Brooklyn-born doctor’s brush with Hollywood enables lifetime dream

December 17, 2020 Raanan Geberer
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Childhood Fascination with Sinatra, Italian Heritage, Bring Movie Role

When you go to a physician of any kind, the last thing you expect is to find out that your doctor’s sidelines are acting, playwriting and screenwriting.  But one prominent, Brooklyn-born Los Angeles cardiologist — Dr. Rico Simonini, who is also a chief medical advisor for CORE, which provides free COVID-19 testing has written and stars in a film about Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. 

The film, “Frank and Ava,” is available on Amazon Prime and iTunes. It addresses the years 1949 to 1953, when Sinatra’s career was on the downswing and he left his wife to take up with the glamorous actress. It ends with Sinatra’s gaining the “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar for “From Here to Eternity,” which marked a comeback for Old Blue Eyes. According to Simonini, the film can inspire any person who has been down and out and has struggled for a comeback.

While Simonini, 50, was born after Sinatra’s heyday, he remembers his father taking him to see the famed singer-actor at the Westchester Premier Theater, where Sinatra played 10 sold-out performances between 1976 and 1977. 

The Westchester Premier Theater was also where an infamous backstage photo was taken of Sinatra with mob figures Paul Castellano, Carlo Gambino and Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratrianno. While Simonini’s father, a restaurateur who was born in a small town near Naples, was definitely not part of the mob, he did play cards with some of the “boys,” including longtime crime boss Carmine Persico. His father’s gambling problem contributed to the family’s lack of money during Simonini’s childhood.

As a kid growing up at 10th Avenue and 65th Street near the border of Dyker Heights and Borough Park, which he characterized as “a rough area” back in the day, Simonini was a chubby kid who often got picked on. In addition, he wasn’t allowed to play stickball or other sports outside, because his mother wanted him to do his homework. “My mom would send me out for groceries, and after I bought them I’d sneak out and play stickball. Then, when I came home with the groceries, my mother would say, `What took you so long?’”

Dr. Rico SImonini, cardiologist, screenwriter and actor. Photo courtesy of Dr. Rico Simonini

Simonini went to Brooklyn’s Regina Pacis School and then to Xavier High School, and his salvation was that he was, in his own words, a “science nerd.” Going to NYU, he graduated in two-and-a-half years, then he went to Stony Brook for medical school. One of the things that influenced him to be a cardiologist, he said, was his father’s own heart attack. 

How did he get to the West Coast? After his residency at Bellevue, he said, he wanted to concentrate on research, and he got an opportunity to do his research at UCLA. But even beforehand, he says, he wanted to get away the milieu in which he found himself.

At one point, Simonini recalls, his father introduced him to John Gotti, and it seemed to him that Gotti was eyeing him, as a young Italian-American doctor, as a good match for his daughter, Victoria Gotti. “That’s not how I wanted to spend my life,” he says.–>

Once in L.A., Simonini found himself working at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a hospital patronized by many Hollywood actors, directors, producers and screenwriters. Although he’d never had any experience in the theater apart from school plays at Xavier (which he enjoyed), “a lot of my patients began handing me movie scripts and asking my opinion. I accumulated hundreds.”

One day, he says, “One of the patients asked, `Did you ever do acting? We need a Tony Danza-type guy for a play reading.’ I got the job.” He got more offers for “little parts” in local theater. At the same time, he started taking acting lessons from the owner of the Meisner School in Los Angeles.

Then, the producer of TV’s “Tales from the Darkside” brought him a play, “Brooklyn USA,” about the Murder Inc. hit squad in the 1930s, set in the candy store at Saratoga and Livonia avenues in Brownsville where the real-life members of the crew used to hang out. With his intimate knowledge of Brooklyn, Simonini was a natural for the part and was soon playing the part in a Los Angeles theater.

This led to other parts in theater, such as a play about the construction of the Berlin Wall and, eventually, a two-act play, “Frank and Ava” by Willard Manus, in which he played Sinatra. The original play, Simonini said, consisted mainly of indoor scenes and conversations. He saw possibilities in the play and decided to write a movie script based on it. 

“I produced it, I raised money from investors,” he said. However, he couldn’t work on the film continuously because he needed to devote time to his medical practice. “The way it worked, we’d shoot for a while, then three or four months would go by, then we’d raise more money and begin shooting again.” 

Frank Sinatra Jr., the singer’s son and musical director, served as an advisor, and after Frank Jr. died, Tina Sinatra, his sister, filled the same role.

“We shot scenes in Palm Springs and in Rome,” Simonini said. “We also `created’ Spain and Africa using movie magic. We found an old DC-3 (1940s airplane) in Riverside (California) and used it in the movie.”

As mentioned, “Frank and Ava” is available on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

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