At the time, De Niro took the then-17-year-old under his wing and gave him some fatherly advice. “Early on in my career I spoke to Bob and [fellow Bronx Tale costar] Chazz [Palminteri] about how profound changes would occur in my life,” Brancato, now 41, tells PEOPLE. “They said once this movie goes out, you will have people around you who will expose you to dangerous things and you have to be careful.”
But Brancato admits he “shrugged off” their advice, and in the years that followed, his drug use escalated and resulted in cocaine and heroin addicts.
It got so bad that in the early morning hours of Dec. 10, 2005, Brancato and his friend, Steven Armento, broke into a house in the Bronx to try and steal prescription drugs, alerting a neighbor and an off-duty police officer Daniel Enchautegui to investigate the burglary. Armento shot the officer dead with his .357 Magnum. He was 28 years old.
“I became an actor and achieved a lot early on, and it was all destroyed because of my bad choices of using and abusing drugs,” Brancato says. “On the fateful night of Dec. 10, 2005, a heroic police officer lost his life because of my drug taking and bad decision making.”
The story of Brancato’s journey from up-and-coming actor to reckless drug addict is now being made into a documentary Wasted Talent, (produced by Noel Ashman and Steve Stanulis) due out in 2018.
“The main reason why I’m doing it is because I want to be a cautionary tale — not even just for actors, but for kids. I think it’s important for kids to hear that story and maybe they won’t go down the path I did,” he says. “If I can help one kid stay on the right path, I’ve accomplished something great.”
Colombia-born Brancato was convicted of attempted burglary and sentenced to 10 years out of a maximum 15 in jail. (Armento was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole in prison.) At the time, Enchautegui’s sister Yolanda Rosa told the New York Daily News she was upset that Brancato had not received a tougher sentence. “I am disappointed in the justice system,” she said. “He’ll always be a murderer, no matter what the jury says.”
In Rikers Island prison, where Brancato did three years, he continued to use drugs and at one point, overdosed on four bags of heroin and 20 morphine sulfate pills. It took a visit from his cousin Pat Longobucco and friend Corey Rabin, both attorneys, to set Brancato straight.
“They both expressed their disappointment in me,” he recalls. “They said that all of the people I had by my side wanting to help me through this would not be there had I continued this behavior. It was at that moment that something clicked in my mind that I didn’t want to do this anymore. That was the last day I used any drugs and went into alcohol and substance abuse treatment.”
Now almost 11 years sober, Brancato feels remorse for his role in Enchautegui’s death. “Everyone makes bad choices, and the ones I made are worse than the average person,” Brancato says. “Another person is not here because of my addictions. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of that night and how I wish I could change its outcome.”
RELATED VIDEO: Robert De Niro Says U.S. Has Become a ‘Tragic Dumbass Comedy’
Brancato’s substance use started with marijuana and alcohol in 1992, just after a talent scout discovered him at Long Island, NY’s Jones Beach (noticing his resemblance to DeNiro) and introduced him to the star.
The Oscar winner cast the young Yonkers, N.Y. resident in A Bronx Tale, his directorial debut, and warned Brancato about the dangers of fame. “De Niro came to my house in spring or summer of 1993, not only to warn me, but also my parents,” Brancato reveals. “My parents are Italian immigrants and knew nothing about show biz and the temptations that lie ahead. De Niro talked about the changes that will occur in my life. He said this can be very dangerous if not handled the right way.”
A Bronx Tale came out later that year, propelling Brancato to score roles in Renaissance Man, Crimson Tide and The Sopranos. But acting no longer remained Brancato’s focus as he became reliant on cocaine and heroin.
“Once I became addicted to those drugs, that was the priority,” he admits. “I was missing auditions and squandering many opportunities. It was the darkest time of my life. As much as I wanted to control it, it was way beyond my control and there were nights I was crying and I couldn’t stop.”
Brancato regrets not staying in touch with De Niro and Palminteri. “I know they had my best interests at heart, and these people [that I was doing drugs with] did not care about me,” he understands. “If I had been around those people who did have my best interest at heart, things could have turned out differently for me. That’s what I try to tell the kids, you are the company you keep.”
When Brancato was released Dec. 31, 2013 following eight years in jail, Palminteri made it clear that he had no interest in repairing his relationship with the once-promising teen star.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s made monumentally bad choices and has to live with the consequences,” Palminteri told the Daily News in 2014. “I don’t want it in any way understood that I’m working with him or in contact with him. … I really have nothing to say [to him].”
Now, Brancato is barred from drinking, subject to drug testing at his parole officer’s direction and placed under a 10 p.m. curfew through 2018. He attends 12-step meetings and needs to request special permission and supervision to travel by plane.
But that hasn’t stopped Brancato from returning to the big screen, appearing last year in Vamp Bikers Tres and Back in the Day alongside Alec Baldwin, Donald Glover and Mike Tyson.
“It’s feels great to be working again and doing anything, even to buy a newspaper,” he says. “To be given the chance to do what I love, it’s ten times more special now.”