(October 23, 2007)

All That Chazz

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Chazz Palminteri has a question: "Did you ever see somebody get killed in front of you?" Palminteri has.

"When it happens, it's surreal," says the 55-year-old actor. "Everything just goes out of focus and turns into slow-motion almost. Like time just stops."

And Palminteri never stopped thinking about that moment, a shooting that occurred when he was 8 or 9 years old, in the Little Italy section of the Bronx - 187th Street and Belmont Avenue.

When he was at his lowest point as a struggling Los Angeles actor and decided to write a play - "I thought, 'If they won't give me a good part, I'm gonna write one for myself,' he recalls - his thoughts turned to what he witnessed from his stoop on 187th Street.

His semiautobiographical one-man play, "A Bronx Tale" - in which he portrays 18 different characters over the course of a 90-minute performance - has provided several firsts in his career: It won him his first major stage accolades, gave him a screenwriting credit, won him a leading role in a major motion picture and now it brings him to Broadway.

Yes, Broadway.

On Thursday, "A Bronx Tale" opens at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre, for a limited run through Feb. 10.

In 1987, "A Bronx Tale" got Palminteri noticed by Hollywood producers, all of whom wanted his story, but none of whom wanted Palminteri to be involved in the movie. He says he turned down offers of $250,000 to $1 million, stipulating that he wanted a role in the film.

"A Bronx Tale" moved to Off-Broadway, where it got the attention of Robert De Niro, who wanted the story, wanted to make his directorial debut with the story, wanted Palminteri to play a crucial role - and wanted Palminteri to write the screenplay. The movie hit theaters in 1993.

Now, Palminteri - who calls Bedford home - is about to make his Broadway debut.

It's a long way from Belmont Avenue to Broadway, but even longer from the L.A. apartment where Palminteri began his way up from his lowest ebb.

He had just lost a job as a doorman after refusing entry to the ultimate Hollywood insider Swifty Lazar.

Palminteri went home and found something his father had given him.

"My father used to write things on index cards and leave them around for me," the actor recalls. "One he wrote was 'The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.' I had it for years there when I was a kid."

He took it as a wakeup call, long-distance from his Bronx childhood home.

He went to a drugstore, bought some legal pads, sat down and wondered what to write about.

"I said 'Maybe I'll write about the killing I saw,'" he says.

That started a 10-month process of mixing memory and imagination.

("It's not a documentary of my life," Palminteri says.)

"I didn't write it overnight," he says. "It took 10 months of doing it and shaping it in front of my theater workshop. Writing 20 minutes and then keeping 10. Writing another half-hour and keeping 15. So in 10 months, I had this incredibly tight, tight piece before I put it in front of anyone."

When he did finally show it to an audience, people saw 18 fully distinguishable characters. They met Colagero Palminteri (Chazz's given name) and watched as he tried to negotiate a minefield of difficult choices in the Bronx of the 1960s.

"There were wiseguys and there was my dad, who drove a bus," he recalls. "There was always the pull to go with the wiseguys.

"But my father always said, 'They only end up two places: dead or in jail. My life is harder but it's easier.' "

Palminteri listened to some of what the wiseguys said and listened to most of what his father said and made his own way.

And Colagero does the same in "A Bronx Tale."

On stage at the Kerr, Palminteri bobs and weaves between characters, putting on a limp or a shrug or talking out of the side of his mouth. At times, the conversations have many sides.

"I knew when I created it that - because I have three or four people talking at the same time - that I really have to make sure that people know who the hell is who. So I really took my time and worked on it so you really know. That's very important," he says.

The wiseguy, Sonny, is always on the street corner, or in a social club a few doors down.

Colagero's dad drives by regularly on his route to City Island, keeping an eye on things in the neighborhood through the windshield of his bus.

"I wanted to talk about the working man," Palminteri says. "Because the Mafia gets all the glory, but I wanted to talk about 'Hey, the Mafia is just this little aberration in the Italian-American community. The real people that hold the community together are the working people: the bus drivers, cops, people like that.' That was my homage to them."

But it's not entirely cut and dry, the actor says.

"I think that's what makes the story so universal," Palminteri says. "It's not so much about good and evil, it's 'almost good' and 'not too evil.'

"As bad as Sonny was, he had great things to tell the kids. And as good as my father was, he didn't want his son dating a black girl."

The idea of bringing "A Bronx Tale" back to New York - to Broadway, this time - occurred to Palminteri while he was filming his most recent feature, "Yonkers Joe."

(In "Yonkers Joe," due next year, Palminteri plays the father of a young man with Down syndrome. It co-stars Christine Lahti and producers are hoping to get it to the Sundance Film Festival in January.)

"I was thinking 'It's been 18 years. I'm young enough still to do it. A new generation hasn't seen it. I should do it again,'" he says.

Finding the money was as easy as mentioning it to his "Yonkers Joe" producer, Trent Othick, who immediately agreed to back it without even seeing a script.

Palminteri called his agent and learned that Tony-winning director Jerry Zaks ("Guys & Dolls," "Six Degrees of Separation") was available to direct and the Walter Kerr Theater, most recently the home to "Grey Gardens," was available.

"This usually takes years to put together," he says with a hint of disbelief in his voice.

It has been years since Palminteri first breathed life into these characters. When he first performed the piece, he was single - and 20 years younger.

Today, he's married, and lives in Bedford with his wife, Gianna, son, Dante, and daughter, Gabriella.

The years have changed his perspective.

"When I first did those roles, I would feel me as the young boy and my father as my father. Now, I'm doing it me as a father and the young boy as my son."

Director Zaks has taken that into consideration.

"He made it better than the original play," the actor says. "He said 'You can take your time more. You're different now. You're older.' He pointed out spots where I could take my time and embellish things and tell the story here.

"And the Broadway lights and sound are just better," he adds.

"I love being on the stage," says Palminteri. "Plus, I have this incredible rocket ship underneath me, this material that's proven time and again that it works.