It's a Monday night, and I'm sitting at a table in an Italian restaurant on King West.
On my left is Deidre Mallehe, host of a Rogers Cable talk show that airs only in Peel. On my right is Joanna Douglas, the actress who plays Erica's younger sister on the CBC series Being Erica, and across from us is Theo Fleury, the ex-NHL hockey star whose decades-long struggle with alcohol and drug abuse forced him from the league in 2003.
Further down the table is Jim Tatti, the mustachioed ex-sportscaster for Global TV, and Mike Cecere, a diminutive and affable businessman in a grey suit who speaks in a mumble barely audible above the clinking of my fork.
This B-list crew and I are the supporting cast for the night's episode of Being Frank, a CHCH talk show filmed in the basement of the restaurant we're sitting in, the Forget About It Supper Club.
The star of the show is Toronto beverage magnate Frank D'Angelo, a multitalented man who aside from being a talk show host is also the owner of Forget About It, as well as Cheetah energy drink and dozens of other food and beverage brands.
He's famously his own pitchman, and can be seen regularly on Canadian TV commercials spouting the virtues of various D'Angelo products. He prides himself on being a musician, and claims he's written close to 200 songs for his RnB outfit.
He just found out he'll be taking a camera crew to the Oscars at the end of the month, and will be performing interviews on the set of the new Spiderman movie.
D'Angelo is notable for other things, too. He was a key player in a corruption case that rocked the Ontario judicial system.
On April 21, 2009 he was acquitted on charges of raping a business associate's 21-year-old daughter in a Yorkdale hotel room, but three weeks later he was photographed celebrating at his restaurant in the company of an OPP sergeant and two crown prosecutors.
D'Angelo and the sergeant, Michael Rutigliano, were charged with conspiring to obstruct justice in order to avoid prosecution on the sex assault charge. The two prosecutors were removed from active duty and one of them was named by police as an unindicted co-conspirator. The charges against D'Angelo were stayed last fall, but Rutigliano's case remains before the courts.
Halfway through my complimentary chicken parmigiana and some fairly awkward small talk with my tablemates, we get word from a sharply dressed young male assistant that Frank has just arrived.
A few minutes later the man himself comes breezing up to the table in a blue pinstripe suit, French cuffs, and a bold yellow tie, his thinning hair parted boyishly down the middle. Within two minutes he's fired off three or four anecdotes about his recent trip to Washington, where he dined in the same restaurant as Joe Biden and mistook a congressman in a tuxedo for the maitre d'.
No one else gets a word in edgewise, even as he sucks compulsively on a cigarette-shaped nicotine inhaler.
Having seen his commercials I was prepared for his bombast, but I'm surprised at how funny he can be in person. Someone tells him that Ed the Sock, the puppet comedian who is a regular on the Being Frank show, is sick and won't be showing up tonight. "What, did he go out in the snow wearing a sandal?" Frank quips.
I follow Frank downstairs to his basement television studio, where he sets about warming up his house band. It's at this point in the night, before the cameras turn on, that Frank appears most comfortable. As he leads the 15-piece band through its paces, scatting over the music and waving his fake cigarette around like tiny baton, he seems aware that all eyes in the room are on him. He's having fun.
Wondering if Theo Fleury was aware of Frank's background when he agreed to appear on the talk show, I ask Ted Fleury, his brother and business partner, if he knows much about Frank D'Angelo. "No," he replies. "Just that everybody runs for him. That's obvious."
It's true. Since Frank arrived the place has been a buzzing hive of activity, with producers, personal assistants, and make-up artists orbiting around him in preparation for a talk show that is little more than regularly scheduled on-camera time to indulge a man who clearly craves an audience.
The thing about the Being Frank show is that it's a lot like talking to Frank D'Angelo. In fact, it's exactly like talking to Frank D'Angelo, only you're not allowed to say anything back.
Stripped bare, his dinner conversation doesn't make for great television. As the show starts to tape, I'm startled to realize that his opening monologue consists of exactly the same anecdotes he just told us at the dinner table, in the exact same order: seeing Joe Biden at the restaurant, mistaking the congressman for the maitre d', the Oscars, Spiderman...
As a talk show host, Frank admits he's not worthy of shining David Letterman's shoes. After all, this is the man who thought it was funny to market his Cheetah energy drink by getting Ben Johnson to say, "I'm a cheetah."
When caught out, D'Angelo resorts to tired one-liners that elicit groans from the audience, which barely outnumbers the show's crew.
Tatti and Cecere sit perched on the side of the set, seemingly there for the sole purpose of providing Frank with someone to insult, playing Hank Kingsley to his two-bit Larry Sanders. It's cringeworthy, but a part of you roots for him, at least a little bit.
And then midway through his second interview, Frank passes over to the dark side.
One of the crew steps on the set's curtain, bringing it crashing down. It's the kind of thing that's bound to happen when you cram a talk show set into a restaurant basement.
Taping stops while gaffers make repairs, and Frank unleashes a string of insults on the offending crewmember. Because Frank keeps a smile plastered to his face, at first it seems like good-natured ribbing. But nearly an hour later, he's still telling the crew that he's going to "Velcro your asses" and make them eat shit. He lashes out at the sound guy, the band, the people he can hear whispering backstage. He takes every lull in the on-air conversation as an opportunity to insult someone who works for him, all while trying very hard to pretend it's just a joke. He repeatedly issues thinly veiled threats to kill the guy who stepped on the curtain.
It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Frank is drawing from a deep well of anger and insecurity, and that there's plenty more where that came from. In a way it's like Frank is the eighth grade bully who never grew up, or that the only two weapons in his social arsenal are obsequious charm and vengeful insults.
But that's not how Frank sees it. He says he's just having fun. After the show's over he puts his arm around me and asks if I saw how well he held his composure after the crewmember stepped on the curtain. I choke on my reply.
My guess is that the sex assault trial and the media coverage it generated still bothers Frank. He's out of the woods for now, but prosecutors still have until September to reintroduce the stayed obstruction charges against him. He makes repeated claims, both on air and off, that he's been misrepresented and misunderstood.
"Are you an honest writer?" he asks me. "Or one of those guys that takes bits of this and bits of that and then distorts it? You broke bread in my house. Write the truth and I'll respect you. Write half-truths and you'll never come close to me again as long as you fucking live."
That's Frank in a nutshell; generous host, until things get out of his control.
The press has not been kind to him, but here's the secret about Frank: he's incredibly likeable. For all the horrible stuff that's been written about him, as you sit across the table from him and he urges you to eat his chicken piccata while treating you to his Al Pacino impression, it's easy to forget it all. He is a hard man to dislike, in the most literal sense of that term.
It would take more energy to oppose his overbearing personality than to just sit back and enjoy the ride. And that, I suspect, is what the people in his entourage are doing. It is, I confess, what I did.
After the show, I wander around the restaurant and try to suss out some information from his crew, who are fresh off an hour of being publicly berated by their boss. "It's like that every night," one employee tells me. "It's Frank's world. We just live in it."