MERIDEN — For a period in 1988, Meriden received the Hollywood treatment after being selected as the main location for “Jacknife” — a 1989 film about Vietnam veterans with post traumatic stress disorder starring Robert De Niro, Ed Harris and Kathy Baker.
Although the film was not a commercial success, it created a local frenzy from the time movie crews descended on the city to the film’s premiere a year later, cementing views of Meriden’s iconic sights, including Castle Craig and the Broad Street war memorials, in cinematic history. While some residents acted as extras, others offered up homes as sets or personal possessions as props for the movie.
“Jacknife” was written by Cheshire native Stephen Metcalfe and stars De Niro as Joseph “Megs” Megessey, a Vietnam veteran struggling with PTSD. After vetting locations from Maine to the deep South, production crews selected Meriden for its realistic, industrial feel, according to articles by the Record-Journal’s Jim Zebora.
City officials were excited for the economic boost, while locals relished a chance at fame. Hundreds waited in long lines for roles as extras in the film in April shortly before filming began.
Later that month, a production assistant stopped by Colony Street Service Station and left with what would be an important prop for the movie – a shabby cloth hat worn by De Niro. The woman came in and asked then 70-year-old worker Francis Schmidt if the hat was part of his regular uniform before stating, “If I crossed your palm with some money, would you give us the hat?”
Schmidt handed it over for free, describing it later to reporters in an April 26, 1988 article as “an old brown thing, full of grease,” and “a good warm hat, perfect for working on cars.”
The hat wasn’t the only Meriden item to make it into the film. Resident Richard Trombley was ecstatic when his plum-colored 1967 Chevelle SS was selected as De Niro’s car of choice for the film.
“My car is like the character,” Trombley is quoted as saying in a May 12, 1988 article. “If it had a name, it would be Robert De Niro.”
As filming ramped up in May, residents eagerly gathered to watch crews on location throughout Meriden, including the former East Main Street Texaco Station once, home to Uptown Garage, which is featured in the film.
Residents Charles and Amanda King loaned their 19th century Linsley Avenue home for several scenes in the movie, with crews opting to remove a large tree and several shrubs from the front yard, which were replaced after shooting. Other scenes feature a Victorian house on the corner of Maple and West Cliff streets used as the home of De Niro’s character. It was demolished in 1994.
De Niro and Harris filmed a veterans support group scene at the former East Main Street Polish Legion of American Veterans Hall featuring several actual Meriden Vietnam veterans – Richard Tomczuk, Paul Porter, Clinton Jones and Frank Santiago. Michael Aldi, city manager at the time, appears in the film as an extra in a restaurant scene and Meriden Police Detective Robert Pocobello, former City Councilor Anthony Tomassetti and high school coach Howard Hewitt can be seen in a two-minute basketball sequence. De Niro’s character shares a scene with love interest Baker at Castle Craig.
Film crews endured some unscripted drama on May 11, when a Linsley Avenue resident emerged from his home and pointed a loaded gun at a crew member. The man, apparently disgruntled at the large flood lights set up on the street, “came out of his home and hollered to a member of the movie crew,” before loading a shotgun and pointing it at the crew member, who dove to the ground. The man was arrested.
In June, crews transformed a Cromwell industrial park into a Vietnam war zone to film several flashback scenes. The scenes included “heavy explosives and helicopters” and enlisted local military personnel as extras, according to a June 19, 1988 Record-Journal article. The film was expected to wrap the following week, the article stated.
The film’s national premiere was in New York on March 3, 1989. Two weeks later, audiences in Meriden packed theaters to view the film. Although praised locally the movie, which had a budget of about $6 million, grossed just over $2 million at the box office.
Nearly three decades later, the movie’s mark remains on the Silver City and surrounding towns. Modern Men’s Shop got the star treatment, including screen time for owner Sal Dominello Sr. His son, Sal Dominello Jr., said film crews came in to shoot a scene where De Niro is outfitted for a tux.
“They had their tailor acting who was doing his thing and the director kept cutting and cutting and the director said, ‘Hey Sal, come over here and do what you do,’” Sal Dominello Jr. said. “So my father slid his way in there and has speaking parts and credits at the end.”
Sal Dominello Sr. would proudly display the white suit jacket worn in the film in the display window of his shop, now called Modern Formals, which has since relocated to Middletown. However, the story didn’t end there, his son said, as De Niro and his father remained friends.
“The coolest part was that they kept in touch years later. They were both Italian, spoke Italian in front of each other so they really hit it off,” Sal Dominello Jr. said. “At the time of the movie, De Niro had an aunt who lived in Plainville and my father met her and, for a couple years after, he would be invited to dinner.”
A photograph still hangs in the shop showing the men during the filming of the movie.
Customers “are taken back when they see the picture and they are like, “Is that De Niro?” and then they see the jacket,” Sal Dominello Jr. said. “It’s funny to think about it, like it happened so long ago, but it’s like it happened yesterday. It’s still so popular.”
Sal Dominello Sr. no longer works in the shop after suffering a stroke last year. He now resides in a nursing home in the area.
“I told the nurses, ‘Listen, you’re dealing with a movie star,’” his son joked.