The last thing anyone expected from one of the Farrelly brothers — the siblings infamous for some of the best gross-out comedies of the '90s — was a moving film about a friendship burgeoning between a Bronx bouncer and a classically trained pianist as the former chauffeurs the latter around the segregated South. Director Peter Farrelly had a lot to drawn on, as the 1960s period piece Green Book is a true story, based on the real-life bond between Italian tough guy Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) and idiosyncratic pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali).
Both were nicknames — Lip was born Frank Anthony Vallelonga, and according to Hollywood.com earned the moniker at the age of 8 for being able to out-talk anyone. And The New York Times notes that Donald was shortened to "Don" by the founder of Cadence Records, an informality the prickly, dignified composer likely resented. Shirley never went to grad school; the Dr. was likely referencing Shirley's two honorary degrees bestowed for his prodigious musical talents.
The unlikely traveling team — a brash, chatty Italian family man and cultivated, wealthy African-American pianist, came together when Shirley was booked, according to another New York Times article, to tour Southern bars in 1964 by Columbia Artists. Aware that artist Nat King Cole had been brutally assaulted on stage only six years earlier in Alabama, and that the Green Book of the film's title, a yearly guidebook noting which roads and facilities were relatively safe for black travelers to use, was still a necessity, Shirley likely thought having some muscle join him on the tour wasn't the worst idea. In came Tony, then a bouncer at New York's infamous Copacabana nightclub.
The screenplay was written by Tony's son Nick, who like his father had aspirations to get into Hollywood. Both succeeded: Tony had spots in film and television, including as The Sopranos' Carmine Lupertazzi, while Nick went even further, not only finding success as an actor but writing several screenplays. Talking to Hollywood Reporter, he says it took him over five decades to tell the story closest to him, and that was partly at the behest of Shirley, who remained a family friend until his own death just months after Tony's in 2013. "I sort of mapped out what it should be — beginning, middle and end type of a thing — but I never fully wrote the script. It was Dr. Shirley who said to me, 'I want you to do this exactly as your father has told you. But I don't want you to do this until I'm gone.'"
Though a successful musician, Shirley never achieved his own dream of becoming a classical pianist, dissuaded by a mentor at age 20 who told him American audiences weren't willing to accept a black man on the concert stage, according to the Times. Shirley was a complicated, occasionally inscrutable personality, his private nature possibly why he requested Vallelonga postpone telling his story.
Speaking to WGNTV, Vallelonga notes his dad was also "a complicated guy — champion bowler swimmer dancer, loved music, although he didn't have a big education," and the trip the two took permanently altered his perspective. "My father learned a lot from Dr. Shirley, it changed his life — how he raised us as children, how he treated other people... he listened to what Dr. Shirley said, and it changed him."
Green Book, a surprisingly funny look at the difficult road trip that bonded them together, shows their slowly growing mutual respect blossom into friendship. The film opens in theaters nationwide on Nov. 21.