Super Mario II?

updated 03/13/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/13/1995 01:00AM

TO BE SURE, VICTOR LANZA HAS the looks—the dark eyes, the dimpled chin. He also has the voice—a powerful high tenor. "People cry when they hear Victor sing," says Eva Franchi, widow of the late Italian tenor Sergio Franchi and one of Victor's ardent fans. "It is something in his tone—it is the sound of Mario Lanza."

According to Victor, it is also the seed of Mario Lanza: Victor claims he is the love child of the famed opera singer and actor, who died of a heart attack in 1959 at age 38, and the late Maria Margelli, a never-married assistant to opera star Ezio Pinza and a Lanza family friend who was 19 years older than Mario. In fact, Victor is making a sideline of his alleged lineage, about which he first went public a decade ago, 11 years after Margelli's death.

For the past five years, the 50-year-old electronics engineer has been playing nightclubs, benefits and summer festivals near his Chicago home. His show, a musical tribute to his "dad," which he performs about once a month, includes Mario Lanza classics like O Sole Mio. But Victor's success has struck a sour note with Mario Lanza's three surviving acknowledged children—Damon, 42, Ellisa, 44, and Colleen, 46—from his 14-year marriage to housewife Betty Hicks, who died in 1960.

"It's a disgrace to my family—and to Maria," says Damon Lanza, a Los Angeles businessman who isn't buying Victor's story. "It's preposterous. The real sons of Mario Lanza can't sing a note, even in the shower. But everyone who claims to be his son is a singer." Victor, a divorced father of two, refuses to produce a birth certificate or any other evidence of his parentage ("I don't have to make proof," he says), and the Lanza heirs are considering suing him to stop him from using Mario's name in his shows.

But Victor has no intention of quitting. "I'm not an impersonator, and I don't try to sing like my father," he says. "I'm only saying this is Victor Lanza doing a tribute to Mario Lanza. What's wrong with that?"

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