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For the Totos, a Hollywood Ending : Film: Frances spent four years in prison for trying to kill her straying husband Tony. Funny stuff? ‘I Love You to Death’ director Lawrence Kasdan thinks so--and the happy couple agree.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1983, Frances Toto, a mother of four living in Allentown, Pa., and married to Tony Toto, a local pizza shop owner, decided to have her husband bumped off. It was an impulsive decision, Frances said later, but not a capricious one. Tony was cheating on her pretty much around the clock, and girls were starting to call the house. “A body can only take so much,” Frances explained.

After failing in attempts to blow Tony up in his car and ambush him with a baseball bat (the bomb didn’t go off and he chased the bat-wielding assailant away), she hired two amateur hit men, who for $500 put a bullet in Tony’s chest after Frances first subdued him by spiking his chicken soup with sleeping pills.

But Tony didn’t die. He lay in bed unattended for four days with two bullets in him (another of his wife’s friends tried to help by shooting him in the head), and he still didn’t die.

“He was so full of life, you couldn’t kill him,” said Lawrence Kasdan, the film director, who has made an improbable new comedy, “I Love You to Death,” based on Tony’s and Frances’ romantic troubles, now patched up since Tony recovered from his wounds and Frances was released from prison. The two are living together happily once again.

“This is a story about extreme behavior,” Kasdan said. “The potential is there, I think, for all of us to act in extreme ways. I wake up some mornings with the most extreme thoughts, either good or bad.”

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Comedies about adultery are almost as old as drama, and murder plots based on adultery have a long tradition in Hollywood running right up through Kasdan’s own 1981 film “Body Heat” and on to “Fatal Attraction.” But finding humor in an offended spouse’s actual murder attempt is relatively unexplored territory--and for good reason, some would say, in a society where rising statistics of domestic violence are no laughing matter.

The opening credit that “I Love You to Death” is “based on a true story” becomes a startling piece of information as the film unspools its farcical scenario of the simple, devoted Rosalie, played with unfamiliar anguish by comedienne Tracey Ullman, trying ineptly to arrange the murder of her philandering Joey, the movie version of Tony played by a broadly Italianate Kevin Kline.

“When they offered it to me,” Kasdan said of the screenplay by John Kostmayer--the first script he has directed that he has not also written--"they told me this is a feminist movie: He ends up with a bullet in his head and it makes him think. And what he thinks is that he loves his wife. To me what the story is about is that their love was so strong, you couldn’t kill that. Even having tried to murder him, he still loved her. So there’s a symmetry there to me. He’s too full of life to die and so is their relationship.”

Producer Jeffrey Lurie, who arranged for the film to be made at Tri-Star Pictures, describes the story affectionately as that of “a troubled but heroic couple that was trying, each from a different perspective, to save their marriage.”

The Totos, who made their first trip to Los Angeles this week to help launch the movie, say they are thrilled with it. “Most of the scenes are very real,” attested Tony, a fit, sprightly man of 44 who seemed to be catching on quickly to the Hollywood promotional spirit in his Italian-inflected English. “The movie is great. It’s fantastic. We love it. And it’s a message for everybody: Crime doesn’t pay, cheating doesn’t pay.”

Which is not entirely true if you consider the money the Totos stand to make from their participation in the movie, said to be close to six figures up front, with a percentage deal tied to future profits.

Frances, who is 45 and somewhat less ebullient than her husband, said their children gave the film high marks as well. “They were laughing at Kevin Kline because he’s got his (Tony’s) mannerisms down fantastic,” she said, seated beside Tony in the library at the St. James’s Club on Sunset Boulevard. “And his accent and all.”

Tony admitted that the movie is somewhat funnier than the real events that brought him close to death and sent Frances to prison for four years after pleading guilty to criminal solicitation to commit murder. He remembers, for example, waking up in the hospital and feeling scared and worried. “I couldn’t understand why my wife did this? Was it because I cheated on her or something else? At the same time I was praying to God, ‘Please let me live.’ ”

Doctors in Allentown later speculated that the chicken soup laced with barbiturates may have actually saved Tony’s life by lowering his metabolism and slowing the bleeding from the gunshot wounds, a detail preserved in the film.

The bizarre case of the Totos found its way to Hollywood via a story outline prepared by two Allentown police officers familiar with the case, Barry Giacobbe and Arthur Beers. Eventually, Ron Moler, the producer of the comedy “Bachelor Party,” saw the outline and optioned the rights from the policemen and the Totos and brought in screenwriter John Kostmayer to put a comic spin on the story.

“The comic possibilities were pretty obvious,” said Moler, who convinced the initially skeptical Totos to sign over the rights to him. “Tony was thinking about a book, and I said, ‘This is a black comedy.’ ”

“The idea of pumping bullets into somebody is not generally funny, and in fact that’s not what made us laugh,” said Kostmayer, who also wrote the popular 1983 Los Angeles play “On the Money.” “The humor comes from the contradiction between what they (Frances and her co-conspirators) wanted to accomplish and what they did accomplish. It’s only funny because the consequences were relatively happy for the people involved.”

Kostmayer acknowledges that some viewers could find the material difficult. “I think some people are going to react badly to the irreverence and the Rabelaisian humor and the fact that the comedy is offered with the realism intact.”

The term “black comedy” is sometimes used to describe the comic interpretation of otherwise dark or menacing situations, but the difference between “I Love You to Death” and recent black comedies like “The War of the Roses” and “Shock to the System” is its basis in truth, its proximity to near calamity.

Kasdan said he didn’t know this when he first read the script. “I read it and loved it,” he said. “I thought it was sweet and touching.” He also said, “This is a story that once would have been on ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not.’ ”

Kasdan has made four other movies in the last decade--"Body Heat,” “The Big Chill,” “Silverado” and “The Accidental Tourist"--and considers them all to have been risky. “Finding the right tone is the challenge of a thing like this. Although it’s a challenge finding the right tone with any movie. To what extent can you push the envelope in either direction and still have the piece be unified, whether you’re doing a Western or a comedy or a drama. I think that’s true in a lot of what I’ve done. I thought ‘Accidental Tourist’ was very funny but very sad too.

“Most of the comedies that come out of Hollywood aren’t funny. We spent two weeks in rehearsal to talk about what kind of movie we were making, what kind of joke is acceptable. There are things that are different from the real story, but the most outrageous stuff in the movie all happened.”

The drug-dazed hit men, played by William Hurt and Keanu Reeves, apparently were just as feeble-minded as they look on the screen. In a miscalculation that spared Tony’s life, the real would-be killers recited the Pledge of Allegiance to each other at his bedside in an effort to remember on which side of the chest the heart is located. (The gunmen still got it wrong and shot him in the right side, missing his heart by an inch.)

“In a way, everybody would like to be as free as Joey,” said Kasdan. “You may not applaud his promiscuity, but what is appealing about him is that he has this enormous appetite for life and sort of goes at it without much conscience, you know? He enjoys every minute of his day.

“He’s not an admirable character necessarily, but he’s human. In less extreme forms we all do this every day. I think this is what all the movies I’ve made have been about, which is this battle going on between your desires and your ideals. That’s what ‘Body Heat’ is about. The guy knows what’s right. But what he wants is very strong and it overcomes what he knows is right. That’s what ‘The Big Chill’ is about. That’s what life is about to me, trying to reconcile what you know to be the correct behavior with what you want to do.”

“I knew it was wrong,” Tony admitted at the St. James’s Club about his behavior. “Because of what it was doing to my family. But I just blank everything out and just go on and kept doing what I was doing.”

Frances, to judge from the movie, never thought to confront Tony about his infidelity before leaping to her radical solution. Did she ever discuss it with him?

“Well, I would try to,” she said before being interrupted by her husband.

“She tried to a little bit,” he interjected, “but I just said, ‘Eh, don’t bother,’ and I make up some excuse and she just gave up.”

In the film, she learns of his infidelity when she spots him with another woman, but in truth she never actually saw him with any of his girlfriends.

“Thank God!” she said.

“No, I never got caught,” Tony said, with what sounded like pride.

“I had so many people call me and tell,” Frances continued, “I think if more people had minded their own business, we might have been better off.”

But Tony immediately saw the flaw in this. “Well, maybe not. Because I would have kept going and kept going and. . . .”

No telling what Frances might have done eventually.


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