Sunday, February 01, 2009

Chazz Palminteri Grows Up with the Mob

How tough was the Bronx neighborhood where Chazz Palminteri grew up?

“When I was 9 years old,” the actor recalls, “I saw a guy kill another guy over a parking space.”

Palminteri has never forgotten the incident. Things like that tend to stay with you.

When in 1988 he grew discouraged at his inability to break into movies, and decided to write a one-man play that would show what he could do, that murder scene became his starting point.

A Bronx Taledepicts Calogero (Palminteri’s real first name) growing up torn between two mentors: Sonny, the mob boss whom the lad refuses to rat out to police after witnessing the killing; and Lorenzo, Calogero’s hard-working father, a bus driver trying to teach his son not to admire the wise guys.

Palminteri premiered the play to acclaim in 1989, first in Los Angeles, then off-Broadway. It jump-started his career, sparking a Hollywood bidding war. Palminteri refused to sell the film rights unless he was part of the package, writing the screenplay and playing Sonny.

Robert De Niro agreed to Palminteri’s terms, making his directorial debut with A Bronx Tale and co-starring as Lorenzo. A critical and box-office hit in 1993, it launched Palminteri’s film career, including his Oscar-nominated performance in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadwayand other highlights from The Usual Suspects (Special Editon)and Hurlyburly to A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.

Palminteri returned to A Bronx Tale during the 2007-08 Broadway season, again to critical acclaim, followed by the national tour that brings the show to Hobby Center Tuesday.

"I wanted to get back to theater,” he says. “Everybody who’d seen the original run had talked about it for 20 years. And there’s a whole new generation of people who never saw it. I thought I should do it while I was still young enough. In another 20 years, I might not be up to the challenge. When you see me perform it on stage, you’ll see why.”

As to assuming the rigors of a tour, he says, “I was not going to let anybody else do the tour. This is my story.”

How tough was it for Palminteri to get a break in pictures? “The play was born out of my desperation to get a start in movies,” he says. “I’d studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio and acted off-Broadway before moving to Hollywood to try my luck at movies. I got TV guest shots but was finding it really hard to get into feature films.”

His low point was being fired from a job as nightclub doorman. “One night I didn’t let this gentleman into a party. And it turned out he was (famed agent) Swifty Lazar. And it was his party. I don’t know how I didn’t recognize him. “After getting fired, I went home and sat on the edge of my bed. Then I saw this card my dad had given me, emblazoned with the motto ‘The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.’ I said to myself, “I’m not going to waste my life or my talent. If they won’t give me a part, I’ll write one myself.”

Starting with the murder, he wrote the play in 5- to 10-minute sections. “I’d try each segment out in front of an audience on Monday nights at Theatre West in L.A. I’d tighten and fine-tune it, before coming back the next week with another 5 to 10 minutes. By the end of the year, I had a tight, 90-minute play.”

Palminteri says about 70 percent of A Bronx Tale comes from his life, though he has consolidated some events and tweaked the time frame to better serve the coming-of-age story that follows Calogero from ages 9 to 17.

“Authenticity counts,” Palminteri says. “It matters. I wanted to show the story not in blacks-and-whites, but shades of gray. Sonny isn’t all bad, Lorenzo isn’t all good. Calogero takes the best qualities of both as he grows to manhood.”

While the script has changed little since Palminteri first performed the play in 1989, it’s getting a more elaborate production this time. “I wanted to bring it back with a major director,” he says. He got one of Broadway’s best, four-time Tony winner Jerry Zaks (Guys and Dolls, Six Degrees of Separation, The House of Blue Leaves, Lend Me a Tenor.)

“What’s different is the presentation. There’s much more of a Broadway-caliber production around the performance.

“It’s also a different experience for me, emotionally deeper, because I’ve changed. When I did the play before, I hadn’t experienced marriage or fatherhood, and I identified with the son. Now I’m married, I have a son and daughter, and I identify much more with Lorenzo.”

While that may be the character with whom Palminteri feels the strongest identification, one of the biggest kicks of the show is getting to play 18 characters, including neighborhood eccentrics and assorted (not so) goodfellas.

How tough is Palminteri? In Faithful, he terrorized Cher. (Think about it.) Even in casual conversation, Palminteri’s voice carries that street-toughened edge of authority.

Some might say that quality has led to a certain amount of typecasting. But Palminteri has played characters on both sides of the law — not just mob bosses and hit men, but cops, lawyers and prosecutors (though not all were straight-arrow types.)

“Sure, the most famous roles are the tough guys, but I’ve done a lot of different movies. I prize my work in independent films like A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, even if they’re not the most widely seen.”

Yonkers Joe, his latest of those, lets him mine both tough and tender veins. In the title role, he plays a professional gambler who must take on the care of his 20-year-old Down syndrome son, who’s not lived with him in years.

Palminteri anticipates being back on stage again in the next couple of years, either in Joanna Baldwin’s A Child-Proof Room or in a new play he’s writing.

Palminteri anticipates being back on stage again in the next couple of years, either in Joanna Baldwin’s A Child-Proof Room or in a new play he’s writing.

For now, he’s finding inspiration taking A Bronx Tale to audiences across the nation.

“The play is about the message on that card my father gave me,” he says. “About not wasting your life or your talent. I had cards printed up with that message and, when young people ask for my autograph after the show, I hand them that card.

“I’ve gotten a lot of calls from parents, from guidance counselors, saying the show’s message helped someone. ‘My son was on drugs and seeing the show changed him.’ Being able to have that effect is certainly inspirational to me.”

Thanks to Everett Evans

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