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Sam Coppola, actor in films, TV, theater, dies at 79

By Jay Levin, The Record (Hackensack N.J.) –

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Character actor Sam Coppola of Leonia, N.J., who gave John Travolta sage but salty advice in the 1977 film classic “Saturday Night Fever,” died Sunday. He was 79.

The cause was aneurysm complications, said his son, Jason.

The Jersey City-born alumnus of Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio never starved for roles.

He was a cop in “Serpico” (1973), starring Al Pacino, and a detective in “Fatal Attraction” (1987), starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close. His many TV credits include “The Good Wife,” “Law & Order,” “The Sopranos,” “Ryan’s Hope” and the 2001 A&E movie “The Heist,” in which he portrayed mob boss Paul Castellano.

Coppola, no relation to film director Francis Ford Coppola, was a nursing home resident in a Chevy commercial that aired during last year’s Super Bowl and a hot dog vendor in a Ball Park Franks spot starring Michael Jordan.

But to many, he is forever Dan Fusco, owner of the Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, hardware and paint store where Tony Manero (Travolta) worked by day and dreamed of Saturday night, when he ruled the dance floor at the Odyssey disco.

Wearing a khaki-colored smock and thick black glasses, Coppola’s character spoke a memorable line in “Saturday Night Fever,” one of the most culturally significant movies of the ‘70s.

Tony, frustrated that his boss thinks he should save his money and not splurge on a new disco shirt, cries that he doesn’t care about the future. Coppola’s Fusco shoots back with his own expletive-laced nugget of wisdom: The future “catches up with you … if you ain’t prepared for it.”

Jason Coppola was 5 years old when “Saturday Night Fever” came out.

“I remember when dad took us to the movie theater and told the guy in the box office, ‘I’m in the movie and I just wanted my wife and kids to watch a little bit of it.’”

Coppola “filled the room, not just with his acting, but with his personality and warmth,” his son said.

“I just went to his bank to tell them what happened, and everyone from the manager to the tellers was in tears. He touched a lot of people, in a unique way.”

Coppola, a 38-year resident of Leonia, also had many stage roles. He played the hobo Vladimir in a 2005 off Broadway production of “Waiting for Godot” and an aging real estate salesman, Aaronow, in a 2000 production of “Glengarry Glen Ross” at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton.

Coppola was predeceased by his wife, Helen. He is survived by his children, Jason Coppola of Brooklyn and Samantha Coppola of Bogota, N.J., and three grandchildren.

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