Casting Call for the Albanian Braveheart: a Senate Hopeful’s Hollywood Dream

joe dioguardi burns a serbian flag getty Casting Call for the Albanian Braveheart: a Senate Hopeful’s Hollywood Dream

When the Transom first encountered former congressman Joe DioGuardi, the Republican who is making a primary bid to challenge Kristen Gillibrand for her Senate seat, he was talking about a severed head. The head belonged to the top lieutenant of General Gjergj Kastriadi, a.k.a. Skenderbeg, and had been delivered to the general in a valise from the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, after Skenderbeg had dispatched the lieutenant to deliver the terms of a truce. There would be no truce, and the Ottomans would continue battling the rebel general until his death in 1468, only then regaining their hold of his native Albania.

If that sounds like the stuff of a Hollywood epic, Mr. DioGuardi agrees.

“It’s like Braveheart,” Mr. DioGuardi told the Transom. “It’s a story about freedom that Americans need to hear. That’s why we have a movie in development.

We were standing on the deck of the U.S.S. Intrepid, where Mr. DioGuardi was regaling a table of Republican well-wishers, gathered for a fund-raiser for Iraq Veterans for Congress, with tales of the Albanian hero. They were taking a break from enumerating the failings of Senator Chuck Schumer and President Obama to linger on an obscure episode from medieval Balkan history.

Christian-born but forcibly converted to Islam, Kastriadi was an ethnic Albanian Ottoman subject enlisted in the ranks of janissaries, officers of the Ottoman army. (“To the Armenians the pen, to the Albanians the sword,” went an old Ottoman saying.) He earned the moniker Skenderbeg and the title of general for his military prowess. (The name is a Turkification of Alexander the Great.) In 1443, after his father’s death, Skenderbeg switched sides, and proved a chronic thorn in the Sultanate’s side until his death in 1468.

 While accumulating what is believed to be the highest body count of any rival to the Turks, he also formed alliances with various Italian factions, and the King of Naples granted 2,000 of his horsemen a settlement in a mountain village, still called Katundi by their descendants but known as Greci to Italian speakers. It is here that the Bronx-raised Mr. DioGuardi traces his roots.

“My father, Joseph Sr.” Mr. Dio-Guardi has written, “immigrated to America from Katundi in 1929 at the age of 15. His family is descended from one of Skenderbeg’s two thousand soldiers, and this is a reminder that the seeds of Skenderbeg are still spreading across the oceans of the world today.”

Among those seeds is Mr. DioGuardi’s daughter, Kara DioGuardi, a successful singer-songwriter and now a host on American Idol.

On the Intrepid that evening, Mr. DioGuardi told the Transom, “There wouldn’t be a state of Kosovo if not for me and Shirley,” referring to his wife, Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, a longtime advocate of human-rights interventions who testified to Congress about the case for the Kosovo war.

“My wife and I put Milosevic in the Hague, where he committed suicide by not taking his medication,” Mr. DioGuardi elaborated.

After U.N.’s International Court of Justice last week declared that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia did not violate international law, the Transom got back in touch with Mr. DioGuardi over the phone.

“I was the first one to put in a resolution calling for independence in 1992,” he said. “This vindicates me. The State Department was calling me a radical secessionist.”

What about the movie?

“There’s no question in my mind,” he said, “that this story is the parallel to Braveheart. All the elements are here, and it will show America the true face of the Albanian people. We don’t have a screenplay yet, but we have concept paper by an incredible young screenwriter. I sent him one book, and he got so interested he spent eight months to a year researching this character. He zeroed in on the years 1440 to 1455, where Skenderbeg had his awakening.

“The concept paper is 11 pages. A screenplay is much more elaborate, and I’m trying to fund this through a foundation. This has been an Albanian dream for years. It needs to be done by some of the best Hollywood producers. Once you have a screenplay that is really professional with this story, if you take it to a Hollywood studio, it will be funded almost automatically. I’m not doing this for me. It’s for Albanians everywhere.”

Mr. DioGuardi’s hopes are not without precedent. A joint Soviet-Albanian production of the story was made in 1953; a Yugoslav version appeared in 1968.

As for his electoral prospects, Mr. DioGuardi said, “I’m in there, and I’m gonna win it. I’m the only one on the Conservative line, which you need to be to win a Republican primary.” Mr. DioGuardi leads his Republican rivals in the primary race but still trails the incumbent by a margin of 51-29, according to a recent poll.

“Gillibrand is sinking like a rock,” he said. “Obama’s dropping, so she’s dropping. Remember, I’m the only practicing certified accountant ever elected to Congress. I was a waiter. I worked for Arthur Anderson. I work hard, like my father taught me, and I taught my daughter. That’s what America is all about.”

And who should play Skenderbeg?

“If he were younger, I would pick Sean Connery,” said Mr. DioGuardi. “The next guy would have to be Russell Crowe. His performance in Gladiator was immense.”