‘It could happen to you’: The true story

Evan Lambert

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Nicholas Cage at Movie Premiere

In 2023, no one would bat an eye if a movie’s title was “Cop Gives Waitress $2 Million Tip.” It sounds like any click-baiting SEO headline you’d find at the bottom of your browser during a 3 a.m. Internet research-related rabbit hole. In 1994, though, it was still considered gauche to use tabloid-esque headlines in popular art and media — and thus, this movie’s title became “It Could Happen to You”.

Since that title is a bit more, shall we say, generic, please allow us to explain the film’s plot — and magic. Set in Queens, N.Y., the 1994 movie follows a kind cop (Nicolas Cage) who offers to give a waitress (Bridget Fonda) half of his lottery winnings as a tip. Of course, he never plans to actually win the lottery, but sure enough, the man finds himself with a winning ticket the next day. 

As promised, he shares half of his $4 million winnings with the waitress, who immediately buys the diner where she once worked. As her life changes for the better, she ultimately falls in love with Cage’s character and gets a divorce from her estranged husband. The same goes for Cage’s character, who divorces his materialistic wife after she tries to make a fortune off of his newfound popularity.

The film, which maintains a 71 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, was a modest hit, raking in $47.7 million internationally against a $20 million budget. Coasting on positive reviews, it also featured an early-career Rosie Perez and Stanley Tucci. The film was eventually remade in Hindi as the Bollywood drama “Bade Dilwala”.

It was also based on a true story – “based” being the keyword.

There really was a NYC cop who shared his lotto winnings with a waitress back in 1984. However, he never fell in love with her, nor did she with him, and the two never rode in a hot air balloon over Central Park (as Cage and Fonda did in the film’s epilogue). 

In fact, as a disclaimer at the end of the movie showed, the two remained happily married to their respective partners in real life. To set matters straight, the real-life pair — Robert Cunningham and Phyllis Penzo — spoke with Entertainment Weekly in 1994 about the discrepancies between the film and their lives. “Ours is really a luck story, but the filmmakers turned it into a love story,” said Penzo at the time. “Except for the part about us winning, it’s totally fiction.”

The two also revealed that they had known each other and been friendly for 15 years before the events of the movie, and that they never made any plans to leave their spouses. Perhaps more importantly, Penzo also stressed that she did not like macadamia nuts, unlike her movie counterpart, who immediately spent her winnings on them.

“I hate macadamia nuts!” Penzo told EW. “I bought a house, I bought a car for my daughter and my husband, and I did some traveling to see our grandchildren.” And addressing the plot point of her character buying her restaurant, she added, “At one time I had considered opening a restaurant, but after 27 years as a waitress, you reach the age where you just can’t do those hours anymore.”

Another aspect of the film that both people discounted was the charge of Cunningham’s wife being a money-grubber. In reality, Gina was a generous soul who agreed with her husband that Penzo deserved half of his share.

Finally, the two never moved on to have extravagant, hot-air balloon-filled lives. Ultimately, though, Cunningham and Penzo were blessed to have had the most important moment in their life immortalized by Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda. And in such a feel-good story, no less —  one that has aged surprisingly well.