Chazz Palminteri has Robert De Niro to thank for bringing his autobiographical one-man play A Bronx Tale to the screen.
Released in 1993, A Bronx Tale is based on the autobiographical one-man play written and performed by Chazz Palminteri, which was also adapted as a successful Broadway musical.
It’s the story of Calogero Anello, an Italian-American youth growing up in a tough Bronx neighbourhood during the sixties, who finds himself mentored in the lessons of life by a local mafia boss after witnessing a murder. b.
It’s also one of two films directed by Robert De Niro, whose passion for the stage production proved instrumental in its adaptation to the screen.
“When I did the one-man show it became a hot property – everybody wanted it,” Palminteri tells STACK. “It was the hottest property since Rocky.”
However, there were two conditions that had to be met as part of a movie deal: Palminteri would write the screenplay and play the character of Sonny, the mobster who left an indelible impression on his younger self.
The actor-writer has since become a familiar face in film and television, with roles in The Usual Suspects and Modern Family, but in the early nineties he was largely unknown outside his reputation as a New York stage actor. Consequently, the studios were reluctant to agree to his terms.
Enter Robert De Niro with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“One day when I did the show, the stage manager walked over and said, ‘Robert De Niro just saw the show and he’s in your dressing room,’” Palminteri recalls. “I walked in and there was Bob, and he said, ‘That was the greatest one-man show I ever saw and it would make a great movie.’ Then he said, ‘I know you want to write the screenplay and you should play Sonny, it’s about your life. If you shake my hand that’s the way it will be.’ So I shook his hand and that’s the way it was. I was very blessed to have De Niro on my side.”
Palminteri describes working with De Niro – who also plays his bus driver father, Lorenzo – as “one of those magic collaborations.”
“He was from a neighbourhood like that and he knew these people and how they act. I was very confident with him directing it. He did a masterful job, I thought.”
A Bronx Tale has all the elements of a mafia movie, but at its core is a coming-of-age tale set amidst the social change sweeping through the Bronx at the time.
“That’s what makes the story unique. It’s not about black and white, it’s about grey and grey,” says Palminteri. “Sonny told me the same things my father told me: Stay in school, do something with your life, and get out of this neighbourhood.”
The fact that the film remains popular after a quarter of a century is immensely gratifying for Palminteri, who attributes its longevity to the simple fact that it’s a great story.
“People just love the movie. They see it over and over again – I’m very humbled by it. The amazing thing is, it doesn’t matter how old you are. The audience for A Bronx Tale is from 12 to 90, and it doesn’t matter if you’re Italian, Irish, or African-American.
“It’s the first time anything has gone from a one-man show to a major movie to a Broadway hit musical,” he adds. “And here we are 25 years later!”
Although it shares themes with some classic mobster movies, Chazz Palminteri says A Bronx Tale “is really about the working man.” We asked him how he feels about the representation of Italian-Americans and the mafia on screen…
“Some movies portray Italians very badly, but there have been some wonderful films. The Godfather was a great film. Did it romanticise the mob a little bit? Yeah, it did. And Goodfellas showed how despicable they are.”