When a kid growing up in the Bronx, Chazz Palminteri told an audience at the Bedford Playhouse recently, he was attracted to the gangster element like the one that is portrayed in “A Bronx Tale,” which Palminteri wrote and starred in (this discussion, which the writer took part in, happened after the screening of the film -ed). Yes, he knew they were dangerous and theirs was a life that he didn’t want to emulate, but the whole neighborhood cast of characters he just couldn’t ignore. On the other hand, association did seem to pay off when Sonny pulled young Chazz out of the ill-fated car that killed his four friends in. The actual truth, though, firmly sides with the voice that took precedence in the two worlds Palminteri went back and forth between.
“I got in the car and thought of my parents,” said Palminteri. “All that came together in one moment, and I backed out.”
No qualms about the skewing the real story, poetic license prevailed in a few places. “I took some of the events and put them on steroids,” Palminteri admitted.
The drama still reverberating for the screening, the behind-the-scenes stories need no embellishment, and the impetus that gave rise to the 1993 film is no exception.
Struggling to make his way as an actor in the late eighties, Palminteri worked as a doorman and laid out the three rules that always deny access. You never touch the rope, you never get in the doorman’s face, and you never say, “Do you know who I am?”
So when one reveler broke all three rules in succession, Palminiteri obliged. “I know who you are,” remembered Palminteri, “You’re the guy who’s not getting in.”
In response, the future star was told that he would be fired within fifty minutes. “Swifty Lazar was the biggest agent in the world. He could have made my career,” lamented Palminteri.
Instead, he was out of job and on the way home to his dumpy apartment. But the California writer’s life crystallized among the morass.
He caught a glimpse of his father’s words about wasted talent on the refrigerator, and resolve replaced the abrupt freeze-out. “If they won’t give me a part, I’ll make one up for myself,” Palminteri asserted.
He wrote a ten-minute piece about Sonny for his theater workshop and continued writing segments until he had a ninety minute-long one-man show. “I performed it in LA. Every writer wanted to write the screenplay, every director wanted to direct it, and every actor wanted to play Sonny,” said Palminteri. “It was insane.”
Sanity was something he fortunately lacked as the offers came pouring in. “I had $200 in the bank, and I turned down $250,000,” said Palminteri. “I insisted on writing the screenplay and playing Sonny.”
The screenwriter also feared a sanitized Hollywood version in which Sonny would live. “It will bring people down,” they told him.
Of course, the suits missed the point. “Sonny has to die so the boy could learn. It’s a catharsis—through death comes life,” Palminteri lectured.
The offers eventually reached one million dollars, and one contingent told him that a twenty-five million dollar movie needed a big name attached to it. Falling on deaf ears, the power brokers walked away telling the upstart that his movie would never be made.
The Bedford resident was forced to agree. “You’re right,” he told them, “by you.”
The bank account barely holding, the retort soon went beyond a mere boast. “You play Sonny and write the screenplay, and I’ll play your father and direct,” Robert De Niro told Palminteri after seeing the show.
Almost too good to be true, the stories actually go up a notch. To begin, Palminteri persuaded De Niro to use the real Eddie Mush in the film. His luck as bad in life as in the film, the bookies stopped taking his bets. “Everyone would bet the other way and the bookies got killed,” said Palminteri.
Death was no reprieve either. “His hearse ended up getting a flat,” joked Palminteri.
It follows that Mush couldn’t even pick a winner when the duo rolled up in the Bronx and set up a meeting for noon the next day. “I can come at three, because I got to make the daily double at Aqueduct tomorrow,” Palminteri recalled.
De Niro was sold nonetheless, and as it turned out, all the gangsters portrayed were from the neighborhood. They certainly did justice and were in no need of any acting method.
So in the famous craps scene, De Niro insisted on using actual money, and most of the $15,000 disappeared. “These guys were gangsters, they couldn’t help themselves,” Palminteri beamed.
But the nine-year-old who played young Calogero might have taken the cake. He just walked in, called De Niro “Bob” and proceeded to rip up his lines, according to Palminteri. “There’s nobody coming in who will do this any better,” De Niro decided quickly.
In the end, though, Palminteri keeps the best story in the family. On the way to the Oscars for his 1995 Nomination in “Bullets Over Broadway,” his parents revealed an envelope. Inside was a series of notes asking his parents for $10 here and $20 there. “We saved these cards because we knew this day would come,” Palminteri revealed.
“Who were these people?” Palminteri still expresses wonder about it.
Maybe always the actor, Palminteri definitely knew the answer. “My parents were 100% right all the way,” he concluded.
Rich Monetti is special to Screen Comment. He is a freelance and entertainment writer living in New York. You can find all his movie reviews here