There’s been a little bit of Hollywood in Hartford lately. An independent film company has been there shooting a feature movie based on the life of Hartford boxing icon Willie Pep.
Actor James Madio is the star. He has worked with Steven Spielberg and Dustin Hoffman - Hollywood royalty. This month he’s been portraying a Hartford legend.
“Well, it’s exciting. Just a little bit of pressure,” Madio joked.
Inside the Hartford Club Wednesday, Madio and fellow his cast members completed a scene in the upcoming film, “Pep.” The producers of the movie, say Madio inspired its creation, showing the scriptwriter a photo of Pep in 2008.
“He said that’s Willie Pep. He said that’s the role my father said I was born to play,” explained writer and producer Steve Loff.
Pep, whose real name is Gugliemo Papaleo, was a two-time world featherweight champion in the 1940s. Before his death in 2006 at age 84, Pep spent much of his life in the Hartford area. Filming in Hartford throughout November, Madio has gotten a true sense of Pep’s legacy.
“Everybody has a Willy Pep story. I mean every day I hear a new one about the way he walked, the way you shook your hand, the way you spell, the way drove. Everything,” said Madio.
Those stories helped Madio understand his character, and the story. It’s based in 1965, when Pep hit hard times and was attempting a comeback.
“He turns to the one thing that always pulls him out of the doldrums, and that’s fighting. So, he makes a return to the ring,” said Loff.
Playing a cameo role in the film is another Hartford boxing success. Marlon Starling remembers Pep sitting in the front row of one of his fights.
The film has special meaning for the entire Hartford boxing community. Another former world titleholder, Israel “Pito” Cardona, was among the many excited about the upcoming Willie Pep movie.
“He’s from our hometown,” said Cardona. “So, that something to be proud of.”
To look the part, Madio says extensive makeup was required; giving him the appearance of a broken nose and facial scarring. He says that was easy though compared to mimicking Pep’s boxing skills.
“I mean, I’ve told everybody, if I was able to emulate Willie’s moves I would just quit acting right now and start fighting. Because the guy never got hit. He was very special in the ring,” explained Madio.
Filming in Hartford began November 1 and is scheduled to wrap up on November 23. Producers are hoping to have it ready for an audience release in the spring of 2023.