Lillo Brancato From Jail: 'The Drugs Always Win'

In the Riker's Island jail, where he spent much of last three years, 32-year-old Lillo Brancato couldn't help but agree with a grim assessment.

"You threw it away," he was told.

"Yeah, I did," he said. "I'm ashamed."

That's because back in 1993, when his young face lit up the screen in "A Bronx Tale," Lillo Brancato looked to the entire world like a teenager on the brink of showbiz greatness.

For Brancato, "The sky was the limit," thought Chazz Palminteri, who'd created "A Bronx Tale" from the hard-won lessons and stories of his own life.


Then just 16, Brancato was plucked from obscurity to work with actor/writer Palminteri and actor/director Robert DeNiro to play a starring role in what would be one of the era's most fondly regarded films.

"I remember it so clear, as we were shooting -- I remember, I said, 'I hope we're not cursing this kid,'" said Palminteri in an interview with "20/20."

Brancato was given a once-in-a-generation opportunity in the movie business. But 16 years later, opportunity of any kind is nowhere to be found.

"I squandered it," he said, in his first interview since his trial.

Lillo Brancato

The events that brought Brancato from celluloid fame to a prison cell still reverberate in the lives of so many; events that culminated in one horrific night in a Bronx driveway, on Dec. 10, 2005. When it was over, Daniel Enchautegui, a 28-year-old police officer, lay dead and Brancato -- the movie star -- would be charged with the officer's murder.

Fame 'Gets to Your Head'

Amazingly, Brancato's acting career started with a day at the beach.

As a teenager, Brancato loved to do impressions for his brother Vinny, so when a man came up to the two Brancato brothers and handed them fliers about the film version of Palminteri's play, "A Bronx Tale," Vinny knew who'd be perfect.

"I was like 'Li, do Joe Pesci for him. Li, do DeNiro for them,'" Vinny Brancato said.

Brancato re-enacted scenes from "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull"; weeks later, without any acting experience whatsoever, he was cast as DeNiro's impressionable teenage son in the film, which was to be DeNiro's directing debut as well.

"It was unbelievable," Palminteri said. "I mean, the kid just was a natural. I said, 'Listen to me right now. What you are given right now is an incredible opportunity. You have been hit by lightning.' I said, 'What happened to you is more rare than winning the Lotto. Do you understand that?"

"It just came so easily for me," said Brancato.

It was all so easy that Brancato once got high on dope during filming of a key scene.

"He could be such a good kid -- like such a loving good kid, and then the next minute be so irresponsible," recalled Palminteri. "I couldn't understand it."

Palminteri wasn't the only one trying to caution Brancato during filming. DeNiro paid Brancato a visit right before the film was released.

"He said, 'a lot of people are going to want to be your friends, you know, and they don't have your best interest at heart. So you got to be careful and you got to choose your friends wisely,'" remembered Brancato. "I kind of shrugged it off. It was kind of like, 'yeah, I understand what you're saying, but not me, I'll be fine, Bob.'"

But he wasn't.

"A Bronx Tale" was a success, and Brancato was cast in "Crimson Tide" and Penny Marshall's "Renaissance Man." Meanwhile, he also got VIP treatment in every hot club in New York.

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