Chazz Palminteri was at a crossroads. A New York actor, born and raised in the Bronx, he had moved to Los Angeles in 1986 to try and make it in Hollywood. He found occasional work in television, on hit shows including "Hill Street Blues," "Dallas" and "Matlock," but a film career was eluding him. He ran out of money, so he took a job as a doorman at a nightclub. "One night I didn’t let in a gentleman who was very arrogant to me," he says. "He said, 'Do you know who I am?' I said, 'Yes, you're the man who's not getting in tonight.' He said that I was going to be fired, and I laughed." Palminteri had no idea that the man was the famous and powerful agent Swifty Lazar. "And he did get me fired."
Despondent, Palminteri returned home and tried to figure out what he would do. "I sat on the edge of my bed, and I saw this card that my father had given to me," he recalls. "It said, 'The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.' So I said, 'If they won't give me a great part, then I'll write one for myself.' I went out and bought five tabs of yellow paper at Thrifty drugstore, came home and thought, 'What am I going to write?' And then I remembered this killing that I saw when I was nine years old. I was sitting on the stoop, and this man killed another man right in front of me. The cops wanted me to identify the man who pulled the trigger, and I refused. I told my father, and I said, 'Dad, I did a good thing, right?' And he said, 'Well, you did a good thing for a bad man, son.'
"The wise guy saw me all the time after the shooting, and we befriended each other," Palminteri continues. "He knew that I knew what happened. He really liked me, and he was almost like another father. But my father was always afraid that I was going to fall prey to that kind of life. He said, 'Don't admire those guys. You have to admire the working man. I'm the tough guy; I work for a living.' I thought about this after I got fired, and realized it was an interesting dynamic to write about. So I put the boy in the middle — with the wise guy, Sonny, on one side, and my father on the other — and began to write."
That was the beginning of A Bronx Tale — not the well-known, well-received 1993 movie, but the life-changing, semi-autobiographical one-man play on which it would be based. "It took almost a year to write," says Palminteri. "I was playing all 18 characters, so I rehearsed for a long time." A Bronx Tale opened in 1989 at a 72-seat theatre in Los Angeles — it would subsequently play Off-Broadway as well — and became a huge hit. Then Hollywood came calling. "They were offering $250,000 for the play, but they didn’t want me. They wanted a star. I said no, and the offer went up to $500,000 and then a million dollars. But they still didn't want me. At that time I had $187 in the bank. But I just said no. I knew that this was my shot. You get that shot once in a lifetime, and you don't give it up."
And then Robert De Niro made him an offer he couldn't refuse. "He saw the play and said, 'I think you would be great as Sonny,'" says Palminteri. "'You should write the screenplay, and I'll direct it.' He shook my hand and that was it. Looking back at it now, I don't know how I held out. But I always believed that I was gonna make it. I was very fortunate to have Robert De Niro believe in me, too." Palminteri has worked steadily ever since, appearing in more than 50 films, including Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway," for which he received an Academy Award nomination.
In 2007 Palminteri decided to revisit his play, only this time he took it to Broadway, where it was directed by four-time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks.
"In the past 20 years, so many people have said to me, 'Chazz, I love Bronx Tale, it changed my life, it changed my son's life, my daughter's life,'" he says. "It shows them that they can be anything they want to be. The saddest thing in life is wasted talent, and the choices you make will shape your life forever. That's what the boy says at the end. Bronx Tale has such an impact on young people, that I wanted a whole new generation to see it. Now I’m taking the play around the country, to all those people who couldn't come to see it in New York."
In returning to A Bronx Tale after so many years, Palminteri found that it resonated with him in new ways. "When I first did it, I wasn't married and didn't have any children," says the actor, who has a 13-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter. "I always related from the son to the father, but now I relate from the father to the son as well. I think it has more depth."
Critics have raved just as they did 20 years ago, but Palminteri's favorite review came from his son, Dante.
"My son had seen me in the movies, but he was blown away when he saw the play," says Palminteri. "When he came backstage, he had tears in his eyes. He said, 'Dad, I promise you I won't waste my talent.' It was the best reaction I've ever had."