SCOTT SIMON, host:
Chazz Palminteri was an unemployed nightclub bouncer when he wrote a one-man show called "A Bronx Tale," which debuted in Los Angeles in 1989. A movie version was made four years later but with Robert De Niro as Mr. Palminteri's father. Mr. Palminteri played a supporting role.
We spoke with Chazz Palminteri just before he took the stage again this past Wednesday night. He seemed subdued - saving his energy for the audience and the critics, because almost 20 years later, Chazz Palminteri has brought his show to Broadway.
A story about a young man growing up at East 187th Street in Belmont Avenue, surrounded by a hardworking father, a neighborhood boss who takes a shine to him and a supporting cast of wise guys.
(Soundbite of play, "A Bronx Tale")
Unidentified man (Actor): Frankie Coffeecake. They call him Coffeecake because he had this bad case of acne, and his face look like a drink's(ph) Coffeecake.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified man: I mean, Frankie was tough to look at. And Jimmy 10-to-2. They call him 10-to-2 because when he walk, his feet were always like the clock -like ten-to-two. Years later, he got shot in the leg and they called him twenty-after.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Thanks very much…
Mr. CHAZZ PALMINTERI (Actor, Writer, "A Bronx Tale"): Hello.
SIMON: …for speaking with us right before you go on. Semi-autobiographical. Can you tell, without dispelling the magic, what part is semi?
Mr. PALMINTERI: Well, obviously, the killing. I was a young boy. I saw this man killing right in front of me. And my father dragged me upstairs. In real life, what happened was when that happened, I never went down to face the lineup. I wrote that in to embellish - to put the bond in me and the gangster together. But when actually, the cops came up, my father just said, he didn't see nothing. He ain't going down. And I was like I didn't see none of that, which, you know, that's what you do when you, you know, you grow up in neighborhoods like that. And my father was a bus driver and used to keep me off the street. There was the little wise guys always been on the corner. And I got to know them. I used to throw the dice for them when I was a little kid. And a few of them, I befriended - a bunch of them, I befriended.
My dad always - just was worried about, you know, me going maybe that way. I was enamored by these guys when I was young. But, you know, I would probably say, you know, it doesn't take strength to pull the trigger, but trying to get up in the morning and go to work, that takes guts. And he was right. You know, he was really right.
And I had a relationship with a black girl when I was like 17. So those are some of the key events in my life. Some of the guys that I knew died in this racial attack. So I kind of like put all the events together. But the main crux of it was I wanted to talk about the working man and about what my dad instilled in me - that the saddest thing in life is a wasted talent, not to waste your life.
SIMON: I heard a autobiographical fact. How much money were you down to when you wrote this script?
Mr. PALMINTERI: At the end, about 187 bucks.
SIMON: Wow. And you were offered hundreds of thousands of dollars for it but held out.
Mr. PALMINTERI: I held out. I was offered a million. I got (unintelligible) a million dollars. That's correct.
SIMON: And you held out…
Mr. PALMINTERI: I just said, no. Well, at first, I said, well, I'll do it if you make me Sonny and I write the screenplay.
SIMON: Sonny is the…
Mr. PALMINTERI: …is the main character - one of the main characters. And they said - they said, it's good - (unintelligible) they said as good as you are and you're terrific, you're just - you're not known. We need a star in that role. We cannot make a movie without a star in that role. And I said, well, then you're not going to make this movie.
SIMON: And, of course, Robert De Niro…
Mr. PALMINTERI: Robert De Niro saw it and he came backstage and he - although I forget it - and he said, look, I think you'd be great in this. You can write the screenplay because you know it better than anyone. And I'll play Lorenzo, your father, and I'll direct it, and that's the way it will be if you shake my hand. And that's the way it was.
SIMON: What are some of the differences you noticed between playing the role now and when you played it in the 1980s?
Mr. PALMINTERI: I wasn't married. I was single, and I didn't have a wife and have children. This thing now, it's better because before I used to relate to -from son to father as the actor. Now, I relate to father to son as the actor because I have a son who is 12 and daughter who's 6. So I try to instill the values that my father instilled in me.
SIMON: How many characters do you play on stage?
Mr. PALMINTERI: 18.
SIMON: And sometimes they're as involved as the character of Sonny and your father and sometimes they're just a grimace?
Mr. PALMINTERI: Yeah. Sometimes - sometimes it's like people talking at once. Sometimes the crack game is loads of people talking.
Mr. PALMINTERI: Sonny, the boy, Frankie Coffeecake, Eddie Mush, Jojo the Whale, Rudy Ice(ph).
(Soundbite of "A Bronx Tale")
Mr. PALMINTERI: (As Sonny LoSpecchio) The first time I threw the dice, I didn't even hit the back wall. And the rule in dice is at least one of the dice that got to touch the back wall or it's no toss. And they all started laughing at me. Hey, Sonny. Yeah. Sonny, you little provolone. He's got an arm like a wet noodle, Sonny. Hey, Sonny. You think I'm a loser. You should look at this. Hey, you better watch that kid Sonny. He will going to make everybody shut up. This kid is one of (unintelligible). Give me those dice. Give me those dice. Come on baby. You can do it. Let's put some money down. We put some real money.
(Soundbite of clapping)
Mr. PALMINTERI: (As Sonny LoSpecchio) Real money. Jojo. Jojo. You've breathing all over me. You want to back up, Jojo? Back up. Come on. Back up, just back up over there. Come on kid we're going to do it. Push some money down there. Give me a seven. Give me - no, hey. No good. Eddie Mush, no good. I don't want your money touching my money. Eddie Mush, I don't want your money in the same neighborhood as my money.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PALMINTERI: The play is much funnier than the movie because I was able to do - take it a little farther as far as humor goes in the play. What I really want young people to see is that - is the thing that my father instilled to me. And I think fathers could take their children - sons or daughters - to see this - 12 and up - about instilling them about the saddest thing in life is wasted talent.
My father used to tell me that all the time. He wrote it on a little index card, and he put it in my room, and I never forgot it. And it's that card that I think that I carried with me all my life that made me finally, you know, make it as an adult, you know. And I was working as an actor, and I ran out of money again. I said, all actors do. And I got - then I took a job as a doorman and I got fired for about four months because…
SIMON: Now, when I said - you say doorman. I read that it was a bouncer.
Mr. PALMINTERI: Yeah. Well, I was a bouncer. But in this one club, I was the doorman. And this was in '86. And I was the bouncer-doorman. Yeah. That's a glorified name for that, I guess. And I wouldn't let this man in to a party. And that man was Swifty Lazar and it was his party. A big literary agent.
SIMON: Why wouldn't you let him in?
Mr. PALMINTERI: I didn't know it was him. I didn't recognize him.
Mr. PALMINTERI: I just said, wait a minute. And he kept - I'll get you fired. And I go, yeah, I hear that every day. I go, please, get on line. And 15 minutes later, I was fired. I just said, what the hell am I going to do? And I was going to come back to New York and then I said, I saw my father's card pinned in my mirror in my room - my apartment in L.A. And I said, you know what, if they won't give me a great part, I said, I'll write one myself.
And I went - I then jumped up in my car. I went to thrifty drugstores on (unintelligible) Boulevard, and I got five tabs of legal sized yellow paper. I came back and I said, well, I'll write a one-man show. This way, they got to notice me. And I started writing and I wrote about the killing. And I would perform it on my theater workshop on Monday nights. And each week, I would write more and more and more then perform it each Monday night. And at the end of like 10, 11 months, I had an hour and a half of my one-man show.
SIMON: Young actors must come to you knowing your story.
Mr. PALMINTERI: Yeah. All the time.
SIMON: Or maybe let me put it this way. Young people who want to be actors.
Mr. PALMINTERI: Yeah.
SIMON: Want to be in the theater. What do you tell them?
Mr. PALMINTERI: I always tell them, look, don't think this thing just happened like a flu, kid. You know, I spent almost a year writing this and rehearsing it. I said, this was hard work, hard work. That if you really want to make it, you got to turn up the volume in your life. You want a break? You got to go make your break. When you knock on the right door at the right time? No. It's the one who knocks on all the doors all the time, that's the one who makes it. You know, that's what I say.
SIMON: Your father saw…
Mr. PALMINTERI: Of course, he's alive. Yeah.
SIMON: And I'm assuming he saw the show 20 years ago.
Mr. PALMINTERI: Yeah.
SIMON: And now?
Mr. PALMINTERI: He want to come and see it again, yeah.
SIMON: Oh, yeah. And how did he feel in the '80s?
Mr. PALMINTERI: Oh, my God. He's - He was blown away when he saw it.
SIMON: Just based on your past experience, when your father is in the audience…
Mr. PALMINTERI: Yeah.
SIMON: Does that add extra…
Mr. PALMINTERI: I got to keep it together. Yeah. I mean, I have to totally block it out because some of those scenes, I can really well up and get too emotional because I know he's there. Yeah. But I'm okay. I don't know. I haven't done it in 20 years in front of him. I'll see how it is.
SIMON: And that sign your father made - the piece of paper he wrote so many years ago…
Mr. PALMINTERI: Right.
SIMON: …that says - what was it…
Mr. PALMINTERI: The saddest thing in life was wasted talent. That's in my son's room now. And I told him, when he gets older to give it to his son.
SIMON: Mr. Palminteri, good luck.
Mr. PALMINTERI: Thanks very much. Appreciate the time.
SIMON: Thanks very much.
Mr. PALMINTERI: Thank you.
SIMON: You can download a podcast of several features from our show by coming to our Web site, npr.org. That was Chazz Palminteri.
And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.