Chazz Palminteri tells 'A Bronx Tale'

Palminteri on stage
Chazz Palminteri performing "A Bronx Tale."
Image courtesy Hennepin Theater Trust (Joan Marcus, photographer)

For years, Chazz Palminteri has been one of the go-to actors if a Hollywood director wanted a tough guy.

It hasn't always been that way.

Chazz Palminteri
Chazz Palminteri told his own story in "A Bronx Tale" and used the play to jumpstart his movie career. Now almost two decades later he is revisiting the play and says it's changed as he has grown older.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Palminteri says he struggled to get into films. What changed things was his autobiographical one-man show called "A Bronx Tale." Now Palminteri has revived the play and this week brings it to Minneapolis.

Palminteri is quiet and restrained in person, which makes some of the things he says even more shocking. Like when he talks about trying to come up with a subject for a one-man show.

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"And then I remembered this killing I saw when I was nine years old," he says. "I was sitting on my stoop and this man killed a man right in front of me."

The killer's name was Sonny, a mobster who controlled much of the Bronx neighborhood where Palminteri grew up. The police came, but the young boy kept quiet. Soon after Sonny began taking him under his wing.

"He liked me almost as a son, and he wanted me to do good and he wanted me to go to college," Palminteri says. "But just by being around and who he was, he was a wiseguy, he was a boss, I was being influenced by all these guys and their cars and their women."

"It's the hardest thing I ever did, but it's the most rewarding thing."

This did not sit well with Palminteri's father. He was a bus driver, who told his son the real hero was the working man, not the gangsters.

"He wrote on a little card 'The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.' He used to say to me 'Don't waste your talent. Make something out of yourself.' And he put it in my room and I used to see that all the time," says Palminteri. "You know, Sonny eventually got killed," he continues. "And I realized that my father was right. So I thought about this whole thing and I said, 'Gee, you know what? This would make a great story to write what I learned from both men, and how I became a man.'"

In the late 1980's Palminteri felt he needed a one-man show as an attention-grabber. He was an actor in Los Angeles, but wasn't getting film roles. So he wrote "A Bronx Tale." In it Palminteri plays 18 characters in 90 minutes.

An immediate smash when it opened in LA in 1990, it did better on Broadway. The movie offers flooded in.

"I was on a rocketship," he says. "Everybody wanted it. Everybody wanted the piece. But they wanted to put a star in the role, and they wanted somebody else to write it, because I never wrote a screenplay at that time."

He was offered $250,000, then $500,000, and ultimately a million bucks, but he turned each one down, because he wanted to write the script and play Sonny.

"People thought I was nuts," he says. "And then Robert DeNiro walked in, saw it, came to the theater and saw the show, and said he wanted to talk to me afterwards. And said 'You'd be great as Sonny. You should write it, because you know it. It's about your life.'"

The 1993 film was DeNiro's directorial debut. He played Palminteri's dad, and Palminteri played Sonny.

The movie was a critical hit and an audience favorite. Roles flowed in, and Palminteri appeared in "Bullets over Broadway," "The Usual Suspects," "Analyze This" and a host of others, some 60 movies and counting.

And 20 years after its debut, he's performing "A Bronx Tale" again. He says it feels like a different play.

"I was the young boy, relating to the father back then, and to Sonny," he says. "Now I am the father and Sonny relating to the boy, and relating back. So it's richer, it's deeper."

He's on a national tour, with a week-long engagement at the State Theater in Minneapolis.

"This is raucous, laugh-riot, non-stop, like 90 miles-an-hour Porsche, flying down the highway," he says. "It's the hardest thing I ever did, but it's the most rewarding thing."

Palminteri says he gets back to the old neighborhood still about once a month. It's changed too.

"I see some of the wiseguys I used to know. A lot of them are gone, or dead or in jail," he says. "But some are still there, they have managed to hold on. Now do I hang out with them every day? No. That I will not do."