By LARRY McSHANE
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK- A dozen years ago, Lillo Brancato Jr. was going to be a star.
The unknown actor earned critical acclaim opposite his idol, Robert De Niro, in the 1993 movie "A Bronx Tale." He played the Oscar winner's son in the story of a teen torn between two role models _ a local mobster and his dad _ in a heavily Italian Bronx neighborhood.
From there, Brancato went on to appear in more than a dozen films, including "Renaissance Man," "Crimson Tide," "Enemy of the State" and "The Adventures of Pluto Nash." He later had a recurring role on "The Sopranos," where his character was eventually executed by fictional mob boss Tony Soprano in one of the series' more memorable departures.
But on Saturday, the actor was far from the bright lights and red carpets of Hollywood. Instead, police said, he was breaking into a vacant house with another man when a gunfight erupted. An off-duty police officer who responded was killed, and Brancato, who police said was unarmed, was in critical condition after being shot twice.
Brancato was just 16 when De Niro launched a search for nonprofessionals to appear in his 1993 directorial debut, the film version of Chazz Palminteri's play "A Bronx Tale." Brancato was discovered by a casting director strolling along a New York beach; he came out of the water and wowed him with impressions of De Niro and Joe Pesci.
In a New York Times profile, Brancato was described as "friendly, earnest, sweet-tempered, a fast talker, a salesman, the kind of goofy tough guy who once upon a time used to hang out on a city street corner."
Brancato, now 29, was born in Bogota, Colombia, and adopted when he was 4 months old. He was raised in Yonkers and still lived in the city just north of the Bronx.
In 1999-2000, he appeared in a half-dozen episodes of "The Sopranos" as the dim-witted aspiring mobster Matt Bevilacqua. In one episode, his character worked a high-stakes card game where the players included Frank Sinatra Jr.
Brancato also starred in the short-lived TV mob show "Falcone" and guest-starred in a 2002 episode of "NYPD Blue."
His most recent appearance in the headlines came in June, when Brancato was arrested by Yonkers police who discovered four bags of heroin during a traffic stop.