It’s a Wonderful Life for a Director Whose Dream Comes True

Alley Mills of ‘The Wonder Years’ teams with Redwood City filmmaker

in A&E

Three years after leaving a full-time job as a pastor to pursue a film-making dream, Tony Gapastione can’t quite believe it’s actually happening. And wonder compounding wonders, one of the stars of a hit television show he grew up watching agreed to take a part in his super-low-budget feature film.

Without agent involvement.  Working for a very small day rate. She even dug into her own closet for “costumes” to keep the cost down.

Alley Mills, famous as Norma Arnold in the beloved show, “The Wonder Years,” is also playing the part of a mother in Gapastione’s first full-length feature film, which is about suicide and the impact on those left behind.

“I lost my husband last year, so it’s the first thing I’ve said ‘yes’ to, just because it’s kind of about that,” Mills says. “And I also loved that he’s a pastor. That kind of piqued my interest.”

Mills was in Redwood City in June filming scenes with Allison Ewing, her “daughter” in “Last Chance Charlene.” Both characters are grieving the loss of Mills’ “son” Dominick, who died by suicide nine months earlier.

Gapastione got his script before Mills thanks to a mutual friend, Jeremy Valdez, who appears with her on the long-running “The Bold and the Beautiful” soap opera. Gapastione was looking to cast the part of “Lorenna.” Readily acknowledging how big the favor was, he asked Valdez if he’d approach Mills. (Valdez plays “Raul” in the film.)

“The business is really all about those relationships,” Gapastione says. “If I had sent my script cold, who knows where that would have gone. … But because she knows Jeremy and loves Jeremy, she said she’d read it. She read it within two days and got back to me.”

A Call to Remember

Just as Gapastione was getting ready to go to bed one night, in fact, Mills texted him and asked, “Are you a night owl? You want to talk about the script?” The telephone conversation went past midnight.

“It was so cool,” Gapastione says. “We instantly connected. We’ve been chatting for two months straight, texting, calling. I mean she really did a lot of digging into this character, both she and Allison.”

Gapastione had been on the staff at Peninsula Covenant Church in Redwood City for 20 years when he took the proverbial leap of faith in 2018 to follow his dream.  The Redwood City resident, who had directed tons of short films and was well-known in the local creative community, founded a nonprofit called BraveMaker, which encourages and promotes filmmaking and other arts.  Some BraveMaker team members are working on the production.

Gapastione, 46, had long wanted to write and direct a movie about suicide because of the profound impact on him after a family member took her life. He wrote “The Thorns We Live With,” which has a bigger cast and was budgeted at over $3 million. Fund-raising was slow. To get a feature film under his belt, Gapastione finally decided to explore the same issues but with a smaller budget.


“Last Chance Charlene,” which he wrote in six weeks, has a $55,000 budget, though it would be about $15,000 higher were it not for donations of crew meals, lodging, the use of locations and so on. Filming has gone ahead, although about $20,000 still needs to be raised to complete it, and more fundraising is likely for post-production costs like sound design and composing.

Among the locations, Gapastione filmed at Cyclismo Café, in an office building at 500 Arguello St. and at three Redwood City homes (including his own).

A Movie Set at Home

He needed a location for the mother’s house and asked Eileen Clark, who he’d known from church, if she’d be willing to let him use her Emerald Hills residence. “It was actually so much fun,” she says. “Everybody was so respectful of my house.” People coming inside had to wear booties.

Because Mills’ character has been grieving her son’s death, the house needed to be messy, but  Clark keeps a tidy home. “It was the weirdest feeling because I kept wanting to go around and pick up after them,” she says.

When it came to housing, the undemanding Mills was happy to stay at Clark’s home. “How am I going to get my house ready for a star,” she fretted, but when Mills arrived, “from the minute she walked in, she was like my best friend. We had such a good time together.”

Mills was married for 30 years to the actor, comedian, writer and producer Orson Bean, who died in February 2020 at the age of 91. He was crossing the street to join her at a theater where she had volunteered to usher and he was struck by two cars.

“He was ready for another 10 years,” she says. “Easily.”

With Covid restrictions, the only acting she’d done since then was a Zoom production of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” in December. Since her husband’s death, “different things have meaning to me and I can pick and choose what I damn well please. And I read this and thought, ‘I want to do it.’”

Lorenna—the mother she plays—has been a church secretary for 23 years.  The Charlene of the movie, who is a screenwriter, is undone by the loss of her brother and separates from her husband. On top of that, Lorenna’s pastor tells her that he can’t honestly say in the memorial service that Dominick went to heaven.

“So I’m in the midst of a faith crisis too,” Mills says of her character, who is running on fumes. “It’s like everything at one time. And then trying to get my daughter back on her feet cause she’s not on her feet. She’s left her husband and she’s just flailing.”

Mills, who is a Christian and attends church, says her character doesn’t solve her faith issues by the end of the movie, “but you get the feeling she will.”

The Lead Role

The Charlene character’s frenetic pace masks a wound-up woman who hasn’t come to terms with her brother’s suicide and how to make sense of life. Gapastione had originally planned the central character to be a man, but had worked with Ewing before and decided to revise it as a female story and cast her. She has had lead film roles before but not with as much dialogue to learn as comes out of the mouth of the verbal Charlene.

A San Mateo resident, Ewing also grew up loving “The Wonder Years” and was “freaking out” when she found out that Mills would play her mother. “I told everyone. I shouted it from the rooftops. I got to spend some time with her yesterday (reading and blocking.) And then to work with her? I have to pinch myself.”

Cameron James Matthews, 32, plays “Dino,” a character who helps Charlene see a way to deal with life’s challenges. “He’s definitely a glass half full type of guy, all about optimism and like I’m sure he smells the flowers and looks at rainbows on his free time.  He’s a guy who likes to have a smile on his face and tries at every moment to put smiles on other people’s faces as well.”

A Sacramento native, he lives a nomadic actor’s life and has done both film and television and is in a movie called “Notorious Nick,” which is to come out in the fall. It’s more than a walk-by part. “You don’t gotta stop the film and rewind and zoom to see me,” he says.

Ideally, Gapastione would like to get the film edited in time to apply in September for the Sundance Film Festival, but he also dreams of a hometown movie premiere next February. He shot the film using industry-standard cameras so it could be shown on all the streaming platforms.

A father of three girls one of whom just graduated from the eighth grade, this is a heady time, and Gapastione cried the first day of filming. “I just lost it because I’ve been waiting so long for it to get here. It feels so good to see it all coming to light and all the people come out to help. … When we rolled Scene 68 today, I thought, ‘I’ve never had a Scene 68.’” He laughs. “There’s 78 scenes in this film and, yeah, it’s a pretty cool dream.”