Lee Curreri: an eclectic artist in search of his Italian origins

A young Lee Curreri. Photo courtesy of Lee Curreri

Lee Curreri. Photo courtesy of Lee Curreri

Best known as Bruno Martelli, the introvert and talented star from the 1980s hit TV series Fame, Lee Curreri was born in the Bronx, New York City, to Italian parents and was later adopted by a couple from Southern Italy. “Being adopted, I have always been curious – or better, obsessed - about my roots. Basically, I believe that if you are in the mood to explore, you can never really get disappointed: there is always something amazing to discover.”

Mostly Sicilian from both sides, he went to visit Italy for the first time in 1984, while shooting a TV movie regarding the American Embassy in Rome. During a week off, he took a trip to the cities of Naples and Bari, where he had a great time meeting his adoptive mother’s family. Ten years later, he went to Sciacca in Sicily in search of some relatives and, looking up his last name Curreri in the phonebook, he managed to gather in a single room 70 people from two different branches of the family tree. “At some point, this old man went to a desk and pulled out a letter from the forties or fifties, signed by Joseph Curreri. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the same person as my father and we couldn’t find out how we were related to each other, but it was just amazing to be there all together, sharing the same purpose.”

Being a talented musician is usually the key to unlock a career as a composer, but you became famous as an actor first. How did it come?

I was attending the Manhattan School of Music as a kid, when the producers of the movie Fame went to all the different music schools in the East Coast, searching for actors and auditioning probably 10,000 artists. I walked in there, I read the description of the character, and I thought, “They know me, this is me!” After about 5 calls back, I finally got the role. At age 18 I had no idea how difficult it was to get in a feature film. The movie was a sort of urban success in NY and LA, but it didn’t do well in the rest of the U.S. and eventually they turned it into a TV show. That’s why I moved to Los Angeles.

What about the songs you wrote in the TV show?

Writing music for the show was the most important thing to me; I didn’t really care about acting. I was asked to write a silly song to mock professor Shorofsky, and then I just kept doing it. Since I wasn’t a singer, I just sounded better singing my own compositions but I had to compete with a whole bunch of professionals.

Is there a song that you loved the most?

Yes, it’s a lullaby for a newborn baby entitled Could we be magic like you. I was thinking of Stevie Wonder while writing it, and both the lyrics and music came all together very fast.

How much do you identify with Bruno Martelli’s character?

I’ve always felt close to Bruno’s sensitivity. He was a sort of a misfit too much into his music and with a little stage fright. I remember since I grew up I was the only young kid who played jazz in my age group. The night of my senior prom I wanted to go see Bill Evans  - the famous jazz piano player  - and nobody came with me besides my prom date.

And how was the relationship with the other actors?

Working along with the other kids from Fame was very funny, we were like a family and sometimes we were laughing too much we couldn’t do the scene.

You ended up producing songs for fellow artists like Natalie Cole, Phil Perry, Nicolette Larson, and Kid Creole. When did you decide to become a producer?

As long as I could think of it, even as a little kid, when I went to the music camp and played piano, I was asked to arrange for specific ensemble and different instruments. Since then, every chance I got I would write songs and accompany singers, arranging and producing demos for them.

How often do you go to Italy?

I go to Sicily every summer because I play with a band called MODE. I first met them in Los Angeles, as a friend of mine was working with them. We did a few songs together and then they asked me to join them playing in their hometown, Modica. Once I did, I fell in love with the place: the people and the scenery were fantastic, and I didn’t want to leave. I look forward to that time every year, because it is a strange sort of spooky connection that I have, which goes beyond my fascination with my Italian roots. Plus, you can eat pasta all day long without getting sick or fat!

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