Chazz Palminteri: On a skyrocket to stardom

By Jerry Tallmer

They called themselves the Razzmachazz, because their lead singer was a kid — well, a husky 6-foot-3 would-be actor in his 20s — called Chazz or Mr. Chazz or sometimes just plain C. His real name was Calogero Lorenzo Palminteri, and his father, Lorenzo Palminteri, was and would be a New York City bus driver on a route through the Bronx for 29 years. We are in fact talking about the Belmont section of the Bronx, where the Razzmachazz had been preceded, somewhat more famously, in the 1960s, by Dion and the Belmonts. This was also the neighborhood, or had been back in the ’50s, lorded over by a local capo — call him Sonny — who had once shot a man to death in a parking dispute right in front of the then 9-year-old Chazz Palminteri’s eyes. And 9-year-old Chazz had looked right at Sonny in a police lineup and kept his mouth shut, said nothing. Sonny never forgot it, he took the boy under his wing, much to the anger of Chazz’s honest, honorable, hard-working father, setting forth a battle for the soul of his son that forms the nexus of A Bronx Tale, the play and movie that would propel Chazz Palminteri to stage and screen stardom and in which he can be seen — doing all 18 parts, solo — this very moment at the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway.

Through it all ring the words of Lorenzo Palminteri, after he’d marched into the mob’s hangout to face down the capo who would corrupt the hero-worshipping boy. “It’s not funny,” the MTA bus driver had said as he handed back a fistful of dirty money. “It’s not funny when your 9-year-old son has a bigger bank account than you do.” Then, at home, to that son: “You think they’re the tough guys? I’m the tough guy. The working man is the tough guy.” Later still, after one of his father’s own heroes, a prizefighter named Billy Bello, had died at 20 of an overdose: “Look at all the talent Billy Bello had, and he wasted it. Always remember what I’m saying to you. The saddest thing in this world is wasted talent.”

It is these last nine words, inscribed on a small card, that Chazz Palminteri has carried around all his adult life, and still carries; words that would play a crucial role in at least two huge turning points in that life.

The first was after he’d been fired as a doorman-cum-bouncer at a nightclub in Los Angles after a contretemps with a noisy patron, leaving Chazz dead broke and nowhere to go. The second was only a few years later, when he’d been offered $1 million for the film rights to A Bronx Tale on condition that he not write the screenplay or be in the movie.

But first we have to get him there.

He was born May 15, 1952, or maybe 1951, or maybe some other time, it’s not quite clear. “I studied acting even before I was singing,” says the Palminteri who’d emerged from Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx. “I got into Lee Strasberg’s class at the Strasberg Institute. How’d I like him? He was … intimidating. Terribly bright. What I liked was that, if he didn’t think something you were doing was right, he would say flat-out: ‘Don’t do that!’ My parents?” — Lorenzo and Rosina Anello Palminteri, both now 87, knock on wood in good health — “They always supported me with my dream.”

For the best part of a decade, Chazz knocked around Off-Broadway, doing showcases and like that, one in particular being The Guys in the Truck, about sports broadcasters, for the American Theater of Actors. He also was one of many actors to do a stint in Israel Horovitz’s long-running Line at Edith O’Hara’s tiny playhouse on West 13th Street. To pay the rent he worked as doorman-cum-bouncer (“Yeah, the velvet ropes”) at Peter Gatien’s Limelight nightclub in a former church, Sixth Avenue at 20th Street. In 1982, feeling he was going nowhere, Chazz decided to try his luck — perhaps change his luck — by taking a shot at Los Angeles.

“I went to Peter Gatien, who offered me the job of managing his club in Chicago, at $65,000 a year plus a new car. I said I’d rather he’d fire me, so I could take the $147 unemployment and buy a ticket to Los Angeles. He said: ‘Oh well, if that’s what you want,’ and fired me. In Los Angeles I started getting jobs in television right away, a whole bunch of stuff” — [Hill Street Blues (a wiseguy), Matlock (a cop), Peter Gunn (a soldier), etc.] — “a hot stretch that went on for a while, but all this time I was trying to get into films. It’s very hard, very difficult, for an unknown to get into a major film, and now I was running out of money, so again I got a job as doorman — the only thing I knew to do — at a Los Angeles club called 20-20.”

And there, one night, there was “this guy yelling unbelievably outside, and I tried to get him to be quiet, and the owner comes out and says: ‘Oh, Swifty!’ and I say oh shit, and I’m fired.” The gentleman whom Chazz had tried to quiet was big-time agent Irving Paul “Swifty” Lazar.

“I get back to my little dumpy apartment in my little dumpy car, and I’m sitting on my bed wondering how the hell did I get here and what the hell am I going to do now, when I look up and see my father’s card, and all of a sudden I started crying. I got back in the car and drove to a Thrifty drugstore and bought five pads of legal-size paper, came home and asked myself: Now what am I going to write about? It must be a one-man show where they’ll all notice me. And the thing that came into my head, stuck in my head, was this time when I was 9 years old, sitting on the stoop of our apartment house at 667 East 187th Street, and I saw this guy killing another guy over a parking space. I wrote it in five or ten minutes, and did a workshop of it at Theater West, and then called Peter Gatien in New York and said I needed some money to keep going on. Peter said: ‘Let me think about it,’ and next day a $25,000 check from him arrived. I got myself a little theater, the West Coast Ensemble on Hollywood Boulevard, 60 seats, this was 1988, and did it there on Monday nights, at first with no director, then with Mark Travis as director, shaping it, changing it, if we did 20 minutes, keeping 10 of them, if we did 10, keeping five, and then the reviews came out. Insane. And my life skyrocketed.”

The movie studios started bidding for the film rights. One studio offered a quarter of a million dollars, another offered a half-million. “It was insane, Jerry,” Chazz says again. “The two hottest properties in Hollywood. There was Rocky and there was me.” But most insane, as far as Palminteri was conerned, was the fact, or the proviso, that not one studio wanted Palminteri to write the screenplay or act in the movie — the whole reason he had trekked to Los Angeles to begin with.

“I still had only a few hundred dollars in the bank. I signed with William Morris, and they took me to another studio where I’m offered $1 million but with the same conditions, no screenplay by me, no role for me. I say: ‘Is there a bathroom around here?’ and I lock myself in the bathroom and throw cold water on my face and ask myself: What the hell am I going to do now? And I put my hand in my pocket, and there’s my father’s card. I come out of the bathroom and say No. The guy says: ‘This movie won’t get made,’ and I say: ‘I know it won’t get made with you…’ but sooner or later I’ll find someone who’ll believe in me.’”

It was once again Peter Gatien who came through when Chazz, who had been doing his solo A Bronx Tale for six months in somewhat larger premises in Los Angeles, said he’d like to bring it to New York, where it opened to considerable acclaim (some of it from this theatergoer) and ran for three sold-out months in the fall and winter of 1989 at Playhouse 91 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

(Peter Gatien, after brushes with the law here, has relocated as a nightclub entrepreneur in his native Canada. “We’re friends,” says Chazz, leaving it at that.)

“I was tired, and I wanted to do movies and make some money” — at which point, fortuitously, Robert De Niro, who had been urged by his executive assistant, Jane Rosenthal, into seeing the show in Los Angles, came and saw it again in New York. Next day he met with Chazz. He wanted to make the movie. “If you make it with me,” he said, “I’ll make it right. I think you’d be great as Sonny, and I think you should write the screenplay. I’ll play Lorenzo [i.e., Chazz’s father] and I’ll direct it” — De Niro’s first bigtime task of direction. They shook hands, and that was it.

The movie, which came out in 1993, has played around the world and over and over again on the tube. There are, at this writing, 53 entries in the Internet Movie Data Base for Palminteri as an actor, in roles on both sides of the law, mostly heavies but not all. His performance as Cheech, Jennifer Tilly’s bodyguard, in Woody Allen’s 1994 Bullets Over Broadway won him an Academy Award nomination, and Chazz has nothing but good to say about writer/director Allen. “A joy to work with, really free. He wanted me to improvise, gave me a feeling of really creating. He trusted me. He was good.”

Another director Palminteri respects is Bryan Singer, in whose The Usual Suspects (1995) Chazz plays U.S, Customs agent Dave Kujan. “This young baby-faced kid,” Chazz says of Singer (who is now 42). “So much passion, and so bright.” A few other film appearances Chazz is proud of occur in Mulholland Falls, Hurlyburly (“in which I’m the crazy ex-con”), and Analyze This, again with De Niro.

Then there’s Faithful (1996), directed by Paul Mazursky from a play and screenplay by Chazz Palminteri, who in it plays “a hit man who goes to a woman’s house to kill her and at the last moment finds out she’s about to kill herself.” The woman is Cher. Palminteri calls it a black comedy. Maybe that also applies to Dante and the Debutante, a script by him, as yet unmade, “about a thief who meets a debutante, and she’s in a wheelchair.”

The man — the would-be movie star — who at not too tender an age sat on his bed in his dumpy little Los Angeles apartment, in tears, wondering where to turn next, has since had a career that, he says — or says again — “has been going like a rocket ship.” His income has multiplied, not many times but “a hundred times.” In the time gap between the Off-Broadway and the Broadway productions of A Bronx Tale, Palminteri returned to New York to appear alongside Al Pacino, Steve Buscemi, Charles Durning, John Goodman, and the late Tony Randall (who stole the show) in the American Actors’ Theater production in Lower Manhattan of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Chazz played Ernesto Roma, a character based on Ernst Roehm, the Nazi strong boy murdered on the orders of his old comrade and jailmate, Adolf Hitler.

And Sonny, the capo who is killed off toward the end of A Bronx Tale — at this remove, is the real Sonny alive or dead? Palminteri does not say, will not say, will not speak his actual name. Sonny is a character in a play and in a movie, the one that fans keep coming up to Chazz to say they’ve never forgot him, or, for that matter, young Calogero’s bus-driver dad — “Oh my God, that show changed my life … that thing the kid’s father said about not wasting your talent.”

Which is one of the reasons Palminteri has now brought A Bronx Tale to Broadway — to give a chance, he says, to young people who may not have seen it to see it now. He wanted, and asked for, and got Jerry Zaks as a director — he’d never met him but liked what Zaks did some years ago with Guys & Dolls. Out of nowhere, the Walter Kerr became available.

Everything in Chazz’s life is, well, skyrocketing. His wife, Gianna Ranaudo — they met in church — is a producer (Tracks of Color) in her own right. Their son Dante and daughter Gabriella are doing fine. And the bus driver and the bus driver’s wife? They’ll be coming up from Florida for the opening, just as they did for the Off-Broadway prelude. After all, as Chazz Palminteri points out, they know A Bronx Tale is a love letter to them.