PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Bronx Tale — Chez Chazz

By Harry Haun
October 26, 2007

Chazz (originally Calogero) Palminteri brought A Bronx Tale, his life story, down to Broadway Oct. 25. In fact, 139 blocks down — from his home stoop on East 187th Street to the Walter Kerr Theatre on West 48th Street. It took him 18 years and two trips to do it.

Back in 1989, he stopped 96 blocks into the trip, lingering from Oct. 10 to Christmas Eve at Playhouse 91. Although a 76-performance run wasn't much to show for the kind of chaotic childhood that he survived and lived to dramatize, some lasting good did come out of it: Chazz Palminteri, an authentic voice as well as an actor of range and rage.

He hasn't been far out of the limelight since, even earning an Oscar nomination as — get this! — a gangster with a gift for dramaturgy — in Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway."

Palminteri got his first screen credit in 1985 as "Hood #2" in Berry Gordy's "The Last Dragon," and he could have been one in real life, given the child's garden of perversities he grew up in. At age nine, he and he alone witnessed a neighborhood killing, and, because he refused to finger the guy who did the whacking, he became a local (very) hero.

"You did a good thing for a bad man," said his dad, a working-class stiff who drove a bus for a living — and, from that point, the race was on for the boy's soul. The hitman, Sonny, became the object of some unhealthy hero-worship, which intensified when the gangster paid him for gofer-ing and tending crap games with bounty exceeding that of a bus driver.

Robert De Niro, a past master of Mean Streets with a pronounced Italian-American proclivity himself, saw a movie in the play's basic tug-of war — father vs. hood, good vs. bad — and made one in 1993. De Niro produced it, made his directing debut with it and played the unflashy role of the father. Palminteri's work-load: playing Sonny and turning his 35-character one-man show into a full-blown screenplay (a Herculean task recently duplicated by Ruben Santiago-Hudson for his play and TV movie, "Lackawanna Blues").

In a life-imitating-art switcheroo that ironically reiterates the story's theme, the actor who played the boy doing the moral balancing-act in the movie — Lillo Brancato — was charged in 2005 with second-degree murder for his alleged role in a burglary in the Bronx in which an off-duty police officer was fatally shot. His acting career never went very far beyond playing a Mafia wannabe on "The Sopranos." Recently, he told New York Magazine he thought the curious turns of his life would also make an interesting movie.

The afterparty was held at Bond 45, and the room was warm with Doo-Wop — the sound of the '60s when the now 55-year-old Palminteri did his tricky, treacherous growing-up. Maybe it was the music, maybe it was the wall-to-wall fans and friends, but he viewed this Broadway revival — a thrice-told Tale now — as something of a miracle he never expected to see (but, of course, always hoped to see). "I'm really happy I'm doing it again," he said.

"I just think not enough people saw it the first time because we closed it right away. They sent me the movie deal, and I closed it. I wanted to make some money. De Niro came and saw it and believed in me. He was the only one who said, 'Hey! I'll do it with you.'"

Plainly a Palminteri partisan, De Niro actually showed up at the Broadway opening and the party that followed — definitely not his thing — tucking himself into a corner booth on the second landing with his wife, Grace Hightower, and the Palminteris (wife Gianna Ranaudo and their 11-year-old son, Dante Lorenzo). Newspaper icon Jimmy Breslin joined the five in the quiet center of the storm that the De Niro bodyguards kept at bay.

To get the shot that had him clucking contentedly — De Niro and Palminteri, Together Again! —Playbill's wily photographer Aubrey Reuben greeted Mrs. De Niro with an especially perky, "Oh, hello, Grace." She smiled and quickly translated: "That means, 'Let me introduce you to my husband.'" And she did. And he got his picture he wanted.

Almost lost in all the De Niro commotion was the indispensable Jerry Zaks, who directed the event — itself a pretty daunting proposition, telling an author how to act his own words — but it wasn't a first for Zaks: "I did direct a playwright doing his own lines when I did the original production of The Marriage of Bette and Boo and Chris Durang was in it. But I've never done a one-man show like this. I love working with Chazz. In fact, I'm gonna gush. He was great. He trusted me, and vice versa. He was never precious about his words. He listened. He made cuts. He made changes. I'd come up with something and say, 'Why don't you try it this way?' and he'd do it. Dream to work with!"

A veritable covey of recent retirees from "The Sopranos" put in an appearance and were lavish in their praise. "I seen the play ten times in Los Angeles, and I loved the movie," said John "Cha-Cha" Ciarcia, "and I had a little tear in my eye tonight, reminiscing how many times I seen the play, and Chazz was as great tonight as when he first done it." He paused, winded, then applied the button: "I think he's going to wind up with a Tony."

The gang's all here, he vowed — or at least a respectable representation: "Joe Pantoliano, Arthur Nascarella, John Ventimiglia, Federico Castelluccio, 'Big Pussy' is coming…"

Pantoliano arrived in a state of upsetment, fresh from a domestic trauma ("My dog killed my cat"), but gamely soldiered on out of loyalty and friendship for Palminteri. He doesn't know when he'll be doing theatre again, but his hat is off to Rosie Perez, his co-star in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, who has just returned in The Ritz. "Theatre requires so much concentration and energy," he said. "It's gotta have at least five cast members in it before I do a play again. Poor Chazz. How does he do a one-man show?"

Vincent Pastore (a.k.a. "Big Pussy") fulfilled his contract via an 11th-hour arrival with the retired heavyweight champion from London, Lennox Lewis, perhaps to keep the excuses to a minimum. "I just got off work," Pastore said sheepishly. "We're doing something here in the city." Is it a movie or a TV show?, he was asked. "It's a secret."

Stephen Baldwin, upholding the family code of arms for his announced-but-AWOL bros Alec and William, also arrived late, and he had an alibi in hand: "I was working but I'll catch the show later. I'm shooting 'Celebrity Apprentice' with Donald Trump for NBC."

Michael Rispoli, who started acting in New York with the Willow Creek troupe (along with Linda Powell, who just opened this week in The Overwhelming), is planning a return to the stage — the stage owned by fellow "Sopranos" player Michael Imperioli, Studio Dante. "It's a play called A Night With Jimmy Breslin: A Column in Two Acts," Rispoli revealed. "I play Jimmy, and we have two female actors playing a variety of roles, walking in and out. We're workshopping it right now, and we'll be opening in April."

Castelluccio proved to be a particularly grateful first-nighter. "I didn't see the show 18 years ago, and I always felt I was missing something in my life because of it," he said, "so when Chazz brought it back and put it on Broadway, I couldn't be happier. I loved every minute of it. The characters were beautifully realized, and I just love the story it tells."

He confessed he found a lot of common ground in the play, "having a great relationship with my father, kinda knowing that life a little bit, growing up in a neighborhood where there a lot of questionable types. Paterson, NJ — around 21st Avenue — was just like growing up in the Bronx, so I related to a lot of the things that Chazz was talking about."

Rocco DiSpirito, who cooks on The Food Network, was another county heard from — specifically: Jamaica, Queens. "I identified with these characters since I grew up in a neighborhood very similar to the one here — a very working-class neighborhood, full of temptation. Every day we walked out of the house, there were good paths and bad paths."

The star, if not award-winning scene-stealer, of "Mean Streets" — Harvey Keitel — was very much in attendance, startling people with the news that he's headed for Carnegie Hall (i.e., to play Jerry Springer in Jerry Springer — The Opera Jan. 29 and 30, a two-performance run which could well open the door for a Broadway engagement.)

He had to think a while if he had ever acted with Palminteri before, and then he decided that he hadn't — but they have been pals for years. In that same boat was Steve Guttenberg, who really laid it on thick: "I just love and admire Chazz so much. He's one of the mentors of my life. He's a Class-A actor, and he's a Class-A person."

Another who was there as a "big fan" was "The Nanny" herself, Fran Drescher. "I never saw the play, but I love the movie," she said. "You know what's great about an actor having a one-man show like this? He can do it till his dying day. It's a story he could tell because it's in flashback. It's a memory. He could be an old man telling the same story."

A Bronx Tale is, indeed, a past that gives to the present and can give to the future.