The Rev. Bernard T. Pagano hit the celebrity circuit today, showing his form on a racquet ball court and explaining his newly found insight into the criminal justice system on a television show.
Even while he napped this afternoon in his room at the plush Saint Moritz Hotel here after appearing on the Good Morning America show, his friend, attorney and public relations man, Gerard Burke, sat in another room arranging appointments with film producers and a literary agent.
Pagano was in New York armed with the story of how he, a middleage Catholic priest, was accused of being the "Gentlman Bandit" who held up a string of Delaware stores, only to be dramatically vindicated during his trial when the real bandit came forward and confessed.
The Pagano Road Show started rolling Sunday night when the priest, dressed in the black suit and clerical collar he wore during his trial, stepped aboard a Metroliner in Wilmington and rode the rails up to the media capital of the United States.
His first stop in New York was the Manhattan Squash and Racquet Ball Club, where People magazine was waiting to photograph him for a feature the magazine is doing on him.
At the club, Pagano quickly shed his clerical garb to put on a pair of white shorts, blue knee socks, green striped sneakers and a T-shirt and played a game of racquet ball as photographer Evelyn Floret snapped his picture as he bent his knees, arched his shoulders and whacked the ball.
After that, he was treated to a steak and beer dinner at the Saint Moritz Hotel, compliments of People magazine.
Today, starting at 5:30 a.m. when he woke up, Pagano zigzagged the city from swank Central Park South to hectic Madison Avenue, retelling his story.
At 6:30 a.m., a limousine pulled up in front of the chandeliered lobby of the Saint Moritz to take him to the Good Morning America show. There he was greeted by the show's host, David Hartman, who clasped his hands and said, "remarkable story, Father." Pagano was escorted to the makeup room as crewmen huddled about him asking him if he would like any coffee.
On the show he reiterated that the criminal justice system must be changed to protect innocent people, and particularly black and Hispanic people who may not have the financial means to vindicate themselves.
Pagano's defense was funded mainly with the nearly $13,000 his former parishioners at St. Mary's Refuge of Sinners Church in Cambridge, Md., raised for him.
But the system that Pagano believes victimized him has brought him personal notoriety and the promise of considerable financial gain.
About seven film companies, including Columbia and Warner Bros., want to make a movie of the priest's case. Yesterday, two film makers flew in from Hollywood to negotiate with Pagano and Burke over a lunch at the exclusive Plaza Hotel, down the block from the Saint Moritz.
Burke visited with his literary agent on Madison Avenue, to discuss a book that he is doing about the Pagano case.
Burke, who said he formerly served as the assistant director of the National Security Agency, said he has been at work on a spy novel, but, "put that on the shelf" to do a book on the "Gentleman Bandit" episode.
He would not give the name of his literary agent or the publishing firm that he is negotiating with but would say only that it is "one of the big ones."
During the day, the widespread publicity of the trial was evident everywhere that Pagano went as people stopped him on the streets, the hotel and on the train to congratulate him and say, "God bless you Father."
One woman from Haiti, the maid who cleaned his room at the Saint Moritz, told him she prayed for him and asked him to give her a blessing, which he did, handing her a religious card that had stuffed in his breast pocket.
Pagano's demeanor has remained calm and quiet, much as it was during his three-week trial, despite his new found celebrity status. It all makes him feel humble, he said.
But Pagano, who grew up in Kearny, N.J., not far from New York, and used to come into the city to sell Billboard magazines in the expensive restaurants, was noticeably thrilled this morning when Tom Carvel, of ice cream fame, another guest on Good Morning America, asked him if he could "have the privilege" of shaking the priest's hand.
The tall, trim, bald-headed priest will travel later this week to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington for more TV interviews and will meet with additional Hollywood movie producers, he said.