WHY, IF ROBERT CUNNINGHAM IS so rich, is he spending so much time doing free publicity for a movie? Simple, says Cunningham, 65, the real-life cop turned millionaire whose story inspired the romantic comedy It Could Happen to You. He doesn’t want to be compared to the policeman played by Nicolas Cage, who leaves his scheming wife for a waitress (Bridget Fonda) after giving her half of his $4 million lottery jackpot as a tip. “I’m doing this,” he says, “to get the real story straight.”
That story began 10 years ago at Sal’s Restaurant, a diner in Yonkers, N.Y., where Cunningham impulsively asked waitress Phyllis Penzo if she wanted to split his $1 lottery ticket in lieu of a tip. She agreed, and together they picked six numbers that won $6 million. Since then they have shared an annual payout of $285,715 before tax (and half of that after) with 11 more years to go, but unlike their film counterparts, all similarities end right there. “We knew we were just friends,” says Penzo, laughing.
In fact, both insist their windfall has hardly changed them. Cunningham’s wife, Gina, 61, quit her bookkeeping job two years afterward, and Cunningham didn’t retire until 1992. Instead of a mansion, he bought his father-in-law’s modest stucco house in nearby Dobbs Ferry, where he and his wife, along with their four children, had lived on the top floor. His only indulgence is a new Cadillac every three years. Meanwhile, Penzo quit her job at Sal’s in 1986 because of the constant hectoring she got from customers over her lottery winnings and moved from an apartment into a three-bedroom brick house in Yonkers with husband Robert, 55, a former construction worker. Sometimes she treats her two children to new cars or whisks her grandkids away to Disneyland. For the record, both couples loved the movie, but they prefer to write the ending themselves. “We are comfortable, and we don’t have to worry about our bills,” says Gina. “To me, that’s the best.”