'Tonight Show' writer to speak on new documentary

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MANCHESTER — Joe Medeiros, former head writer for "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," has spent the last 30 years searching for the truth about the little-known theft of Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa more than a century ago.

On Thursday, Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. Medeiros and his wife Justine Mestichelli Medeiros will screen their documentary "Mona Lisa is Missing," at the Manchester Community Library (MCL) with a discussion to follow.

"It's the story of a man looking for something better than what he had," said Medeiros, who now resides in California. "I think the audience will walk away with some knowledge of this incredible story, and having met a cast of characters that speaks across time and all sorts of cultural and ethnic backgrounds."

That compelling story first came to the couple years ago, though in a different format.

"Justine had given me a book for Christmas back when we were first married about the artist Leonardo Da Vinci," said Medeiros, who was 25 at the time. "One day I was just paging through the book, and I saw a sentence or two about how the Mona Lisa was stolen by an Italian in the early 20th century and brought back to Italy."

Medeiros, a recent graduate of film school at the time, was intrigued by this little known fragment of history and sought to produce a fictional film on the theft. In doing so, however, Medeiros realized how little he knew about the characters in his story.

"I was finding that I had to make stuff up about him and his life and motives, which seemed false to me," said Medeiros.

"We would have very heated debates over this character," added Mestichelli Medeiros, who produced the film. "This was a historical event of great proportions that no one really knows about, so to fictionalize it just didn't seem right."

With limited resources and information, the Medeiros' were forced to set the project aside.

"I never gave up the notion that this would be a great story though," said Medeiros.

Following his frustration over the nascent Mona Lisa film, Medeiros felt the need for a change. The young copywriter pursued a course in joke writing, and found a hidden talent for humor.

"I started writing for comedians at that point, and eventually Jay Leno came out to Philly where we were living. Justine made sure to get my jokes into his hands," said Medeiros. "He read them and called me up around midnight to tell me that he liked them."

"Joe went on to be head writer of the show, and it opened up some new opportunities that we would never have had without this crazy twist of fate," said Mestichelli Medeiros. "A telephone call from Jay Leno at midnight, and four years later we're living in Los Angeles."

While it was the Mona Lisa project that led Medeiros on this winding path to "The Tonight Show," serendipity was not done with the writer just yet. After a fulfilling career, Medeiros set his sights on retirement and began to re-engage with Da Vinci's iconic work.

"Fast forward 35 years, and I found out that the man who stole the Mona Lisa had a daughter alive in Italy around 2008," said Medeiros. "At that point we decided to forgo a fictional film and make a documentary."

"The fact that we were able to connect with his flesh and blood daughter and grandchildren was amazing," said Medeiros. "We really became close with this family, and they gave us such incredible access to their lives."

What followed was the incredible tale of the daring Italian immigrant who stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911, his daughter, who maintains her father's patriotism, and Medeiros' own journey with the subject.

"The man who stole the painting wasn't a criminal," said Medeiros. "He was a thief, but his reasons — which I won't give away here — are something that everybody can identify with."

Prior to the screening the couple will be introduced by friend Bob Alper, a local rabbi and stand-up comedian that Medeiros worked with when he first began writing jokes. The introduction is fitting, says Medeiros, as it was his career in comedy that set the documentary in motion.

"All of this really came out of the fact that I wanted to tell this story about the Mona Lisa," said Medeiros. "The jokes actually led me on the path to where I wanted to be unexpectedly."

The Manchester Community Library will present a film screening of "Mona Lisa Is Missing" on Thursday, October 26 at 7 p.m. The program is free and open to all, though donations to the Library will be accepted to offset programming costs. For more information, contact the MCL at 802-362-2607.

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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