In 1993, actors Chazz Palminteri and Robert De Niro starred in the critically acclaimed film “A Bronx Tale,” which is widely regarded as one of the greatest gangster movies ever made.
What many fans of the movie don’t realize is that “A Bronx Tale” originated as a one-man show, written by and starring Palminteri, who based the story around his life as a working class boy growing up in the Bronx, New York during the 1960s – a period rife with racial tension and mob activity.
The semi-autobiographical show debuted in 1989, and Palminteri earned critical acclaim for his versatile portrayal of 18 different personalities, including those of main characters Sonny, the neighborhood mobster; Lorenzo, a blue collar husband and father; and Lorenzo’s son Calogero (nicknamed “C”), who forms an unusual bond with Sonny after seeing him murder a man. As Calogero struggles to find his way in a complicated world, he is torn between the lives and lessons of his two mentors.
“A Bronx Tale” has entertained theater audiences in four different decades, selling out venues during its original run in Los Angeles, the Broadway revival in 2007, a national tour in 2008 and limited runs that still have the 61-year-old Oscar nominee on stages across the country today.
I recently sat down with Palminteri, who is performing “A Bronx Tale” at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia September 19-21, to talk about his timeless story.
David Onda: You’ve been performing “A Bronx Tale” for 24 years now. What themes or elements continue to resonate with audiences?
Chazz Palminteri: The characters are archetypes. That’s the reason why. It’s the father, the son. It’s not good versus evil, it’s grey versus grey. Sonny’s a gangster, but he’s a great guy. The father is a great guy, but he has things that he has to work out. And the boy takes the best of both of them. Also, there’s the racism factor. Calogero realizes that he doesn’t hate black people. In fact, he fell in love with a black girl. We’re all part of that. If you’re a boy, you don’t wanna waste your talent. If you’re a father, you don’t want your son to waste his talent. The saddest thing in life is wasted talent. You hope your children don’t waste their lives.
Onda: The show is described as semi-autobiographical. How much of it is true to actual events in your life?
Palminteri: Oh, I would say at least 85 percent. It all stems from the killing that I saw when I was a little boy. I was nine. I saw it exactly like in the movie. My father dragged me upstairs and I didn’t rat the guy out. That started the whole relationship with me and him.
Onda: How has the show changed from the very first time you performed it?
Palminteri: It’s gotten better, only because it’s gotten richer and deeper. When I first did it, I related as the young boy to the father. And then, after I got married and had children, I relate from the father to the young boy. And from the young boy to the father. So, it’s better.
Onda: People who have seen the “Bronx Tale” movie might think they’re getting the exact same thing in the show. What more does the show bring to this story?
Palminteri: Here’s what I have to say about that, and that’s a very good question. If people seen the movie and they love the movie, they will love the show even more, because the show is a very visceral experience. I am the guy – I’m Calogero, I’m “C,” that’s me. I’m doing this thing about my father and me as a little boy. And I’m doing the whole scenes; I’m doing the whole play on stage by myself. It’s a much more visceral experience.
Onda: Have you ever considered doing the show with more actors? Maybe a musical?
Palminteri: We talk about that. Some things are in the works, but I can’t talk about it yet. It’s too early.
Onda: Would it be hard to put the stage show in the hands of other actors?
Palminteri: Oh, no. In fact, if we did a musical, I wouldn’t wanna be in it. I would wanna just sit back and watch it.
Onda: One of the myths that this show dispels is that all Italian-Americans living in the Bronx at this particular time in history are connected to the mob.
Palminteri: And it’s sad. The real essence, the fabric that made up the whole neighborhood is the working man – the bus driver, the truck driver, the cop, the fireman, the taxi driver, the guy who sells chestnuts on the corner, the fruit guy. All those guys. Those are the working men. That’s what makes up Italian-Americans. But the mafia gets all the print, so that’s what people assume. I am not in the mafia, I’ve never been in the mafia. Do I know a lot of them? Absolutely. Do I see them, are they friends of mine? Yeah. But I don’t hang out with them, I don’t claim to be one of them, I don’t claim to be a tough guy. I claim to be an artist who admires to write about them and to act them. Yes, that I do. But there are many Italian-Americans that are hard-working people.
Onda: The mob guys in “A Bronx Tale” are amalgamations of mob guys you actually knew…
Palminteri: Yes. Some of them were actually in the movie. That was Eddie Mush.
Onda: When you wrote it, were you concerned about talking about these mob guys and the things you saw them do?
Palminteri: [laughs] Yes. Well, the wise guys’ names I changed. My friends that I grew up with – the Coffeecake and Eddie Mush and JoJo, I didn’t change them. But the wise guy names, those were all changed.
Onda: I would still be concerned that they would not be happy.
Palminteri: Uhh. I didn’t name them, so… I remember when I first did it in ’89, I got word from the neighborhood that a few weren’t happy about it. But that was only because they didn’t see it yet. I was like, hey, you know what, let them come and see it on Broadway and then tell me about it. I knew I wasn’t saying anything wrong.
Onda: You’ve called this a family show, and recommend that kids ages 12 and up come see it.
Palminteri: Absolutely. If you have a child who’s a troubled child, or if you just have a child that you wanna get inspired, I think it’s a great show to see. I hear it all the time, because it says, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” Don’t waste your life. And the show really makes a statement about that.
Onda: What’s your favorite “Bronx Tale” scene to perform on stage?
Palminteri: It’s the scene with the father and the boy outside – he smacks him and he tells his son, “The working man’s a tough guy, not the wise guy. It doesn’t take much strength to pull the trigger.”
Chazz Palminteri performs “A Bronx Tale” at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia this weekend, September 19-21. Click here for more information.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.