Not unlike fellow paisan Sylvester Stallone, Chazz Palminteri got his break telling a story he wrote that he refused to sell off unless he was directly involved in being the creative midwife. For Stallone, that tale was Rocky. For the latter, it was A Bronx Tale.
Originally staged as an autobiographical one-man show by Palminteri, a handshake deal with Robert DeNiro led to a 1993 film adaptation. DeNiro directed and starred, while Palminteri penned the screenplay performed the role of gangster Sonny LoSpecchio in the movie.
Fast forward to 2017 when A Bronx Tale: The Musical hit the Great White Way thanks to the involvement of show producer and ex-record company president Tommy Mottola, along with stage direction by DeNiro and Jerry Zaks, music by storied composer Alan Menken and lyrics by up-and-comer Glenn Slater. While the musical is currently playing in Chicago and on the road, Palminteri is dusting off the one-man show version and bringing it to The Paramount in Huntington.
“This is the original show that I wrote in 1988 and I did in 1989,” Palminteri recalled. “They offered me millions of dollars. I had $200 in the bank and said no. Finally, [DeNiro] came to see it and said that I should play Sonny and I should write it because it’s about my life. He said he’d play my father and direct it and that we’d go partners and that’s how it happened.”
The biggest difference in this iteration of A Bronx Tale is the fact that its author plays 18 different roles—young, old, male and female. It’s a demanding production that Palminteri handles by staying in shape.
“I’m a bit of a fanatic. When I know that I’m about to do it, I step up a little bit and I actually rehearse on the treadmill when I do it. I set the treadmill up and read all the lines, because it’s a very physical show,” Palminteri said. “People sometimes love the one-man show more than the musical or the movie. It’s just different. Each one is different.”
The decades-long critical and commercial response to A Bronx Tale has been overwhelmingly positive, largely due to the complexity of emotions and relationships at the heart of Palminteri’s trip down memory lane. Family, racial tension, coming of age and trying to parse out the differences between good and evil crop up. The story is centered on a young Italian teen growing up in the Bronx and being befriended by a ruthless mobster, much to the consternation of the boy’s father. It’s a heartfelt story Palminteri began writing out of financial necessity when he was hustling as a struggling actor and a part-time bouncer trying to make ends meet.
“I wrote it back then because I ran out of money. I wasn’t going to waste my talent and I knew I had to do something that would get me noticed, so I wrote a one-man show,” Palminteri says. “I went to Thrifty Drug Store, got five yellow legal pads and then I had to figure out what the hell I was going to write about. So I wrote about that killing [I witnessed when I was a kid], because it always stayed in my head, and the relationship I had with the wise guys and my dad. I started out by writing the five-minute monologue of the killing and I did that for my theater workshop and they just freaked out. Each week I would write and on Mondays I would perform another piece. At the end of 10 months to a year, I’d read 90 minutes of a one-man show. I did it and boom—my life exploded.”
In the two decades plus since the celluloid version of A Bronx Tale made Palminteri a household name, he’s established himself as an in-demand film and television actor and even managed to bring his one-man show to Broadway for a 2007-08 Broadway run. A creatively restless sort, the diehard Yankees fan has also become partners in Chazz Palminteri Ristorante Italiano, on E. 48th Street and Second Avenue, which is being run by Jack and Jeff Sinanaj of Empire Steak House Fame. Palminteri is a frequent presence whose favorite dishes are A Bronx Tale (black linguini with brandy sauce, clams, shrimp and lobster) and osso bucco (“the best in the city—anywhere”).
“It’s a fabulous restaurant and it’s doing great,” he said with pride. “I go there a lot during the week, because I’m in the city taking meetings and I go there to eat, a lot of times on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.”
Interestingly enough. A Bronx Tale has come full circle for Palminteri, whose two children are also in the performing arts. Twenty-three-year-old Dante has acted in Orange Is the New Black and Law & Order. Seventeen-year-old Gabriella will be featured in an upcoming May production of the Bronx native’s life story, to be staged at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains. Her participation in this project has proved to be a pleasant surprise for the sexagenarian actor/screenwriter.
“Stepinac High School in White Plains is a very prestigious school for the arts. So they asked Alan Menken and I if they could do A Bronx Tale for two weeks. We sold the rights for amateur theater groups and high schools, but you can’t do it until the tour is over. So we said fine, because they’re really good and we said we’d give it to them for two weeks,” he said. “It’s an all-boys school, so they have to audition girls from the outside. My daughter gets the part of my mother. Think about that. When I wrote it in 1988, I didn’t even have a wife then. Who would think that I would I write something, have a child and 30 years later that child would play my mother?”
Aside from his one-man set, possibly to become a quasi-residency at The Paramount (Palminteri returns in June), and his recurring role on Modern Family as Shorty, the best friend of patriarch Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill), 2019 will also include a pay cable series based on late mob boss Bumpy Johnson.
“My TV series is coming out in October called Godfather of Harlem with Forest Whitaker and Vincent D’Onofrio on Epix,” Palminteri said. “I’m doing the one-man show this year in a lot of different places. The show is doing really great and life is good.”
Chazz Palminteri will be performing his one-man show, A Bronx Tale, on March 31 at The Paramount, 370 New York Ave., Huntington. For more information, visit www.theparamountny.com or call 631-673-7300.
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