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Star Gazing
My junket to Hollywood led me to Milwaukee’s Daughter of the Don and Mequon’s John Ridley Jr., the L.A. screenwriter who’s film "12 Days a Slave" has broken new ground.

About a dozen years ago, I came up with the idea to write a Milwaukee Magazine profile of Benedetta Balistrieri, the oldest daughter of Milwaukee’s reputed crime boss, Frank Balistrieri. The don was done, resting in peace beside his wife, Nina. And their four offspring were fighting over the possessions that father and mother couldn’t take with them, including the historic Shorecrest Hotel. Central to the disagreement was daughter Benny, who had sued her siblings for a piece of the action.

Family Feud... Sibling Rivalry... Headlines were already forming in my jaundiced mind’s eye. This, I told my editor, is a story waiting to be written.

Problem was, Benny Balistrieri lived in Los Angeles – Hollywood, to be precise. And my editor was less than enthusiastic about paying for a week-long junket to Tinsel Town.

I begged, I groveled, I brown-nosed. I offered to sleep on a bench in Echo Park to save expenses. Finally, he gave in. He would send me westward, but on one condition: I would have to come back with a second L.A. story for the magazine.

After landing in California, I had dinner with Benny at her favorite Italian restaurant. Two pisans, we got along well. She talk candidly talked about her infamous family, and let me read letters written by her father from prison. Her story, “Daughter of the Don,” was published in May 2002, and we remained in touch off and on until her death in 2009.  

For my second L.A. story, I managed to burrow into the Hollywood movie industry. Mequon native John Ridley Jr. at the time had been making a splash in Hollywood, writing TV shows, movies and books. And today, with the release of his latest movie – 12 Days a Slave – his early splash has become a tidal wave. Ridley wrote the screenplay for 12 Days, now in theaters everywhere, the pinnacle (so far) of his career.

On my L.A. junket, Ridley’s story became my two-fer. After scrambling to get an interview through his business agent, I finally nailed down an appointment. We met at his home in Sherman Oaks, just down the 101 from Universal, ABC, NBC and Warner Brothers. He led me through his living room and we sat at the kitchen table, toys strewn around the house, a lap pool in the palm-shaded backyard.

We talked about his childhood, his writing, his family. (His father, John Ridley Sr., a retired ophthalmologist, occasionally pens guest commentaries for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.) He made trenchant observations about George Clooney, Samuel L. Jackson, and the myopic, risk-averse Hollywood movie machine.

Following the interview, Ridley invited me to a pitch meeting at Universal Studios, and then took me on a tour of the back lots. Riding in a golf cart past actors dressed as super heroes and gangsters, it was just as you would imagine.

In the interview, Ridley downplayed his importance as a script writer: “Influential? Compared to somebody writing some very serious work? Cornell West or somebody like that? No. I do film scripts, I do TV shows. How influential is that? Important? More important than the head of the UN? No. I’m important to my wife and my baby, and I’m going to be important to them for the rest of my life.”

But that was years ago. Hailed by The New York Times as the movie that “finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century,” 12 Years a Slave has changed all that. Ridley’s latest work, already mentioned as an Oscar contender, is potent, provocative, a milestone in his career and the history of American filmmaking – influential, without doubt.

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