of the award-winning series to this awful crime that had terrible consequences for him and Enchautegui? Let’s begin by taking a look at the show that helped make his name.
Now, David Chase created The Sopranos, which was about gangster Tony Soprano, an Italian-American in New Jersey, and the crime family with his name. He struggles to fit crime alongside family drama and seeks the help of psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi. It’s not all about Tony though, as his wife Carmela and cousin Christopher feature prominently too.
The show began in January 1999 and would run through to June 2007, with 86 episodes screening in all. First featured on HBO, which co-produced it, the drama would be broadcast across America and the world. Furthermore, the gritty action was enhanced by the authentic locations in New Jersey and New York City.
As you may already know, The Sopranos has a stellar reputation, hailed as one of TV’s greatest dramas. Indeed, the acclaim that it enjoyed came in the form of rave reviews and numerous awards, not least 21 Emmys and five Golden Globes. It’s also notable that several of the cast were not very well known before but would rise to prominence given the quality of their performances.
And it wasn’t only the critics who loved the series. Even though it showed on a premium cable network, which limited its availability, it gained decent ratings, in some cases even bettering the network shows that it competed with. What’s more, it’s not too hard to figure out why it was such a massive success.
That’s because it set a new bar for direction, acting and writing, which have all met with high praise. You see, its reset of the gangster story from the more stylized representation of the past to one firmly situated in modern-day life had enormous appeal. And it didn’t hesitate to take on tough issues from mental illness to the complexities of Italian culture. All in all, the critics rated it very highly.
Of course, such a pearl of the TV industry doesn’t just come, go and be forgotten. No, it has been extremely influential. Some say that it helped change TV into real art, just as much as movies, theater or literature. In fact, it provided a template for other series to do a little bit more than we ordinarily expect from TV shows.
Among those shows were the likes of The Shield, Six Feet Under, Big Love and Rescue Me. These complicated series included characters who were a little darker. And being the platform for the innovative series didn’t harm HBO. You see, it gained a reputation as the place to go for cutting edge productions.
In the show, Tony Soprano is the lead character. Played by the late James Gandolfini, he’s a top guy in the DiMeo crime clan, based in New Jersey. Later on in the series he takes control himself and becomes the boss. But the series isn’t just about Tony as a gangster. It’s also about him as a family man and as a man with depression, which sees him visit psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi.
Central in his life is his wife Carmela, played by Edie Falco. And she faces the task of reconciling the fact her husband is a gangster alongside the financial rewards of the mob life. Furthermore, she has to deal with Tony’s regular infidelity, as well as raising their kids A.J. and Meadow.
Other characters are equally deeply drawn, including Tony’s cousin by marriage Christopher, and the boss’ scheming uncle, Junior. Some of the long-listed cast only feature for an episode or two, but even the smaller parts are detailed. Bit by bit we get to know a panoply of characters, each with their own story.
And among the characters whose stories we follow in The Sopranos is Matthew Bevilaqua. You see, he and Sean Gismonte work together to get in on the Soprano family, including helping with a stock scam run by Christopher. But things move too slowly for the two bad boys.
Indeed, the pair branch out into car theft and beating up a rival stockbroker. Then they do burglaries with Chris, which leads them to conflict over the boss’ cut. In fact, Tony’s henchman Furio insults the pair, which leaves them feeling that they need to do something to gain more respect in the Soprano operation.
So the two decide to butter up fellow mobster Richie Aprile, who doesn’t like Christopher. Then they decide to murder Christopher to get the respect that they crave and go places in the mob. But it all goes wrong. And after a round of gunplay that leaves Christopher injured and Sean dead, Matt looks to Richie for help. But none is forthcoming.
Well aware that Tony Soprano will take revenge if he finds him, Matt hides away. But one of Tony’s henchmen offers a reward for his whereabouts. Before long, Matt is caught and beaten up by the Soprano crew. And worse is to come. After a spell of questioning, the Sopranos’ boss shoots him dead.
After that, the cops find Matt’s remains, and it turns out that there’s a witness to his killing. Yes, and he even identifies Tony as the shooter. But when he finds out who Tony is – a connected Mafia man – he claims to have been mistaken. Try as they might, the FBI cannot pin the murder on Tony, and he gets away with it.
Now if you don’t know already, the actor who played Matt Bevilaqua is Lillo Brancato Jr. A native of Bogotá in Colombia, Brancato was adopted by Italian-Americans as a baby. And growing up in Yonkers, New York, he came to consider himself Italian rather than Hispanic. He said, “I was raised to eat pasta.”
Interestingly, Brancato got his big break as a teenager while on a trip to the beach. You see, a talent spotter saw him swimming and thought that he bore a strong likeness to Robert De Niro. When the scout heard his impression of Travis Bickle, De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver, that was it: he was hired for the film A Bronx Tale to play De Niro’s son.
In fact, De Niro warned Brancato that he could expect big changes in his life as a result of the film. Brancato told Peoplemagazine in October 2017 that De Niro and A Bronx Tale co-star Chazz Palminteri “said once this movie goes out, you will have people around you who will expose you to dangerous things, and you have to be careful.”
Brancato added, “De Niro came to my house in spring or summer of 1993, not only to warn me, but also my parents. My parents are Italian immigrants and knew nothing about show biz and the temptations that lie ahead. De Niro talked about the changes that will occur in my life. He said this can be very dangerous if not handled the right way.”
But it’s fair to say that the youngster didn’t pay De Niro much heed. In fact, he’d already started down the path of substance abuse in 1992. Yes, he began with booze and marijuana, but soon enough he was using heroin and cocaine. At first he was managing to further his career at the same time, gaining parts in several films.
Those films included Crimson Tide, in which Brancato had a small but important part as a radio operator, and Renaissance Man. In the latter, a Danny DeVito vehicle, Brancato showed some comic chops. And years later, he’d demonstrated enough talent to win a role in The Sopranos.
However, Brancato soon squandered the great start he’d enjoyed to his career. He told People, “Once I became addicted to those drugs, that was the priority. I was missing auditions and squandering many opportunities. It was the darkest time of my life. As much as I wanted to control it, it was way beyond my control, and there were nights I was crying, and I couldn’t stop.”
As it goes, Brancato was sorry that he hadn’t kept talking to Palminteri and De Niro. He told People, “If I had been around those people who did have my best interest at heart, things could have turned out differently for me. That’s what I try to tell the kids, you are the company you keep.”
Well, the young actor’s spell in The Sopranos lasted for six episodes. After that, he had a couple of parts in mobster dramas. His last film for a while was Saturday Morning, which eventually aired in 2007. You see, after the hit HBO show, Brancato started to come to the attention of the cops.
Yes, and in June of 2005 the actor was in trouble with the law. In fact, he was placed under arrest by the Yonkers Police Department after officers first spotted a busted rear brake light and pulled him over. But when they asked for his papers, he didn’t have any besides an expired registration. What he did have was a stash of heroin, enough to earn him a charge for possession.
A few months later, Brancato had more trouble with the law. Indeed, the police arrested him after a fight with his girlfriend, and a disorderly conduct charge ensued. Still, it didn’t stop him from going out a couple nights later with his friend, Steven Armento, his girlfriend’s dad, whom he’d gotten friendly with. And this time, there would be no slap on the wrist for a misdemeanor.
For you see, in December 2005 the pair went out for drinks at a strip joint, it was alleged. After that, they’d tried to break into an apartment in the Bronx to steal some pills prescribed to its owner. Actually, Brancato claimed that the owner, who he knew, had given him an open invitation to go in and get pills at any time. One problem: the guy had passed away the year before.
Anyway, Brancato explained to the jury that he had been suffering from heroin withdrawal symptoms. This, he said, had interfered with his judgment. So his plan had been to simply rouse the apartment’s occupant so that he could get some pills from him. In trying to do that, he’d inadvertently busted a window in the kitchen.
That was when cop Daniel Enchautegui, who lived next door, heard the noise. He’d just come off duty but called it in before going to take a look. When he arrived, there was a round of gunplay, with both miscreants hit by bullets. But tragically, Enchautegui came off worse, his life extinguished by Armento.
And while the jury was convinced the two men had been burgling the apartment, they only convicted Armento of murdering the policeman. Given that, Enchautegui’s sister was furious that Brancato didn’t go down for the killing, too, telling the New York Daily News, “He’ll always be a murderer, no matter what the jury says.” However, Brancato still got 10 years for burglary, while Armento would receive life without parole for his offences.
After the sentencing, the leader of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association slammed Brancato for the crime. Yes, Patrick Lynch told U.K. newspaper The Guardian, “This would not have happened if not for this animal’s drug habit. The only good thing is that this skunk is not walking out to spend Christmas with his family. The sad part is that neither is Daniel.”
But even going to prison didn’t put an end to Brancato’s drug habit. You see, he managed to overdose on bags of heroin and morphine pills. And one of his cousins, Pat Longobucco, and Corey Rabin, a friend of his, who were both lawyers, decided that the time had come for an intervention.
Brancato told People, “They both expressed their disappointment in me. They said that all of the people I had by my side wanting to help me through this would not be there had I continued this behavior.” And what they said reached the actor-turned-con. Apparently, he quit drugs then and there.
From that day to the interview with People in 2017, Brancato had stayed drugs-free. And he felt terrible about his part in the slaying of Enchautegui. He said, “Another person is not here because of my addictions. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of that night, and how I wish I could change its outcome.”
Eventually, Brancato earned his release, being freed on New Year’s Eve 2013. But he faced a curfew and was forbidden from going anywhere near drink and drugs. To add to that, the actor wasn’t allowed to get on a plane without permission, and he knew that he would be closely watched by the New York police.
Once out of jail, Brancato was able to restart his acting career somewhat. He scored a couple of roles, notably appearing in Back in the Day with Alec Baldwin and Donald Glover. And he told People, “It feels great to be working again and doing anything, even to buy a newspaper. To be given the chance to do what I love, it’s ten times more special now.”
What’s more, in 2018 a documentary about Brancato’s fall from grace, Wasted Talent came out. The actor said of it, “The main reason why I’m doing it is because I want to be a cautionary tale – not even just for actors, but for kids. I think it’s important for kids to hear that story and maybe they won’t go down the path I did. If I can help one kid stay on the right path, I’ve accomplished something great.”