How Chazz Palminteri risked $1 million on his future - and won

For Chazz Palminteri, a witnessed murder led to a life in the theater and film, and an electrifying one-man show.
For Chazz Palminteri, a witnessed murder led to a life in the theater and film, and an electrifying one-man show.
Posted: September 13, 2013

SO WHAT would you do if you had $200 in the bank and you were offered $1 million? Chazz Palminteri told those who proffered the money to, in so many words, stick it in an anatomically inconvenient place.

It was 1989 and Palminteri, at the time just another show-biz hopeful, was staging his autobiographical one-man show, "A Bronx Tale," in Los Angeles.

"It became the hottest property in the world since 'Rocky,' " recalled Palminteri, in a voice redolent of his native Bronx, during a recent chat at the Four Seasons Hotel. He was visiting Philly to beat the drum about the return of "A Bronx Tale," which will be at the Prince Music Theater Thursday through Sept. 21.

"Every writer, producer, actor wanted to do it, but they wanted to put a star in the role of Sonny and they wanted an 'A-plus' writer to write the screenplay," Palminteri recalled. "But I refused. They said, 'Here's $250,000, go away.' And I said, 'No.' I had $200 in the bank, but I said, 'No. I'm doin' this no matter what.'

"Three weeks later, I got an offer for $500,000 from another studio to walk away. I said, 'Forget it.' They tried to freeze me out, these people. About a month later, I went in with my new agents at the time, William Morris, and got offered $1 million to walk away. I said, 'I play Sonny, I write the screenplay.' They thought I was crazy. Maybe I was. But I just felt determined."

Palminteri's unshakeable belief that he had to write the screen adaptation as well as play Sonny - the Bronx mob boss who takes the young Palminteri (ID'd in the script as "Calogero") under his wing after the youngster refuses to tell cops he saw Sonny gun down another man - ultimately bore fruit. A week after he passed on the million-dollar offer, Robert De Niro came to a performance and insisted on meeting him after the show.

"I walked in the dressing room, and he said, 'It could be one of the greatest shows I've ever seen. This is a movie, it reeks of a movie. You gotta play Sonny. You gotta write the screenplay. I'll direct it, I'll play your father; that's how we'll get it done,' " Palminteri recalled. "I shook his hand and that was it."

The critically acclaimed flick was released in 1993 and launched Palminteri on a career that has included parts in "The Usual Suspects" and "Jade," and recurring roles in such TV series as "Modern Family" and "Rizzoli & Isles."

Next year, he'll be seen in the much-awaited John Gotti biopic starring John Travolta as the late New York crime czar.

De Niro's assessment of the piece, incidentally, was hardly hyperbolic: If you've never seen "A Bronx Tale" live - even if you're not a fan of the film version - you have missed an astonishing acting exhibition. Palminteri plays 18 parts, including female characters, with no wardrobe changes.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the "Bronx Tale" tale is that Palminteri (whose real first name is Calogero) was not emotionally scarred by witnessing a cold-blooded murder.

"It didn't do anything to me," he said. "The only thing it did was make me a star."


Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St., 8 p.m. Thursday through Sept. 21, $150 (includes meet-and-greet) and $75, 215-972-1000, princemusictheater.org.

'Heights' turns up heat


 

We're not totally convinced that the sudden midweek spike in temperature was purely a function of meteorological happenstance, given that it happened the same day that "In the Heights" officially opened at the Walnut Street Theatre.

With its sultry Latino rhythms and pulsating hip-hop beats, sure-handed (and -footed) performances and mega-watt energy, the production that is igniting the region's 2013-14 Broadway musical season may be the reason things got so caliente a couple days ago.

To be sure, if you're looking for intricate plotting, this slice-of-life look at the everyday trials, tribulations and victories large and small of the residents of Washington Heights, a predominantly Hispanic slice of upper Manhattan, is probably not worth the investment of time and money.

Author Quiara Alegria Hudes, whose West Philly childhood inspired her script, seeks to make no grand statements. Instead, "In the Heights," which runs through Oct. 20, is far more interested in the day-to-day events and emotions - falling in love, struggling to stay financially above water, seeking a better future for loved ones - that, in aggregate, result in a person's life.

But there are plenty of funny lines, and Hudes unerringly hits the right emotional notes, even when you can see plot turns coming well before they play out. As a result, the lack of a big picture is rendered irrelevant.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's toe-tapping, exposition-filled score keeps the action lively. The actors are a joy to watch, performing Michelle Gaudette's frenetic choreography on Anna Louizos' evocative barrio set under the sharp direction of Bruce Lumpkin.

Space doesn't permit all the deserved kudos, but special mention must be made of: Julia Hunter, as Nina, the conflicted, first college student from her family; Gizel Jimenez, as the yearning-for-more firecracker, Vanessa; Perry Young, as the well-intentioned bodega owner Usnavi; and Matthew J. Harris, as the comic-relief-providing Sonny. They infuse "In the Heights" with a joie de vivre that lights up the Walnut and gets the musical theater season off to a flying start.


Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., show times vary, $92.25, $81.75, $74.75 and $71.75, 800-726-1420, ticketmaster.com.


On Twitter: @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes

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