One Man’s ‘Bronx Tale’ Well Retold

Posted February 24, 2009 at 3:05pm

Calogero Lorenzo “Chazz” Palminteri was 9 years old when he saw a man shoot another man in the Bronx. While Palminteri was unsure whether the two men were fighting over a parking space, he was certain to use that episode as the opening scene of his one-man play, “A Bronx Tale.”

“A Bronx Tale” is Palminteri’s turbulent coming-of-age story, a tale of growing up confused over whom to emulate: his respected, hardworking bus driver father, Lorenzo, or his feared mobster friend, Sonny.

Until March 8, Academy Award- nominated actor Palminteri will present the play at Warner Theatre. With his distinct voice, he will bring to life the 18 characters who shaped his teenage life in the Bronx.

While taking a break from performing on the play’s national tour, run by the theater company Broadway Across America, Palminteri fielded phone calls about “A Bronx Tale.”

“Please excuse me for speaking softly. I need to preserve my voice,” Palminteri said in a husky voice.

He talked of how the idea of writing a one-man show came about. “I just have this uncanny ability to remember things. That scene of Sonny shooting another man is something I cannot forget,” Palminteri said.

Palminteri wrote “A Bronx Tale” out of desperation. He had moved to Los Angeles to get into movies but was derailed by a lack of good roles. He tried working as a doorman but was fired for not recognizing big-time agent Swifty Lazar. Distraught and depressed, Palminteri decided to write the one story that would get him noticed: his own.

“A Bronx Tale” debuted off-Broadway in 1989, establishing Palminteri as a writer and actor with a distinct voice. “A Bronx Tale” became a hot story in Hollywood among studios, producers and directors. Despite having only $200 in his pocket, Palminteri resisted offers to buy rights to the play without his role starring in it and writing the screenplay.

Then Robert De Niro came along. He saw the play, bought the story and brought Palminteri in to write the script and play Sonny. Released in 1993, “A Bronx Tale” marked the directorial debut of De Niro, who also played Lorenzo in the film.

The film version of “A Bronx Tale” launched Palminteri’s film career. In 1994, Palminteri earned an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role in Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway.” Since then, Palminteri has appeared in more than 60 movies.

Almost 20 years after his play’s off-Broadway debut on Oct. 18, 1989, Palminteri continues to tell his story across the country. Four-time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks directs the play.

“I wanted to spread the advice my father gave me. ‘Do not waste your life or your talents,’” Palminteri said, pointing out that the same message motivated him to write the play in the first place.

Palminteri said “A Bronx Tale” appeals to both kids and parents. “Even as kids, as teenagers, they have to know that every choice they make now will affect their lives later. And to the parents, even if you are in your 50s or 60s, you can still change your life to ways you want it to be.” he said. “This play makes those statements in a very dramatic, emotional way.”

And as for politicians in Washington, D.C., Palminteri said “A Bronx Tale” could also teach them a thing or two: “Do the right thing. Think less of yourself, and care about the people.”

Stella Benkler, executive director of Broadway Across America’s Mid-Atlantic region, said the company was fortunate to have been able to bring “A Bronx Tale” to D.C.

“The show itself is a fantastic piece of theater. Chazz is so dynamic on stage. And, of course, the story of each of the characters in the play finding his own hero resonates with every type of audience,” Benkler said.