"I don't have enough for a tip, I will split the lottery ticket. If I win, tomorrow we will split the winnings and if not I will come back and leave you the tip. What do you think?" says Nicolas Cage to Bridget Fonda in Love Lottery.
She, not knowing that she would err on her prognosis, replies: "I think I will never see you again."
What happened to cop Robert Cunningham and waitress Phyllis Penzo gave Hollywood all the condiments needed to create the perfect romantic comedy. Thus was born, several licenses in between, the film mentioned above.
There are hundreds of lottery stories, but that of these two New York neighbors managed to transcend for having reached Hollywood and for the attractive elements of the plot: a policeman, a waitress with economic problems, a lottery ticket, a friendship of years, a word of honor and six million dollars. Nothing was missing.
Bridget Fonda and Nicolas Cage star in Lottery of Love, a film based on the story of Phyllis and Robert.
We are in Yonkers, New York, transiting on the first of April 1984. Apparently it's an ordinary day. Cunningham, chief of the detective division of the neighborhood police department, has an ordinary day. Phyllis too.
Robert walks into Sal's Pizza – possibly the Katz equivalent of When Harry Met Sally – and orders something from his friend Penzo. He is a habitué of the place and has known the waitress for more than ten years.
New York's Lottery Commercial, Cop and Waitress
When he finishes eating his usual linguine with clams, the policeman makes a proposal to Phyllis: he asks her to exchange the usual tip for a lottery ticket.
Ten years later, when referring to the subject, Cunningham would explain that that day he jokingly suggested to his friend to bet a ticket: "Let's buy a lottery ticket together instead of a tip," is the phrase he told her.
The two end up picking three numbers and playing a New York Lotto dollar ticket. He says that, if they win, they will split the prize in half. Now let's wait.
The next day, Penzo wakes up to a call from Robert: he exclaims that they have just won six million dollars in the New York State Lottery. It's nine o'clock in the morning, and she is a little asleep. "Don't bother me now," he blurts out.
As it is April Fool's Day Phyllis does not believe him, but her friend's sincere words catch her attention and convince her. The waitress, awake, comes to her senses and immediately moves to tears, screams and tells her husband, who sleeps next to her.
They arrange that each will keep three million. They will split the lottery payout of $285,715 a year for 21 years.
In a note published by People two weeks after the new victory, Robert said: "I've been a simple person all my life. If I say I'll do something, I do it. I hope the money never changes me."
In that conversation she made it clear that having shared profits with a friend did not bring her marital problems with Gina (an idea with which she plays the film): "I told her that I had a partner and that we were separating halfway. That was it. That's how our family operates."
At the time, People magazine reported that he wanted to change his house and buy one for his children and that both Robert and Phyllis wanted to return to work the next day.
Ten years later
One could assure that the lives of these two people changed after they made three million for a playful bet. But at least ten years later, as Lottery of Love was released in U.S. theaters, their routines were not much different from those of April 1, 1984.
His simplicity was reflected in his post-triumph acts. Cunningham continued to work as an NYPD and retired in ninety-two. Two years after hanging the plaque he was still living peacefully in Dobbs Ferry, considered by him to be "the best place in the world".
This is the place where the arrangement would have been consummated today. Photo: Google Street View
At that time it was learned that with the money he earned he bought a large and old Italian-style house in which his father-in-law, he and his wife and two of his sisters-in-law lived. What he had told People had come true.
Penzo stayed in Yonkers with her husband and bought a house for her mother. Three years after winning the lottery he stopped working at the pizzeria where he spent 27 years of his life.
She bought a car for her husband, another for her daughter, took a trip to Las Vegas and several monthly trips to Atlantic City. "The main thing is that you live comfortably and can buy things whenever you want," he said in a '94 note.
Since they were victorious, Penzo and Cunningham maintained a very close relationship and continued to play the lottery because they were sure that there were people who had won it more than once.
Your story, a success
When It Could Happen to You, a film inspired by his story, was released, he was 65 and she was 58. For this film, Robert returned to the cinema: comedy brought him back to the big screens since the premiere of Rocky.
The Love Lottery prize is 4 million, not 6.
When asked by Entertainment Weekly about the plot of Love Lottery, the two denied the idea that something was going on between them (in the film, Cage and Fonda end up falling in love).
"Ours is really a lucky story, but the filmmakers turned it into a love story. Except for the part where we win, it's totally fiction," the waitress said.
On the subject, Cunningham clarified: "Phyl and I had been friends for about 15 years. Sal's Pizzeria, where I worked, was a hangout for Yonkers police."
The movie poster starring Cage and Fonda.
When asked about the artists who performed them, Phyllis said she wished she was like Bridget Fonda, adding, "Naturally, I was thrilled when we won. But no, I didn't marry Bob, and I would never ride one of those balloons (like Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda do in the movie to celebrate)!"
Color facts: in the film he is called Charlie Lang and she is called Yvonne Blasi. The restaurant in question is not in Yonkers, but in Queens, and the prize they win is four million, not six.
As the story was not based on the real lives of Penzo and Cunningham – the plot only develops the premise of the ticket – the protagonists did not have to authorize anything or collect royalties for the film.
The end credits include a disclaimer stating that although the film was inspired by true events, at the time of production both Phyllis and Robert were happily married to their respective spouses. Just in case, right?
This story was originally published in Clarín on 20/09/2021