We all have memories of our old neighborhood, but for one New York actor, those memories played an integral role in the success of his career.
Actor Chazz Palminteri has been in more than 50 films, but he is perhaps best known for the film and play “A Bronx Tale,” his story of growing up under the influence of two men: his hard-working father and a local gangster. He’s the subject of this week’s One on 1 with Budd Mishkin.
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Can one moment change a life? In the case of Chazz Palminteri: yes.
"It was right here. This is where it happened — right here. This is my building 667 187th Street and because of that incident, my life changed,” says Palminteri.
A local mob boss shot a guy over a parking space, then turned to look at a young Palminteri sitting on his stoop, ten feet away. It’s a memory that never faded.
“Whenever I put my hands like that,” says Palminteri, resting his chin in his hands. “If I just happen to put my hands like that, Îboom!’ It would come in my mind. ÎCause that's the way I was when I was sitting on the stoop."
He remembered it years later in L.A. as a struggling actor, when Palminteri vowed, if they won't give me a good role, I'll write one for myself.
"That's so clear in my head, let me write that down and do that and see where it goes from there and that's how that started,” says Palminteri.
“It” is “A Bronx Tale,” Palminteri's one-man Broadway show. It’s a story based on his upbringing, a young boy caught between two men: his hard-working bus driving father, and a gangster.
When he first staged the show in California almost 20 years ago, Palminteri was single, a desperate out-of-work actor.
Now he's a veteran of more than 50 films, married with two kids, which has changed the way he sees the play.
“I was relating to the son to the father — my father. Now I'm relating the father through the son, Îcause I have the son that age. He’s 12 years old. So it’s different,” says Palminteri.
Most of us know “A Bronx Tale” thanks to the 1993 movie, in which Palminteri plays the mob boss Sonny and Robert De Niro plays Palminteri's real life father, Lorenzo.
The backstory is almost as dramatic as anything on screen.
Palminteri says studios offered him $250,000, then half a million, then a million dollars for the rights to the play. But they wouldn't let him act or write the screenplay.
“I said, Îforget it!’ I mean who was I to say forget it? I had no money, I had no money in the bank. I had nothing, but you know what, I said, ÎI am doing this.’ And I'm going to do this," said Palminteri.
But then De Niro saw it and agreed to direct it, with Palminteri as co-star and screenwriter.
Before shooting, Palminteri spent a day at De Niro’s apartment going over their scenes together. After it was over, it hit him.
“I'm like, ÎOh my god! I just acted with Robert De Niro. Oh my god!’ It didn't hit me Îtil I was in the elevator. I went, ÎOh my god,’ then tears welled up in my eyes and I was like alright we're here, baby. We're here,” recalls Palminteri.
Palminteri hasn't stopped working ever since.
He earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as a hoodlum/writer in “Bullets Over Broadway.”
And he won more praise for his role as a customs agent in "The Usual Suspects."
Occasionally, he's shown questionable judgment, as in the time he decided not to edit out the performance of a certain broadcast journalist in his Christmas movie "Noel.”
Mishkin: Can we discuss my acting performance in “Noel?”
Palminteri: I thought you were terrific!
Mishkin: Did you find a kind of Stanislavski-type feel to it?
Palminteri: I just thought it was very natural. That's why you were there.
Palminteri grew up in the Belmont section of the Bronx. He's raising his kids in Westchester. So his world growing up, and theirs, could not be more different.
"Lacrosse was not even in the realm of possibilities. Horseback riding was not even — guys in the Bronx don't go on horses!" jokes Palminteri.
But Palminteri is still very much at home in the Bronx, be it at Roberto’s Restaurant or on his old street.
He says he always wanted to be an actor, but his first inkling that there was a world beyond his neighborhood came from a musician, Dion Dimucci of Dion and the Belmonts.
"I remember hearing it, and my mother saying you know that's Anabelle's cousin,” says Palminteri. “And they would sing downstairs. It was pretty incredible. I mean, these were the guys that I used to hear and now they got a hit and they were on Dick Clark. That was pretty hip.”
But most of the life lessons came from his father.
“’I'm the tough guy,’ he used to say, Înot those guys,’" says Palminteri, quoting his father. “Try to get up every day and work hard and feed a family. That’s a tough guy. And you know what he said to me? ÎThe saddest thing in life is wasted talent. Don't waste your talent.’”
Palminteri says his dad played the sax and sang, and his mom's claim to fame was that she studied acting with John Garfield.
“My mother and father gave me an incredible amount of confidence — incredible amount of confidence, always. I mean I cannot tell you. To the point of, I mean I would sneeze and they would go, Îlook at that, doesn't he sneeze great? Is that a sneeze or what?’" says Palminteri.
But for his first 15 years in acting, he struggled. He was in a successful band, Razzamachazz.
At the time, Palminteri lived upstairs from his folks, and would occasionally slip an index card under their door asking for $20, $30, $40. The next morning, the money would be under his door.
Palminteri says on the night he was up for an Oscar in 1995, his father handed him a stack of index cards.
“What kind of faith and belief that you have in this child, who's broke, saying to your wife, let’s save them, when he gets nominated we'll. Excuse me, please I was born with the greatest parents that anyone could ever have,” says Palminteri.
That first blush of success came when Palminteri was already in his 40s. It’s a good thing, he says.
“If I would have made it when I was in my early 20's, I would have blown it. Oh definitely, I wasn't that smart. Definitely,” says Palminteri.
But he was smart enough to understand his old neighborhood, more diverse now than in the old days when it was almost exclusively Italian.
Among the true stories depicted in “A Bronx Tale” is his teenage relationship with a black girl. It forced him to sneak around the neighborhood, and confront his parents.
“When the time came for me to really get serious with a girl, that's when it was like, Îwhoa, wait a minute here, no, no, no. Hold on.’ You know, so I said, ÎWait a minute, you taught me to love color and love everybody, but what do you mean dad?’ ÎWell, it’s different, it's different, you’re my son. I said, ÎWell no, no, no, you can't go half way here.’ So I thought that was a good lesson," says Palminteri.
During our interviews, Palminteri often revealed a spiritual side.
"I pray and I go, ÎI am grateful. I am grateful that I do this for a living,’" he says.
Perhaps that spirituality is born out of the fact that Palminteri survived his neighborhood, whereas close friends of his didn't. And he's managed to avoid succumbing to the debilitating excesses of fame.
"Things that I had to sacrifice for success were all the things that I should sacrifice. Those are not good things,” says Palminteri. “So the things that I want to do sometimes, you know, I want to hang out, and run around. Those are good sacrifices. That's called discipline."
Long ago, the Broadway stage may have seemed a world away from 187th and Belmont Avenue for the young Chazz Palminteri.
But here he is with “A Bronx Tale,” his “Piano Man,” his “Born to Run,” the one people always come back to. Now including his own son.
"My son saw my show for the first time and at the end of it he was, like amazed. He was hugging me and kissing me. And he is 12 years old and he said dad, ÎI promise you I won't waste my talent.’"
— Budd Mishkin
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