It started as a dispute over a parking space — or so it appeared. It ended with one driver shooting another dead. It was a fall day in 1960, and nine-year-old Calogero Palminteri, who just then was sitting on the stoop of his apartment house on East 187th Street in the Belmont section of the Bronx, saw the whole thing — and Sonny, the neighborhood capo di tutti capi who had murdered the other man out of pure rage, was well aware that the nine-year-old kid on the stoop had seen the whole thing.
"Obviously you don't forget something like that," says the Chazz Palminteri whom nine-year-old Calogero grew up to be. Nor does he forget how, back then, he feigned a blank when the cops came and asked him to identify the killer out of a lineup. Or how Sonny forthwith took the kid under his wing, brought him around to wiseguy hangouts, taught him to shoot craps for good luck, rewarded him with $100 bills.
But most of all, actor–playwright Chazz Palminteri does not forget the words of his own father, proud, solid Lorenzo Palminteri, an MTA bus driver in the Bronx for 29 years who had — still has, at 87 — nothing but scorn for the mob and everyone in it. "You think they're tough guys?" he would say to his son. "I'm the tough guy. The working man is the tough guy." And then this: "Always remember what I am saying to you. The saddest thing in this world is wasted talent."
That last sentence is inscribed on a card that the son (now 55) has carried around since boyhood, and it is that card and those words that hinged two crucial turning points in the life of the Chazz Palminteri who, 18 years after its smash success on the West Coast and here Off-Broadway, brings his one-man drama, A Bronx Tale, back to New York, this time to the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway. The first turning point was in 1988, when Palminteri, fired from his job as a doorman ("the only thing I knew to do") at a Los Angeles nightclub, alone, broke and scared, "drove back to my dumpy little apartment in my dumpy little car, and, sitting on the edge of my bed, wondered how the hell I'd got here and what the hell am I going to do. Then I saw my father's card, and I started crying. Got back in the car, drove to a Thrifty drugstore, bought five pads of legal paper, came back to the apartment.
"Now, what am I going to write? That's when I thought of the killing that had always stuck in my head. I sat there and wrote it out as a scene in 10 or 15 minutes." A process of workshopping and nursing that nucleus on Monday nights at Theater West in Los Angeles led to the full, menacing, yet raucously funny — and above all, truthful — A Bronx Tale, written and performed by Chazz himself (all 18 characters, Sonny not least), that would soon have every studio in Hollywood bidding for it.
A $25,000 check from Peter Gatien, proprietor of the Limelight club in New York where Chazz had been a doorman and bouncer, financed putting A Bronx Tale into a Los Angeles showcase theatre. Then the movie studios came, offering Chazz a quarter of a million dollars, a half million dollars for the rights to his script — with only one small proviso. Nobody wanted him to be an actor in the movie — and to be an actor in a major movie was the whole purpose of onetime Strasberg student and Off-Broadway actor Palminteri's expedition to Los Angeles in the first place.
Second turning point: A studio upped the offer to $1,000,000, at a time when Palminteri had "only a few hundred dollars in the bank." But at the meeting they were obdurate on his not being in the movie. "I ask, 'Is there a bathroom here?' I lock myself in the bathroom, throw some water on my face, ask myself: What the hell am I going to do now? I put my hand in my pocket — and there's my father's card. I come out and say, 'No, thanks a lot, but no. I'll wait.'"
What saved him from waiting forever was when Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro's producing partner, came to see Chazz doing A Bronx Tale, and told De Niro he'd better go see it.
"Then Bob [De Niro] asked to meet with me. He said, 'If you make it with me, I'll make it right. I think you'll be just great as Sonny, and I think you should write the screenplay. I'll play Lorenzo [the kid's father, i.e., Chazz's father] and I'll direct it.' He shook my hand, and that's the way it came out."
Some months ago, Palminteri was in Las Vegas shooting a movie called "Yonkers Joe" for producers Trent Othick and John Gaughan of Go Productions and director Robert Celestino. Celestino recalled having seen their star onstage in A Bronx Tale.
"You know," Chazz told them, "I've done 51 movies, but people all over the world still say to me, 'Oh my God, that show changed my life.' So I've been thinking about doing it again. On Broadway. A limited run. One more time. I'd especially want young people to see it."
This time, Chazz's father's card was not necessary. "Trent Othick looked at me and said, 'Okay. You want to do it? We'll do it.' Suddenly," says Palminteri, "Jerry Zaks became available [to direct]. Suddenly the Walter Kerr became available. Never happens. Divine intervention." Plus a wee bit of talent, in and out of the Bronx.