Actor Chazz Palminteri was preparing to do a play in Los Angeles when he had an exchange one night with his manager. “‘I just heard there are more Italians in Toronto than there are almost in Rome,'” he remembers telling him. “And I said, ‘How come I never did my show in Canada?’ and he goes, ‘I don’t know.’”
This is how the idea was hatched to bring Palminteri to perform A Bronx Tale, the one-man show that made him famous, for one night only at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts on March 29. “I only had one night available,” he says in a phone conversation. “I didn’t want to wait. I said, ‘Let’s do it right now.’”
The breakthrough success of Chazz Palminteri in 1990 with the show is the stuff of Hollywood legend. After spending years working on his craft on stages in New York, he found himself struggling to break into the film world in Los Angeles. “I did a lot of guest star roles—Hill Street Blues, Matlock, a bunch of those shows,” he says. But when he found himself running out of money, the actor made a crucial decision that would end up changing his life. “I said, ‘Well, if they don’t give me great parts, then I’ll write one myself.’”
He started working on a show based on his own childhood in the Bronx and a murder he witnessed when he was nine years old, honing it over ten months with regular performances in front of his theatre collective. “Writing ten minutes, keeping three. Writing twenty minutes, keeping one minute,” he says of the process. When it was completed to satisfaction, he borrowed $25,000 from a friend to mount a production at a small theatre in Hollywood. The reaction from critics and audiences in town was overwhelming. “Everybody wanted it,” he says. “Every director wanted to direct it, every studio wanted to do it, every producer wanted to make it.”
The offers started to roll in—$250,000 ballooned eventually into a million dollars being dangled in front of Palminteri, who had just two hundred dollars in the bank at the time. As usual, there was a catch: they wanted Palminteri to walk away and allow someone else to adapt his show for the screen and another actor to play the plum role of Sonny, the powerful mafioso who takes nine-year-old Calogero under his wing. Palminteri turned them all down.
“I’m just a stubborn guy, and if I believe in something, I believe it,” is how he explains his decision to reject the large sums of money, conceding that the first offer was the hardest one to walk away from. “After that, it just became numbers to me—it didn’t mean anything. If I was married with kids, it would have been a lot harder, that’s for sure.”
A few weeks later, he found Robert De Niro waiting for him in his dressing room after a show, and De Niro insisted that he wanted to make A Bronx Tale his directing debut. “He goes, ‘I’ll play your father, and I’ll direct it. You play Sonny, and you can write the screenplay.’ He shook my hand and said, ‘That’s the way it’ll be.’ And I shook his hand, and that’s the way it was.” Not everyone believed it was a great idea to align himself with someone who didn’t have a proven track record as a director. “A lot of people thought I was crazy to go with him,” Palminteri says. “But I think we were both in the same position, in a way.”
Even before the film came out, Palminteri was inundated with opportunities in movies, and he soon found himself nominated for an Oscar for his supporting turn in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway. He deduced quickly while on set that the director’s notoriously hands-off style with actors should be considered a vote of confidence and entirely welcome considering the alternative. “In fact, if he starts talking to you a lot, that’s not a good sign. That means you’re probably going to get fired soon,” he says.
Bouncing effortlessly from comedies like Analyze This to dramas like Hurlyburly in his long career, Palminteri only really has one simple rule in deciding which projects are worthy of his time: “If the material’s good, I do it, and if the material’s not good, I don’t do it.” This is what drew him to another of his memorable roles as Dave Kujan, the U.S. customs agent tasked with figuring out the identity of Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects. He was impressed by the quality of the script and the experience of working with Kevin Spacey—and notes that because he was shooting another movie at the time, “They just put me in a room with (Spacey) for nine days, and we did all our scenes like a play. Then I left and they started the movie.”
Although he’s performed A Bronx Tale on stage more than 850 times over the years now, it’s an experience that never gets old for him. “I don’t know what it is. I get up there, and I just do it. And it’s eighteen characters, and I go into some kind of zone, a dream. And I actually wake up afterwards,” he says. As for why he thinks it still resonates with audiences, he has a few theories. “Alfred Hitchcock used to say, ‘Three things you can do to an audience: you can make them laugh, you can make them cry, or you can scare them.’ And if you did two out of three, that’s really a good thing. Well, in A Bronx Tale—especially the play—I do all three.”