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Green Book: History vs. Hollywood

Mahershala Ali
Born: February 16, 1974
Oakland, California, USA
Don Shirley
Born: January 29, 1927
Birthplace: Pensacola, Florida, USA
Death: April 6, 2013, Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA (heart disease)
Viggo Mortensen
Born: October 20, 1958
Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA
Tony Lip
Born: July 30, 1930
Birthplace: Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, USA
Death: January 4, 2013, Teaneck, New Jersey, USA
Linda Cardellini
Born: June 25, 1975
Redwood City, California, USA
Dolores Vallelonga
Born: June 25, 1932
Death: February 17, 1999, New Jersey, USA

Questioning the Story:

When did the real story behind Green Book take place?

Like in the film, the true story unfolded mainly in 1962. Tony Lip, an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx who was employed at New York City's Copacabana nightclub, accepted a job driving the renowned African-American musician Don Shirley through the Deep South.

Italian-American bouncer Tony Lip (left) began driving pianist Don Shirley in 1962. Actor Viggo Mortensen (right) portrays Lip in the Green Book movie.

Where was musician Don Shirley born?

Numerous articles state that Don Shirley was born in Kingston, Jamaica. This is not true and stems from the fact that his promoters falsely advertised him as having been born in Jamaica. The Green Book true story reveals that Don Shirley was actually born in Pensacola, Florida on January 29, 1927. His parents were Jamaican immigrants. His father, Edwin, was an Episcopal priest and his mother, Stella, worked as a teacher. She died when he was 9. A prodigy, Shirley began playing piano at the age of 2 and first started playing professionally at age 18 with the Boston Pops, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat. -The New York Times

Was Don Shirley really told that he should not pursue a career in classical music because he was black?

Yes. White theater producer Sol Hurok told a twenty-something Shirley that he should not pursue a career in classical music, reasoning that American audiences would not want to see a "colored" pianist on the concert stage. Instead, Hurok recommended that Shirley focus on a career in pop music and jazz.

Though he did perform as a soloist with symphonies in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and elsewhere, Shirley ended up taking Hurok's advice. He blended classical music with jazz and other types of pop music to create his own genre. As a result, most of his performances were at nightclubs instead of concert halls. He hated the nightclubs because he felt that the audiences didn't respect his music enough. He also felt that jazz pianists demeaned themselves in the way they carried themselves on stage. They "smoke while they're playing, and they'll put the glass of whisky on the piano, and then they'll get mad when they're not respected like Arthur Rubinstein", Shirley said in a 1982 New York Times interview. "You don't see Arthur Rubinstein smoking and putting a glass on the piano. ... The black experience through music, with a sense of dignity, that's all I have ever tried to do," Shirley told The New York Times.

He was by no means the only black artist to be denied the opportunity to become a concert pianist. Nina Simone, for example, had similar aspirations to become a classical concert pianist but was denied the opportunity. Despite the color barrier keeping Don Shirley from shining as a classical pianist on the concert stage, his pop-oriented music was a technical marvel. He weaved into Tin Pan Alley songs bits of classical études, bringing it all together for a one-of-a-kind trio of cello, bass and piano. Listen to his songs "I Can't Get Started", "Blue Moon", or "Lullaby of Birdland", which is featured in the movie, and witness his talent for yourself.

Due to the color of his skin, the real Don Shirley (left) was unable to fulfill his dream of becoming a classical concert pianist. Mahershala Ali (right) as Shirley in the movie.

Had Tony Lip really been racist before going on his trip with Don Shirley?

Yes. A fact-check of Green Book reveals that, in this case, the movie is honest in its portrayal of Lip. According to Lip's son, Nick Vallelonga, Lip had indeed been racist before his trip with musician Don Shirley, attributing it to growing up on the Italian-American streets of the Bronx. In the movie, Lip (Viggo Mortensen) uses racial slurs. He throws away two drinking glasses that black repairmen drank out of while working at his home. We hear him make stereotypical assumptions about Shirley, believing he knows what kind of food Shirley must like and what kind of music he listens to, simply because he's black. "All that went away after he became friends with Dr. Shirley, and after this crazy trip they took together and what happened to them," says Vallelonga.

Lip witnessed the ways in which Shirley was discriminated and humiliated. This included not being able to eat in the restaurants where he performed or use their restrooms. He also witnessed physical acts of violence against Shirley. Lip's son says that the trip significantly changed his father, and it changed the way he raised his children, instilling the belief in them that everyone is equal. -TIME

Did Don Shirley really live in an apartment above Carnegie Hall?

Yes. As depicted in the Green Book movie, Don Shirley lived in one of the elegant artists' units above Carnegie Hall for more than 50 years. At times, he probably felt like he was trapped in a castle's tower, wishing he could be in the concert hall below performing in the many symphonies held there. He did get to play on Carnegie Hall's stage. Shirley performed in concerts there with his trio once a year. In 1955, he played piano on the Carnegie stage for the debut of Duke Ellington's "New World a-Comin'". -The New York Times

Don Shirley is pictured in his later years in his apartment above Carnegie Hall in New York City. Photo: Courtesy of Josef Astor

Why did people call him Tony Lip if his real name was Frank Vallelonga?

He was born Frank Anthony Vallelonga. Tony comes from his middle name, and as stated in the movie, "Lip" refers to the fact that by the age of eight he had earned a reputation for being able to talk his way into or out of anything. It was a skill that he utilized his entire life.

What is the meaning behind the film's title, "Green Book"?

The title of the movie comes from The Negro Motorist Green Book, more commonly referred to as "The Green Book", which was a segregation-era guidebook for African-American motorists that alerted them to which restaurants, garages and hotels offered service to blacks. Travelers would also encounter "sundown towns," which prohibited blacks from being outside after nightfall. Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) and Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) encounter one such town in the movie.

The green-covered guidebooks were published by a man named Victor H. Green and were available at gas stations, selling as many as 15,000 copies per year. The first Green Book was published in 1936 and continued to be published annually for the next 30 years. On the cover of some was the reminder, "Carry your Green Book with you, you may need it." The movie portrays Tony Lip and Don Shirley using a Green Book as they travel through the South, which is true to real life. -Refinery29

The Negro Motorist Green Book was published yearly from 1936 to 1966.

Why was Don Shirley referred to as "Dr. Shirley"?

According to The New York Times, Don Shirley was known to friends and audiences as "Dr. Shirley." He was indeed intelligent, but he had never been to graduate school. It is believed that his title may have been a reference to his two honorary degrees.

Did pianist Don Shirley play at whites-only theaters?

Yes. Don Shirley's southern tour depicted in Green Book had been booked by Columbia Artists, his management company. He indeed found himself playing at whites-only theaters and parlor rooms. Safety was a concern, as only six years prior in 1956 Nat King Cole had been assaulted on stage while performing for an all-white audience in Birmingham, Alabama (The Guardian). This is recounted in the film. It was certain that Shirley would face discrimination and possible violence. For this reason, Tony Lip, who had been working as a bouncer in New York City, also provided security as well, when necessary.

Had the real Tony Lip been in the Army?

Yes, this was confirmed while researching the Green Book true story. Before his days working at the Copacabana nightclub and his job driving pianist Don Shirley, Tony Lip had served in the United States Army. He had been stationed in postwar Germany in the early 1950s. He is pictured below in uniform.

Tony Lip in the Army in the early 1950s.

For how long did Tony Lip travel with musician Don Shirley?

Lip, a former minor-league baseball player who served in the U.S. Army in postwar Germany, actually traveled with pianist Don Shirley for a year and a half. The movie condenses this into two months. Screenwriter Nick Vallelonga says that shortening the trip so much for the film is the only major creative license that the filmmakers took. In doing so, certain events in the film don't happen in the same cities or dates that they did in real life. -TIME

Did Tony Lip eat 26 hot dogs in one sitting?

Yes. According to his son Nick Vallelonga, Viggo Mortensen's character eating 26 hot dogs in one sitting indeed happened in real life. -TIME

Were Don Shirley and Tony Lip really friends?

Yes. Relatives of Don Shirley have come out against the film, calling it a "symphony of lies," with one of their main claims being that Don Shirley and Tony Lip were never friends. However, that accusation has since been disproved after audio clips of Don Shirley were posted in a Deadline article that featured him stating that he was friends with Tony Lip. To learn exactly what he said, watch our video titled Don Shirley Audio Clips Disprove Green Book Controversy. In other clips, Shirley verifies that other parts of the film indeed happened in real life.

Did Tony Lip and Don Shirley really end up in jail due to Lip punching a police officer?

Yes. Lip became enraged at the officer for calling him a derogatory name for Italians. Lip did punch the officer and they ended up in jail, but it happened a year later, in the fall of 1963. The incident took place during a separate road trip that occurred after the Christmas break that the movie ends with. Shirley did get in touch with then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who helped get them out of jail. In real life, Shirley was indeed friends with Robert Kennedy, and he made the call just days before Kennedy's brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. It's not shown in the movie, but Shirley took time out from his tour to attend JFK's funeral. -Don Shirley 'Lost Bohemia' Interview

In real life, Tony Lip punched a cop after the officer referred to him by a derogatory name for Italians.

Did Tony Lip make sure that Don Shirley always played on a Steinway piano?

Yes. According to Lip, this is true. The scene in the movie where Lip discovers a broke-down piano at one of the venues was inspired by a real-life incident. "When I opened it up, I saw chicken bones in the piano," recalled Lip. "I said, 'I tell you what, if we ain't got a Steinway here by 8 o'clock, we're not doin' the concert.' I felt like I was being insulted myself, personally." The closest Steinway was 40-50 miles away, but Lip's insistence paid off and the piano arrived in time. In real-life, Lip didn't say that this was done on purpose as a racial slight to Shirley, nor did he mention anyone at the venue making racist remarks. He recalled the venue being in a high school, which likely didn't have a better piano on site.

Did Don Shirley really refuse to eat with his hands?

Yes. Like in the Green Book movie, Tony Lip's larger-than-life personality contrasted the much more reserved virtuoso Don Shirley, who spoke with an upper-class enunciation and refused to pick up food with his hands. In the film, we see Lip persuade Shirley to try fried chicken. Shirley daintily touches the piece of chicken, not sure of the proper way to hold it.

Did Tony Lip really write letters home to his wife Dolores?

Yes. In fact, to get the story correct while writing the screenplay, Tony Lip's son, Nick Vallelonga, used the letters that his father had written to his mother. It's true that at times the letters were co-authored by Don Shirley.

In the 1980s, Vallelonga had started preparing to tell the story of his father's friendship with Shirley. It was then that he began recording interviews with his father about his experiences on the road with Shirley.

Top: The real Dolores Vallelonga and Tony Lip on their wedding day. Bottom: Linda Cardellini and Viggo Mortensen in the Green Book movie.

Did pianist Don Shirley really become close to Tony Lip and his family?

Yes. Lip's son, Nick Vallelonga, who was a co-writer of the Green Book script, said of Shirley, "He was a meticulous, well-dressed, well-spoken, well-educated man. And he was so nice to myself and my brother. And he was very, very interested in my father's family, that my father was a family man. He gave us gifts. I remember he gave me ice skates when I was small. Just really a special human being, a very special person. Having Mahershala [Ali] play him is like beyond belief."

At the Toronto Film Festival, Vallelonga told an audience that his father continued to travel with Shirley following the events depicted in the movie. "They went on for another year together and went to Canada too."

Was Don Shirley ever married?

Yes. Don Shirley was married at one point but split from his wife in a divorce. "Jean and I got divorced," said Shirley during an interview for the documentary Lost Bohemia. "It had nothing to do with love. It had nothing to do with lust. It had to do with the fact that here I had the opportunity to have a career. And God knows that's just something I'd always wanted—trained for it all my life. ... I didn't have the constitution to do a husband act as well as a concert pianist act, 'cause I was dead set on being what I had been trained all my life to be." Though he never came out, it is believed that Don Shirley was gay.

Was Don Shirley really caught having sex with another man at the YMCA?

Like in the movie, a state trooper called Tony Lip and he came down to the YMCA. However, the real Tony Lip didn't mention that he found Don Shirley handcuffed naked to the shower with another man beside him. Instead, he said that when he arrived, Shirley told him that he had hit on three guys, but he didn't offer any more details. The two state troopers did want to arrest Shirley, but according to Lip, he bribed them. "I said, 'Before we go through anything, maybe we can straighten it out,'" Lip told the troopers. "'I want ya to get yourselves a couple a suits.' I got $200 and I gave them that." He said that they were hesitant but accepted the offer and let Shirley go. It's true that Shirley was upset that Lip had bribed the two state troopers. -Tony Lip Audio Interview

"[Don Shirley] never came out that he was gay. It was never spoken of," says Nick Vallelonga, Tony Lip's son. Vallelonga says that the YMCA story depicted in the movie is the only one about Shirley's sexuality that he ever heard. -TIME

Did Don Shirley really isolate himself from others like in the movie?

Yes. The film implies that Shirley's genius was a heavy burden that caused him to shut others out, which is why his friendship with Tony Lip was so special. This is all in line with the Green Book true story. Like in the film, he dealt with his loneliness and possible depression by drinking heavily, downing almost an entire bottle of scotch each day of the tour. -TIME

The film's implication that he was also estranged from his family has been challenged by some of Shirley's relatives. His younger brother Maurice says that in 1962 when the movie takes place, Shirley "had three living brothers with whom he was always in contact." A nephew, Edwin, recalled spending several days on tour with Shirley in 1964 (Shadow and Act). It's certainly possible that the movie embellished Shirley's estrangement from his family to some degree. However, actor Viggo Mortensen called the family's accusations "unjustified, uncorroborated and basically unfair," stating that "there is evidence that there was not the connection that [the family members] claimed there was with him, and perhaps there’s some resentment" (IndieWire).

Some of the relatives' other claims, including that Don Shirley and Tony Lip were never friends, have been disproved by audio tapes of Shirley himself stating otherwise. In addition, other accusations made by family members have been countered by people who knew Dr. Shirley well. -IndieWire

The real Don Shirley (left) largely isolated himself from the world, similar to Mahershala Ali's character in the movie.

Before he died, was Don Shirley aware that a movie was going to be made about his friendship with Tony Lip?

Yes. In the 1980s, Tony Lip's son, Nick Vallelonga, told Don Shirley and his father that he wanted to make a movie about their experiences together. Shirley told him to do it but to wait until after he was no longer around. "You should put in everything your father told you, and everything I told you," Nick recalls Shirley telling him. "You tell exactly the truth, but you're going to wait until I pass." Nick believes that Shirley wanted him to wait because Shirley worried that telling the true story would out his sexuality. Shirley passed away due to complications from heart disease in April 2013 at age 86, less than five months after Lip died. Vallelonga co-wrote the script with Brian Hayes Currie and director Peter Farrelly. -TIME

Wasn't the real Tony Lip in The Sopranos?

Yes. The events in the Green Book movie happened about a decade before Tony Lip started working as an actor. He made his film debut with a small part in the 1972 movie The Godfather, after meeting director Francis Ford Coppola while working at the Copacabana Nightclub in New York City. He had parts in approximately 21 other films over the years, including Dog Day Afternoon, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco. He is perhaps most recognizable from his role as Carmine Lupertazzi in the HBO TV series The Sopranos.

Tony Lip (center) in the 2000s as crime boss Carmine Lupertazzi in the HBO TV series The Sopranos.

Don Shirley Interviews & Performances

Watch video of Dr. Don Shirley performing and listen to a discussion about the audio tapes of Shirley that disprove much of the controversy surrounding the movie. Also, check out our very first ever YouTube episode, which analyzes the facts and the fiction in Green Book.