Doing It His Way: Chazz Palminteri and the Play That Changed His Life

Photo courtesy of Chazz Palminteri

If you want something done right, do it yourself. This adage has long been a touchstone of Chazz Palminteri’s life. Born Calogero Lorenzo Palminteri, the Italian American actor dreamed of starring in a play. So, in 1989, he wrote the perfect role — or rather, roles — for himself: In his celebrated one-man play, A Bronx Tale, he plays 18 different characters from his childhood.

Few would turn down a million dollars to sell the rights to their play and walk away, especially when they only had $200 in the bank, but that’s exactly what Palminteri did. His gamble paid off when Robert De Niro expressed an interest in starring in and directing the (1993) film version of the play. Palminteri accepted, with the proviso that he costar and write the screenplay.

Similarly, when Palminteri and his wife, Gianna, were looking for the perfect house in Bedford to raise a family and couldn’t find just the right one, they decided to build their own. They’ve been in Bedford for 21 years now, in a sumptuous Italy-meets-California-villa-style home.

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While Palminteri has dozens of film and TV credits on his IMDb page, A Bronx Tale has been a constant thread in the Academy Award-nominated actor’s life, from the original one-man show to the film and a Broadway musical that went on national tour twice (the most recent of which closed in March).

Palminteri says he still gets much joy out of the play, performing it at intimate venues around the U.S., including Tarrytown Music Hall on November 14. Despite its gritty story, the author describes his show as family-friendly and encourages people to bring their preteens and teens.

“I keep doing the original show because that’s what started it all, and I think it resonates with people because these characters are like archetypes: the man, the wife, the father, the son,” he says. “And the saddest thing in life is wasted talent.… Everybody has this thing inside of them that they wish they could do something more with their life.”

Palminteri says Alfred Hitchcock used to say there are three things you can do to an audience, and if you do two out of three, you have a great play or movie. “He says you can make them laugh; you can make them cry; or you can scare them. In A Bronx Tale, we do all three. You see people standing up at the end with tears in their eyes, cheering. It’s an amazing thing.”

Photo by Nick Valinoti

“I keep doing the original show because that’s what started it all, and I think it resonates with people because these characters are like archetypes: the man, the wife, the father, the son.”

Over the years, Palminteri has become nostalgic about his show. When he first began performing it, he identified with the son, torn between the father he adores and Sonny, the mob boss he idolizes. But once Palminteri had a son of his own, he says he related better to the father.

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A passion for the arts clearly runs in the family. Palminteri’s son, Dante, 24, is a musician, and his daughter, Gabriella, a senior at Fox Lane High School, is an actress with local and national credits — including the role of Calogero’s mother in Archbishop Stepinac High School’s production of A Bronx Tale last spring.

When not on the road performing or filming his role as Joe Bonanno in Godfather of Harlem (which got picked up for its second season on EPIX), Palminteri finds respite at his home with his family and doing community and philanthropic work. He is on the Cultural Advisory Council of Bedford Playhouse, the Industry Advisory Committee of the Jacob Burns Film Center, and the Artistic Advisory Board of the Ridgefield Playhouse, to name some. He and Gianna also launched Child Reach Foundation, which benefits research and treatment of children with rare blood disorders, as well as helping families in need.

A man of far-ranging interests who likes to keep busy, he is writing a new play but won’t give hints as to it’s subject. He also owns an eponymous Italian restaurant in New York City on West 46th Street, where his go-to dish, is called (what else?) A Bronx Tail, featuring lobster tail with seafood over fettuccine in a spicy tomato sauce.

Palminteri has played a host of memorable characters, mostly tough guys, but there’s one dream role he’s yet to be cast in. “I always wanted to play a priest,” he said. “I think I might have to write it myself.

Andrea Valluzzo is a veteran journalist who has written about arts and leisure for a variety of publications. Her interview subjects include Art Garfunkel, Wayne Brady, and Kevin Bacon, among others.

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