MAKING HIS POINT Palminteri.
As exciting as A Bronx Tale is, its most dramatic moment happened offstage, in 1990 when Chazz Palminteri was performing his one-man show in Los Angeles and turned down a million-dollar deal for film rights because they refused to let him recreate his role in the film.
That won’t be in the show at the Providence Performing Arts Center April 15-18, just the semi-autobiographical account of his New York boyhood in the 1960s, when a friendly mobster named Sonny competed with his bus-driver father for his affections and place as role model.
Was turningn down so much money as painful as it sounds?
Well, Palminteri replies that the studio’s first offer was the hardest.
“Because it came out of left field,” he says. “Two-fifty. Two-hundred-fifty-thousand. And I didn’t have any money at the time. I only had a couple hundred dollars in the bank.”
Palminteri is speaking in the PPAC backstage green room, where performers take it easy before going on. He’s relaxing on a plush couch, smartly dressed in black slacks and a muted wide-stripe shirt, hair combed back. Fifty-eight next month, he is Sicilian-American handsome in the rugged way that makes him so on-the-money in the tough guy roles among his 50-plus films. Those roles have ranged from dry comedy, as a humorless, frustrated mob boss in Analyze This, to demanding dramatic roles, such as the gentle, anguished father in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.
“They said, ‘No. No, we don’t want you,’ ” he explains. “They said, ‘You’re terrific, but you’re not a star, so we can’t use you.’ ”
Palminteri wanted to reprise Sonny not out of ego, but because he felt that no one could do him better.
When he premiered A Bronx Tale in LA in 1990, before bringing it across the country to off-Broadway hitdom, everybody who was anybody came to see it, he recalls. “Every writer wanted to write the screenplay. Every A-plus director wanted to direct it. Every A-plus actor wanted to play Sonny. Every producer wanted to produce it, every studio wanted to make it. It was a very rare thing. Believe me when I say that.”
Fortunately, one person who saw the show and enjoyed his performance was Robert De Niro. He made Palminteri an offer he couldn’t refuse: $1.5 million to write the screenplay and play the mob boss; De Niro would direct and play Lorenzo, the boy’s father.
How close is the “tale” to straight autobiography?
“I would say it’s about 80 percent true, 85,” he says. “Maybe even more. Yeah, the killing; my father was a bus driver; I had a relationship with a black girl; my neighborhood was, you know, kind of racist to black people at the time, and I wasn’t.”
In his one-man show he portrays no fewer than 18 characters — many more than could be packed into the film. Which of them was the most difficult to capture to his satisfaction on the stage?
“The hardest one, actually, that took me the longest to get, was the 17-year-old,” he says, referring to playing himself at that age. “The nine-year-old was a little difficult, but once I found my path to him I was able to do him. It was the 17-year-old, because he wasn’t a child but he wasn’t a man, he was somewhere in the middle. So there was a naïveness about him but also a streetness about him that you’ve got to get.”
So how does his 2010 version of A Bronx Tale compare to the earlier, much-praised take? First of all, he says, four-time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks directed the 2007 Broadway revival, which went on national tour. He improved everything that guides the flow and mood, from pacing to lighting to sound cues.
And “I’m better — I was a very young actor at the time,” Palminteri says. “Now I’m a man and have children — I relate from the father to the children and the children to the father. So it’s just a richer piece now. It has more depth and weight to it.
“I just told an honest story,” he declares. “I think if you’re honest, people know it.”