Returning to the stage — but only for one evening — is the timeless atmosphere of “A Bronx Tale,” the theatrical masterpiece written and starring Chazz Palminteri in 1988 and which became a cult film directed by Robert De Niro five years later.
“For the first time in more than 30 years I’ll be starring in a one-man show. I’ll play the part of all eighteen characters in the story, just as I did in the play’s debut.” Palminteri, a New York actor, playwright and screenwriter, is happy and eager as he prepares for his return to the theater, scheduled for Oct. 1st at New York’s Town Hall.
We met him at the restaurant he owns that bears his name, a gathering place on Forty-sixth Street for many fellow actors. A stone’s throw from Broadway theaters, but also from the Actors Studio he attended as a boy pursuing the dream of acting.
Palminteri’s magnetic face continues to captivate, and more so today, at age 70. “I can’t wait to go on stage. I’m also excited that after the performance there will be a discussion open to the audience. We will talk about the play, of course, but also about the film and the musical that came after.” A reflection, in short, on a play that has spanned generations, keeping intact the narrative tensions born from Palminteri’s pen, thanks to the powerful biographical inspiration.
In fact, in “A Bronx Tale,” the formative years of young Calogero Anello, are condensed. The alter ego of the author with whom he also shares a first name, he was born and raised in the Bronx, the son of a humble but honest Italian American family, whose existence will be disrupted by a murder to which the young boy is a casual witness. An intense character torn between two conflicting value systems: those represented by his father Lorenzo and those embodied by Sonny, a charming local mob boss.
“I wrote a story that came from the heart. It is a sincere, true tale that creates an immediate connection with the audience,” Palminteri explains, describing the play that was first staged in Los Angeles. “A gamble, I chose to be the sole actor. It went well.” More than he had imagined, so much so that Studios immediately sniffed out the potential for the big screen.
“They first offered me $250,000, then $500,000. At the time I was penniless, but I refused to give up the rights. I wanted to write the script myself and I wanted to play Sonny. They came back with the staggering proposal of a million. I still declined.” The craziest, luckiest move of his life. “Two weeks later, there was a standing ovation at the end of the show. As I walked off the stage, the stage manager told me that Robert De Niro was in the dressing room waiting for me. He said he had found the show incredible. He proposed that I write the script for the film and secured the part of Sonny, while he would play my father. This time I accepted,” he recalls. The film, De Niro’s directorial debut, was released in 1993 and was an overwhelming success.
“Let’s say I’ve always been a lucky man,” jokes Palminteri, who became a star after the film. “I knew I could play that part better than anyone else. And I also knew that I would have to write the script because I knew the depth of those characters.”
Calogero’s story still fascinates today. “The film was a huge success all over the world. Even in Japan, for example. In Europe they study it in film schools. “You don’t have to be Italian to be passionate about it,” he points out. “It’s a story that has no age limit, there are kids who were not even born when I wrote ‘A Bronx Tale’ who come and tell me they love it. I don’t know why that happens, I think I’ve created something that will last forever and I’m happy about it, honored,” Palminteri demurs. “I wrote a great script, but I had a great director like Robert De Niro. A bad director would have ruined it,” he reasons.
There weren’t any significant qualms in the neighborhood’s Italian American community, which was laid bare in the unfiltered movie. “Some people complained, but we hadn’t used real names, so there was no need to worry.” The parents didn’t complain either. “Rather, they were happy to see my success and also all that money that came in.”
And on money Palminteri has his own theories: “It makes good people better and bad people worse. I like to share things with family and friends. Of course, I’m not a saint or a perfect person, but I try to live well,” he says. Fame, he tells us, has not changed him. “I was born in the Bronx, I’m the same person I’ve always been. Success has only been a part of my life; certainly wonderful, because I’ve met people like Frank Sinatra, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, and so many other great actors.”