In the summer of 1969, a 12-year-old boy named Anthony Martignetti was walking through the North End with some friends when three men approached and asked for directions to Commercial Street.
His friends weren’t exactly nice to the men, Mr. Martignetti would apologetically explain when he told this story, but little Anthony stayed behind to help them.
That simple act of kindness would change his life.
It turned out the men were scouting the neighborhood for an advertising campaign for the Prince Spaghetti Company. And in the young helper, who had emigrated from Italy three years before, they found the star for their television commercial. The ad would become a phenomenon; its star, a Boston icon.
Mr. Martignetti died in his sleep Saturday night, according to his older brother, Andy. He was 63 years old and suffered from severe sleep apnea, though an official cause of death has not been determined.
He will forever be remembered as the little boy running home to his mother through the narrow streets of the North End in the “Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day” commercial, which ran nationally for nearly 14 years.
Mr. Martignetti never said a word in his role, and never made much money from the experience — he bought a new set of hockey goalie pads — but it became the defining event of his life, one he cherished and protected for five decades.
“I always understood that it was larger than me, that I had a responsibility to preserve what that commercial meant to people,” Mr. Martignetti said last year, when I wrote about him for the third time. “I knew that if I got into trouble, little Anthony from the spaghetti commercial would be all over the paper.”
I had first met Mr. Martignetti a decade earlier, when I tracked him down for a “where are they now” feature for the 40th anniversary of the commercial. He took me on a tour of the North End and showed me the sites from the commercial, including the window in Powers Court from which the woman who played his mother had called out his name.
But what stood out to me was the care he gave to being “Anthony!” It was as if he had been handed a delicate memory inside a glass case, and his only job was to never crack it.
And he did not. But Prince did. In 2013, the company rebooted the commercial, but hired a different actor to play the grown-up Anthony. They refused to cast Anthony’s son in the role of the little boy, despite the fact that he had auditioned, and his name was Anthony Martignetti Jr.
After some swift outrage — further reinforcing how beloved the original was — Prince quickly pulled it from the air.
But it was not until last year, when I profiled him again, this time for the 50th anniversary of the commercial, that I really got to know him. He again took me for a tour of the North End one evening and posed for some photos in Powers Court, and then I met him at his small apartment in West Roxbury early one morning so I could spend the day with him at Dedham District Court, where he was an associate court officer.
Before he left for work, he showed me about a hundred photos of Anthony Jr. (who was then 16 and lives with his mother in New Jersey) and then ran next door to check on his parents. They are in their 90s, and he gave his mother a kiss and put some medicated drops in his father’s eyes.
At the courthouse, it was clear his co-workers loved him, and as he greeted people entering the courthouse — his main job was running the security screening station at the door — what I heard and saw was so simple, yet it was the very reason his life had changed five decades before.
Anthony Martignetti was a nice person. That’s all there was to it. He was nice to everybody, including people who were clearly shocked to get a warm greeting when arriving at that cold place that is a courtroom.
A few days later, I was struggling to write the story — could it really be that simple? — so I called his wife, Ruth, whom he had married two years before, and asked her about it. She was from the Dominican Republic and never saw the heyday of the commercial, only its aftermath.
“When we first started dating, I’d see strangers freak out and hug him, and I’d say ‘Why do you let them do that? They don’t know you,’” she told me.
“But Anthony would always say, ‘They’ve known me for a long time.’”
In addition to his wife, son, mother, father, and brother Andy of Dedham, Mr. Martignetti leaves another brother, Angelo, of Lynn, and a sister, Michelle Knorring of Buzzard’s Bay, according to the P.E. Murray - F.J. Higgins, George F. Doherty & Sons Funeral Home.