PITTSBURGH -- Danny Porfirio is hovering between reality and fantasy.
For the 32-year-old from Burtonsville, Md., reality has been measured in heavy doses. He's confronted it in the faces of the cancer and AIDS patients he's treated as a radiology technician for the past three years at various Washington hospitals. A grim reality of slim hopes.
But now comes fantasy, and with it a chance for Porfirio to leave his mark on the make-believe world of Hollywood. After nearly a decade of fading hopes for a screen writing career that has been supported by his hospital work, among other jobs, Porfirio now is poised to switch from examination rooms to screening rooms. Later this year, he will see his first script come to the screen. And with it, Porfirio hopes his hospital days will be behind him for good.
The world is full of people eager to be lured by Hollywood's promise. And while thousands wait for that big break, Porfirio knows that for most it never comes. He is quick to admit that he's probably luckier than many others; for one thing, there was that chance encounter that ultimately led to the transformation of his screenplay into a movie called "Dominick and Eugene."
A drama about a relationship between two brothers, the movie was shot in Pittsburgh between April and June. It stars Tom Hulce, who delighted critics in his spirited portrayal of Mozart in "Amadeus," and Ray Liotta, who appeared in last year's sleeper, "Something Wild." As he awaits his movie's debut, Porfirio is savoring the culmination of his nine-year run against the odds.
"A lot of times these days I wake up in the morning and ask myself, did this really happen? It's still pretty unbelievable to me," says the boyish-looking Porfirio, who's never been to Hollywood.
That might explain the wild-eyed innocence he displayed during location visits while "Dominick and Eugene" was being filmed. In blue jeans and tennis shoes, with an Orioles baseball cap tugged around his ears, Porfirio appeared out of place in the hectic activity going on around him. He looked more like one of the neighborhood kids hanging around the sets. And like many of them, he had a pen at the ready, for collecting autographs on the cover page of his copy of the script.
"I've never been on a movie set before this," he says in a hushed tone, careful not to make too much noise while a scene is being rehearsed. "I always thought you only needed a few people to make a movie. I never imagined all these people would be around."
Slipping away, he is much more at ease sipping a beer in a local tavern, around the corner from a run-down block of stores and over-the-shop apartments where an afternoon's filming is taking place.
Porfirio is not the kind of guy likely to be seen taking a meeting with some studio executive at the Polo Lounge. Ask him what he does for fun, and he'll tell you he mostly enjoys playing with his dog in the yard of his Burtonsville town house. And if you're wondering about the money he's made from the script, don't expect to hear about hot-tub brochures or stocking up on designer sunglasses.
"I really haven't even spent much of the money I got from this," he says. "Except to get my car fixed and pay off my Penney's charge."
He and his wife Kathy White, the news director at Washington radio station WLTT, also took a vacation to Florida with some of the proceeds. That's been about the extent of the extravagance. Porfirio is reluctant to discuss exactly how much he received for his movie script. He says only that the five-figure amount was "significantly" more than the $20,000 annual salary he was paid in his last job at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Northwest Washington. He left the hospital in May.
Porfirio knows full well that Hollywood offers a lucrative way to pay off credit cards and automobile mechanics. And even though it took him nine years to get his first script from the typewriter onto the screen, he hopes the next one might come a little easier. In the meantime, there is still plenty of reality for him to contend with. Not only in his ambition to make a full-time career out of his writing, but also in the odd juxtaposition between the two worlds that he found himself straddling.
Like the diseases he treated in the hospital, the themes in his screenplay are dark and grim -- though of a different nature. They focus instead on child abuse and the struggle that two brothers (Hulce and Liotta) have in their attempt to remain close under trying circumstances.
"I think it's a tremendously human story about love," says Bob Young, the film's director. "This story is really about courage and endurance."
Reality awaited Porfirio when he returned to the veterans' hospital after his first visit to the set in April. "I had five AIDS patients I was treating the week I came for the filming," he recalls. "And when I went back, two of them were dead."
The movie character played by Liotta is a medical student, though Porfirio says he got the idea before he began working in radiation therapy. "I guess I wanted to say something. I wanted to make a statement in my own awkward way about the way I feel about child abuse and brotherly love," says Porfirio.
There is nothing autobiographical about the movie, adds Porfirio, who grew up with three brothers in Exeter, Pa., a few miles from Wilkes-Barre. His father was a coal miner before the plants shut down, and one of his brothers now works in a meat-packing plant. Another brother works as a civilian guard at an Army base in the area, and a third is unemployed.
Porfirio's parents divorced when he was 10, but both still live in Exeter. He has been the only family member to leave. But until he joined the Marines a year out of high school in 1974, Porfirio had never been more than 40 miles from home.
"You're born there, you live there and you die there," he says. "I'm not saying that's a bad thing. But after I went into the service, I decided there was a lot more to the world than northeastern Pennsylvania." It was during his four-year stint in the Marines that he heard from a friend about a child-abuse incident that later formed the basis for "Dominick and Eugene."
But that was not the first script that Porfirio peddled to Hollywood after leaving the Marines. In 1979, he returned to Exeter and found himself unemployed for seven months in a town where the shut-up coal mines made for bleak economic prospects. More interested in writing than in coal-mining, he tried unsuccessfully to sell a half-novel, half-screenplay titled "The Big Swoop" that was based loosely on some of his experiences in the Marines, where he served as a military policeman on bases in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
In Marine jargon, says Porfirio, a "swoop" means getting off the base for a little while, as in a "swoop to the beach." Porfirio remembers a place called Swoop Circle at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where Marines stationed at the base would depart for short leaves.
Porfirio wrote about four buddies based together in Georgia. One committed suicide. Another was sent to prison. And a third decided to go AWOL, opting for the "big swoop." Porfirio sent the manuscript to everyone he could think of -- book publishers, movie studios, the networks. Everyone turned him down. Most didn't even open the envelope.
Then he happened to read in TV Guide about actor Mike Farrell, who played surgeon B.J. Hunnicutt on the "M*A*S*H" television series. What caught Porfirio's attention was the mention that Farrell also had been in the Marines.
"I figured what the hell," recalls Porfirio. "I was an ex-Marine. He was an ex-Marine. I had nothing to lose." He sent Farrell a copy of his script. "I didn't care if he hated it. I just wanted someone to read it."
A week or so later, Farrell wrote back promising to read the script. Some more time passed before the actor wrote again, telling Porfirio that he enjoyed the story and vaguely promising that he would try to do something with it.
By this time, Porfirio had begun writing "Dominick and Eugene." When he completed it, he sent a copy to Farrell, who still had not done anything with the Marines story. Two years later, in 1981, Farrell bought the rights to the story of the two brothers with an eye to turning it into a made-for-television movie. And Porfirio began to think that earning a living as a screen writer wasn't so difficult after all.
But Farrell had no better luck stirring interest in Porfirio's script than Porfirio had in getting anyone to pay attention to his story about the Marines. The networks turned down "Dominick and Eugene," leaving the script to gather dust on the shelf for five years.
Porfirio's enthusiasm waned, and he divided his time between going to college on the GI Bill and working at a string of odd jobs. First, he helped out at a home for retarded children; next came employment at a wholesale food outlet and then a job as a security guard.
In 1984, he completed a program in radiation therapy at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, which led to a job at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park. Later, he switched to the VA hospital.
Then last year, Farrell managed to revive Hollywood's interest in filming Porfirio's script. Sean Penn considered playing one of the brothers, though he later turned it down. Screen writer Corey Blechman (who wrote the television movie "Bill" that starred Mickey Rooney) was brought in to rewrite some of the original script. Hulce and Liotta were cast as the brothers, joined by Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays another medical student and Liotta's romantic interest. When Orion Pictures agreed to distribute the film, Farrell, one of the movie's producers, finally got the project off the ground. And Danny Porfirio, still treating ill veterans in a Washington hospital, found himself standing in the streets of Pittsburgh watching the story he wrote being captured on film.
Hollywood being what it is, much of the dialogue will no longer be Porfirio's by the time "Dominick and Eugene" shows up in movie theaters. First came Blechman's rewriting. After him, screenwriter Alvin Sargent ("Julia" and "Ordinary People") further polished the script. Young, who directed Farrah Fawcett in the movie "Extremities" and the Paul Simon vehicle "One Trick Pony," says the other writers were needed to add more dramatic dimension to Porfirio's original script. "Because he was inexperienced, he wasn't able to take it dramatically to where it could ultimately go," says Young.
Porfirio is satisfied that the original story was his invention, even if some of the words no longer belong to him. He also knows he's got some fine-tuning to do when it comes to writing screenplays. His original script rambled on for more than 220 pages, about twice as long as the version that was filmed.
"I really don't think of myself as a writer, to be honest. I sort of think of myself as a storyteller. I've always loved to tell stories. I've always had the ability to build on one little incident," says Porfirio. "I just try to get it down on paper the best way I can. I try to get the idea across. In this case, it worked."
Despite his breakthrough, Porfirio has yet to make much of a splash back in Exeter. He thinks that is largely because the word has not gotten around yet about his success.
"Until I went back there after I was in Pittsburgh for a week, I don't think a lot of people really believed what I was doing. I had to show them pictures of me with Tom Hulce and with Mike Farrell," says Porfirio.
He is intrigued about taking a trip to California, where most aspiring screen writers, actors and others can usually be found parking cars or waiting on tables in fern-leafed restaurants.
"What do I think California would be like? Would it change me? Nah," says Porfirio, with one of his shy grins. "I've always had to work hard. So I'm too used to the rough part of things to just go out there, you know, and buy a Mercedes."
He's also working on other writing projects, including a "sort of comedy-drama-fantasy," the idea of which has been kicking around in his head for 10 years. And there's still "The Big Swoop," which Farrell says he remains interested in turning into a movie.
Porfirio knows he will continue to need some luck. But with a first big foot in the door, he also figures he won't have to wait another nine years for the luck to continue. "I want to make sure this first one isn't a fluke," he says. "There are so many people who do this once and never do it again. Hollywood is probably chancier than buying a lottery ticket, you know what I mean?" Steven Pressman covers politics for Congressional Quarterly.