Theodore Melfi leaped onto Hollywood’s A-list with the triumph of , the story of three African-American women who each played a key role in NASA’s space program (a film he chose to helm over Spider-Man: Homecoming), which has topped $119 million at the domestic box office.
This success is the least surprising thing about the 46-year-old writer-director who, as he celebrates his film’s nomination for best picture (and his own for adapted screenplay), reveals to THR his stranger-than-fiction backstory: He grew up with a mobster father and a mother who was a former nun who became his father’s fifth wife. After his dad, Joseph, turned his back on the Mafia, the family lost their 26-room home in Schenectady, N.Y., and moved to a tiny apartment in Brooklyn, where Melfi senior lurched from affection to violence, from the principled to the peculiar. This was normal life as far as his three sons were concerned, just as it was normal for their dad to mix the fearsome with the philosophical.
When young Ted pocketed a candy bar in a local store, he recalls, “We were stopped at the cash register, and the Chunky bar was sticking out of my pocket. The manager said, ‘Your son shoplifted that.’ My dad looked at it and looked at me, and he goes, ‘I know.’ Then he told me, ‘Open the Chunky bar.’ And I was crying, and I opened the Chunky bar, and he goes, ‘Eat it!’ And everyone was gathered around, so now it’s a scene. He’s screaming. And I eat the Chunky bar, crying, with chocolate streaming down my face. And he says, ‘If you’re going to do something, you better be good at it, ’cause life don’t treat failures kindly.’ ”
After graduating from Missouri State University, Ted moved to Los Angeles, where he worked at the small eatery Pasta Place and as a strip club security guard — the worst job he ever had, he says, given that he never even got to meet the dancers. He fell into film by accident when an acquaintance asked if he knew how to produce. “Sure,” he replied, raising $600,000 for 1998’s Park Day, then helming the low-budget Winding Roads (1999).
“I directed my first feature by reading the book Film Directing Shot by Shot,” he says. “I figured out, there’s only six shots in the whole world. And if there’s only six shots, it’ll be really hard for me to f— it up.”
Work on commercials followed — including the viral sensation “Pizza Guy,” an MTV promo featuring porn star Ron Jeremy — which led to his 2014 film St. Vincent and paved the way for Hidden Figures.
“He’s very soulful — like an old soul who has been here before and sees things and knows things,” says Hidden Figures’ Taraji P. Henson. “He’s so nurturing. The way he cared for these women and for us playing the women, I felt safe, I felt protected.”
Adds co-star Octavia Spencer, who earned a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her role, “It says something about you, when you’re offered a giant paycheck in the form of Spider-Man, and you choose to go with a movie that people say is a loser — three female leads, all African-American, about math.”
Married for 20 years to actress Kimberly Quinn, with whom he has two daughters (Addison, 11, and Taylor, 20), Melfi lives in a modest, 1,254-square-foot house in Van Nuys, Calif., which costs him $1,054 per month — and which he doesn’t ever plan to leave, uncertain what the future holds. “You can do the psychology on that,” he quips.
He recognizes his family has left him with an unusual mix of sensitivity and insecurity, but they also inspired his hatred of injustice, the theme of Hidden Figures. Over a Feb. 1 lunch at West Hollywood’s Terroni restaurant, he told THR their extraordinary story.
I grew up quiet, an introvert, a writer. I wrote a short story called Peter Black about my dog who got hit by a car and died, and it won some young writers’ award in New York City when I was 8, and I got to read it on the radio. I wish I still had it.
My mother was an angel, kind and loving and gentle, but also shy and insecure. She was a beautiful brunette. But she was barely holding it together emotionally. She was very fragile. My aunts said she was the weakest one; they thought they had to take care of her.
She grew up in a very Catholic and affluent household in Tarrytown, N.Y. Her father was a well-respected doctor, and her mother was his nurse. There were four girls and two boys — and all the girls went into the convent. Joanie passed away of cancer, tragically. Agnes became a nun, but didn’t take her final vows. Patty became a nun. And Ann, my mom, became a nun around the age of 20.
Then my mom’s mother dies of a heart attack at a very young age. My mom’s father can’t handle it and starts abusing alcohol and dies six months later. My mom kind of loses her mind and flees the convent, just leaves without permission, and has a little mental breakdown and ends up in a mental institution. She spends several months in a facility. They said she had a nervous breakdown.
Anyway, she gets back into the nunship in New York and meets my father.
My dad, Joe Melfi, was born in Italy. There were six boys and seven girls [who came to America] on a boat from Italy, and five of the boys died of tuberculosis. My dad was the only one who survived. He was the life of the party, 5-foot-11, very muscular, tattoos. Everyone loved him. But he was in the mob for 40 years. He did numbers-running and collections and Mickey Mouse stuff.
My mom, for some reason, decides she’s going to get a job, even though she’s a nun. She sees an ad for a secretary at a company called Stay Put Concrete. Stay Put Concrete! It’s my father’s company. That night they have dinner, they get a hotel room and my mom loses her virginity and then they marry. She fell for him. He was super-charismatic. So my dad was in the mob, and my mom was a nun.
I remember when I realized he was involved with things that weren’t copacetic. I was 7 or 8, and we walked into a grocery store. He had two carts and he filled them up with groceries, and then walked right out. And the manager looked at him, and he looked at the manager, and the manager looked away.
I grew up where everything in our house was free. Clothes, food. My dad would get a side of beef and then butcher it himself — and he got the beef for free, like our car. Everything just kind of came.
He had a [mob] friend named Tuttie who had a restaurant, and below the restaurant he had a boxing ring — and in the center of the boxing ring he had a barber chair, because he had a haircutting fetish. No one would let Tuttie cut his hair, because he was the worst barber in the world. So my dad would go there whenever he needed money, and Tuttie would cut his hair and pay my dad $500, because Tuttie loved to cut hair. They would spend two hours talking, hanging out, while I stood there.
He was violent, always. He’d slap you in the face if you just said the wrong word. And then in the same breath, he’d hug you and cry — cry! — and tell you he loved you. He was all over the place. I loved him, but you could never predict what he was going to be, who you were going to get that day. When he walked behind me, the hairs on my neck stood up. To this day, if I ever have that feeling, I don’t feel safe. I spent 10 years in therapy.
[For a long time] we all thought he did construction. But [eventually] my mom tells him, “You can’t do this. God’s watching.” And he goes, “Well, I don’t know what else to do.” She goes, “You can do anything.” So he went to his people and said, “I want to start a newspaper.”
He becomes a starving journalist. We lost our house and had no money and grew up dirt poor. My two brothers and I shared a little tiny bedroom in an apartment in Brooklyn.
My dad starts an anti-government newspaper, basically funded by the mob — they bought ads in the paper. It’s called the M.A.F.I.A. Bulletin Board. And he gets a lot of heat [from gangsters] for putting the Mafia name there. A couple of years later, he takes the word “Mafia” off the cover to make it Middle America’s News. He was the head of sales, the chief editor and the president of this little paper. And all he did was attack the government and seek justice for others.
All the mobsters bought personals. These were all mob businesses: Club Skyway, a social club in Brooklyn; a concrete block company, Dragone Brothers. This was the beginning of my writing career. I had my own column. I got a quarter a month for writing in the paper. I wrote about sports, everything.
My dad was crazy, but people loved him. He wanted to be a politician and ran for governor, all funded by the mob. He would take us in the car, the whole family, and we had our “Joe Melfi for Governor” hats. And he’d ride around and find wherever [New York governor] Mario Cuomo was speaking. I remember Cuomo speaking in a park. My dad got out with his megaphone and started screaming, “You motherf—er, you won’t debate me!” and screaming and screaming, with all of us around. And then the police took him away.
My dad had simple politics. He would take the heads off parking meters and take the dimes, but he’d [use them to] help people, and his philosophy was: We shouldn’t have parking meters, because we already pay taxes to maintain the street, so we’re being double-taxed. He instilled in me a profound interest in hypocrisy and justice — and that’s what Hidden Figures is about. I grew up hating anything that [smacked of] injustice.
My dad did this newspaper for 13 years, and then he comes home one day and says, “We have to move. We’re moving in two weeks.” And none of us knew why. He pulls out an almanac and he points to Missouri — and in two weeks we’re in a U-Haul, and we move to Conway, Mo., [where there were] only 601 people in 1985. I still have no idea why.
We’re there for a few months, and my dad gets arrested for slapping around the mayor. He tells the mayor: “There’s an abandoned Ford dealership, and we’re going to make it new, put an Italian deli in there, and I’m going to run it and you’re going to pay for it.” The guy thought he was crazy. My dad slapped him a couple of times and got arrested. That was the beginning of the end. He was starting to lose his mind.
And then he and my mom started really, really fighting, and she filed for divorce and got a restraining order in 1987. Every time he’d come back to the house, he’d get arrested. It was very bad. This was a very — “unstable” is not even the word — a very violent world. My dad was not a good man by any means. He was violent and abusive. Physically, mentally, emotionally. That’s how I grew up. I grew up with just pure insanity.
The last time I saw him, I was 16. He’d come to the house and was being abusive to my brothers. I was now his size, and bigger and stronger, and I remember hitting him for the first time in my life. And then I swept his legs out, and he fell down in our front yard. And he looked at me and started crying, and I started crying. And he got in the car and drove off. He got in his car and drove away.
I don’t know what happened to him. He died in Hollywood, Fla., and was buried with no cause of death listed. He was 69 years old. I never saw him again.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.