His co-starring role in “A Bronx Tale,” Robert DeNiro’s directorial debut, made Chazz Palminteri a star. That ascent, while lucky, was no accident; Palminteri turned his childhood experiences into a one-man show during a low point in his career as a last-chance gamble.
“It was desperation,” Palminteri recalled last week in the lobby of the Prince Music Theater, where he’s reviving the show for a three-night run. “I needed to be noticed; I needed to work. I ran out of money. I borrowed money from a friend to produce it, the reviews were off the charts, the theater kept getting packed, and it was an absolute phenomenon. It was pandemonium. There was ‘Rocky’, and then there was ‘A Bronx Tale.’”
The story of Palminteri’s adamant refusal to sell his story has become the stuff of legend. Studios offered him increasingly large sums, up to one million dollars, to simply hand the play over and walk away. “I had $200 in the bank, but I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I knew once I gave it up, that’s it. They were gonna take it and change it and sanitize it and make it something else. Then Robert DeNiro strolled into the theater, saw the show, met me backstage and said, ‘Oh my God, this is a movie.’”
The show features Palminteri in the guise of 18 different characters as he recalls the two father figures in his life: his own father and a local mob boss who took young the young Calogero Palminteri under his wing. The actor revived “A Bronx Tale” on Broadway in 2007 and has been performing it since, saying that he now brings a different perspective than in its original 1990 run. “I’m a father now,” he explained. “I have a 17-year-old son. Before I was the young boy looking up to the father when I did it; now I’m the father looking at the boy. So the show is richer, it’s deeper. It has more meaning to me.”
The success of the film version led to Palminteri’s current success in Hollywood. His next role was as Cheech, the mafia boss in Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway.” He admits that his play (not to mention his heavy-eyed look and gravelly Bronx accent) may have helped to typecast him as a gangster. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he shrugged. “But some of the wise guys that I’ve played have been very unique characters. I like playing flawed characters. Perfect people are boring.”
"A Bronx Tale"
Sept. 19-21, 8 p.m.
Prince Music Theater
1412 Chestnut St.