Chazz hands! Palminteri tells a `Bronx Tale’

If your name was Calogero Lorenzo Palminteri, you might simplify to Chazz, too.

Chazz Palminteri has made a career of playing thugs, gangsters, wiseguys and goombahs – maybe those are all the same thing, but with Palminteri, at least you get a little range. There’s serious bad guy, as in Diabolique, the comic bad guy, as in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, and then there’s the slick, scary gangster, as in Robert DeNiro’s A Bronx Tale.

The 56-year-old Palminteri is taking a break from screen roles to head back to the stage in the one-man play he wrote for himself back in 1988, when it seemed the only jobs he could find were as slick attorneys and assorted tough guys.

The play was A Bronx Tale, which opened off Broadway and sparked Palminteri’s ascension to stardom. Semi-autobiographical, this Tale chronicled Palminteri’s rough childhood growing up on East 187th Street in the early ’60s. “Any other borough,” he says, “seemed 3,000 miles away.”

Sonny was the No. 1 man in the neighborhood, a God to the ordinary folks who feared and revered him. When he was 9-years-old, little Calogero witnessed Sonny gun down a man in the street, but when questioned by the cops, the boy protected Sonny by saying nothing.

From that moment, the boy is pulled by the two men in his life: his father, Lorenzo, a hardworking bus driver, and Sonny, the glamorous thug who nicknames him “C.”

A Bronx Tale, in which Palminteri plays all 18 parts, was a hit, and the movie roles started coming.

About 20 years later, Palminteri is back on stage. He revived A Bronx Tale and took it to Broadway last year. Now he’s on the road and brings the show to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway series. The show opens Tuesday, Sept. 23 and continues through Oct. 19.

On the phone from Austin, Texas, the first tour stop, Palminteri answered a few questions about his life and career.

How did a kid from the Bronx end up as an actor?

When I was about 10 years old, I just knew I wanted to be an actor. I remember watching On the Waterfront on TV thinking, “I could do that!” I just wanted to be an actor for as long as I could remember. I was a storyteller. I’d make up stories on the corner then go tell ’em to the wiseguys. I’m 10 and 11 making people laugh. My mom used to take me to the movies a lot. When I got older, I saw a few plays downtown at the 13th Street Theatre. I knew I could do it.

How did folks in the old neighborhood react to your career choice?

I was a total maverick in the neighborhood. Usually kids became cops, firemen, wiseguys, sanitation engineers, things like that. I was blessed with parents who said, “Go for it. If you have a dream, dream it.” I say this in the play, but it’s true. My father told me, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” The people in the neighborhood laugh. They say, “You used to tell stories for free on the corner. Now we have to pay.”

Most people probably aren’t aware that one of your early jobs was as a singer in your own band, Chazzamatazz.

Yeah, I started singing on the street corner with an a cappella group. Some wiseguy asked me to sing onstage in this bar. Then I got my own band. I still sing. I look forward to singing on Broadway one day.

Speaking of singing, you and the songwriter Jimmy Webb attempted to turn A Bronx Tale into a musical. How’s that going?

For whatever reason, we couldn’t make it work. Jimmy Webb is an incredible songwriter. I love him. He’s a great man. But the music and the book just couldn’t…come to a good conclusion.

So now you’ve made something like 50 movies and you’re back doing A Bronx Tale. Why’d you bring it back?

I’ve done all these movies, and when people come talk to me, it’s always about A Bronx Tale. That’s why I decided to bring the play back. A whole new generation never saw the play. People tell me they love the movie and it changed their kid’s life – he was on a bad road and is now on the straight and narrow. On Broadway, people after the show told me the show changed their life or their kid’s life. So I want to go out on the road and bring it to other people. And I’ll add that people who love the movie say the play’s better.

You’ve come back to the play as a father yourself (son Dante Lorenzo is about to be 13 and daughter Gabriella Rose is 6). How does that affect you as a performer?

When I first did the play, I was a boy relating to the father. Now I’m that father relating to the son. It’s pretty amazing. The show has a deeper meaning for me now. Right after Broadway, my father, Lorenzo, passed away. He had a beautiful life – he was gonna be 90. The play has triple meaning for me now. My father loved the show. He liked to say, “I’m the real Lorenzo. DeNiro is playing me!”

Why do you think A Bronx Tale is so loved by so many people who have probably never set foot in the Bronx?

It’s a universal story. Anywhere I go, people are laughing and rolling and reacting. It’s a coming-of-age story, a father-son story. There’s racism. It’s got everything. Like Woody Allen said: “It’s all about the story.”

A Bronx Tale runs Sept. 23 through Oct. 19 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$85. Call 415-512-7770 or visit or

PLEASE NOTE: Palminteri will take part in a Q&A following a screening of Bullets Over Broadway on Monday, Sept. 22 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., San Francisco. The movie is at 7 p.m. and yours truly will serve as moderator for the event. Hope to see you there. Call 415-621-6120 for information.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *