Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: A familiar face to anyone who’s watched a cop or gangster movie from the past 20 years, Chazz Palminteri has established himself as one of Hollywood’s go-to tough guys, intimidating no matter what side of the law his character operates on. But while those roles litter his filmography, viewing him as simply “the heavy” diminishes the range he’s shown, as well as the thoughtful work he’s done offscreen. After struggling for recognition early in his career, he wrote his way out with A Bronx Tale, a one-man show he wrote, starred in, and parlayed into a breakout film performance opposite Robert De Niro. A Bronx Tale has shown remarkable life since the film’s release, and was recently turned into a musical, for which Palminteri returned to write the book. He can also be seen in Legend, opposite Tom Hardy, which was released on Blu-ray on March 1. Palminteri spoke to The A.V. Club about A Bronx Tale’s long afterlife, his thoughts on typecasting, and what makes a movie last.
The A.V. Club: This started as a one-man show, became a movie, and is now a musical. How did the project initially develop?
Chazz Palminteri: I had done some theater in New York, but then I moved to L.A. and was working there. I did some guest star roles—Hill Street Blues, some of those shows. I was starting to take off, was doing great, but then I did all the guest part roles and, as any actor does, ran out of money. I used to box, so I got a job as a bouncer at a swanky nightclub in Beverly Hills. One night a guy was going to come in, and he was very rude to me. I told him I wasn’t going to let him in, he got mad and told me that I’d be fired in 15 minutes. I said, “Sure sure, everyone tells me that.” That man turned out to be Swifty Lazar, the biggest agent in the world at the time—this was 1989—and sure enough, 15 minutes later I did get fired.
I went home wondering what I was going to do, because now I really had no money. But then I thought that if no one was going to give me a great part—and it was very difficult to break into film, obviously—then I’d write one myself.
I was always a member of a theater company, and was in Theater West in L.A. So I wrote 10 minutes about a killing that I saw when I was a little kid. Each week I’d write a little more and perform it on Monday at the theater. I’d write 10 minutes, keep three; write five, keep one. I really honed it and sharpened it. About 10 months or a year later, I had a 90-minute one-man show. I performed it and my life just exploded. Everything—my life just changed. Every writer, director, producer, studio head, movie star—they all wanted it. It was the hottest property since Rocky. It was crazy, a bidding war like you wouldn’t believe. They offered me $250,000 for the rights, then $500,000. At the time I only had a couple hundred dollars in the bank, but I wanted to play the gangster Sonny, I wanted to write the screenplay, and I wouldn’t sell it without those conditions. They said no, that’s impossible, you’re not well known, we want an A-plus writer to do the screenplay, all that.
I said no and they took back their offer. Everyone thought I was crazy. But all this time I kept doing the show and the crowds kept getting bigger. I moved to a bigger theater, and it sold out there. Lines around the block, it was crazy. Then I got offered $1 million to walk away from it—to let someone else rewrite it. I refused, said no.
A couple weeks later I did a performance, and someone told me that Robert De Niro had seen the show and was waiting in my dressing room wanting to see me. So I walk in, Bob was sitting in my chair, and he said—quote—“This is one of the greatest one-man shows I’ve ever seen, if not the greatest.” He said, “This is a movie, this is an incredible movie.” He wanted to make it into a movie and direct it. I said great, but that I had my conditions about writing and playing Sonny. He knew all about that, and told me that I should play Sonny, because I’d be great in it, and that I should write the screenplay, because it was my life and it would be honest. He told me, “I’ll direct it, but we’ll be partners, and if you shake my hand that’s the way it’s going to be.” So I shook his hand, and that’s the way it was. That’s how it happened.
AVC: The film is obviously important to him—it was his directorial debut and is dedicated to his father, but it is heavily autobiographical for you. Was Sonny based on someone you knew growing up?
CP: Sonny was based on a guy, yes. Two guys, actually, both of whom I knew. I combined their personalities into one. The whole thing stems from this killing I saw when I was a young boy. I never forgot it. My father, Lorenzo, was a bus driver, just like Bob in the film. And just like in the film, my father knew the wiseguys, he knew about them, and in a way he respected them and they respected him back. But he was always telling me that the working man is the tough guy, not the wiseguys. But I was enamored by those guys—I saw the diamonds and rings and cars. I threw the dice when I was a kid. When I started writing it, I decided to take the best of the Sonny character and the best of my father, and put the boy in the middle. He takes the best from both people. It wasn’t a story about black and white. The thing about Bronx Tale is that Sonny wants the boy to do well, he wants him to be good. Sonny doesn’t want the boy to follow in his footsteps, and neither does the father. But the father says that just by hanging around those people, bad things could happen or he could be influenced. And he was right.
AVC: How did the musical version come about?
CP: I had always wanted to do a musical of Bronx Tale. Originally we had a bunch of different composers come in, but it just didn’t work out. They were wonderful composers, but it just didn’t feel right. Later in my career, I directed a film called Noel, for which Alan Menken wrote the title song. Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. It was just a brilliant song. And because I have kids, I had also been watching these movies, these fables—Beauty And The Beast, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. I always thought the music in those was just so beautiful. And one day I realized that Bronx Tale was a fable, just like those animations, and I realized that Menken was the right man to write it. We approached him, and he was in the right place to write it. He brought in a lyricist, and the music is just, wow.
Now I should say that this all happened because of Tommy Mottola, the music producer. He came to me and suggested the idea of a Bronx Tale musical. Even though I had been trying to do one for years, it was him who put it on his back and made it happen. If not for Tommy Mottola, it would not have happened. He put his money where his mouth was.
We wrote the book and the lyrics and brought in Jerry Zaks to direct it. He had directed the first one-man show. And then Bob wanted to be involved, so he became the co-director. We had the best of both worlds, the director of the show and the director of the movie, coming together to direct the musical. This is the first time Bob has directed a musical, and I’m really just ecstatic with the results.
AVC: From writing a gangster role to playing the roll of a gangster who writes. Did A Bronx Tale lead directly to Bullets Over Broadway?
CP: Actually A Bronx Tale hadn’t come out when they brought me in for Bullets Over Broadway. I believe we were editing at the time. Juliet Taylor, who casts all of Woody Allen’s movies, brought me in. She had heard about me and knew me from stage work. So I went in, met with Woody, and he asked me to read with him. When I was done, he said thank you, and that was it. I left and called my agent because I was pretty surprised. I thought I had done a great job, and the part was perfect for me, you know, a street guy who is a writer. I mean, that’s me!
A few days later they brought me in again, I read again, and then I left again. But this time, I hadn’t even gotten to my car by the time they called me to say that I had gotten the part. That was it. I got an Academy Award nomination from it, and afterwards my career just started exploding.
AVC: Allen has a reputation for being hands off with actors.
CP: That’s correct. He doesn’t talk to you. And that bothers some actors because they think they’re not going a good job. But you want that! If Woody’s talking to you, that means you might get fired. If he talks to you, it means he’s not happy. He would encourage me to do whatever I wanted, to ad-lib or improv, but I didn’t really need to. He really wrote a great script. Shooting that was just a wonderful experience, and Woody is really smart, he really knows comedy.
AVC: What was it like being the dupe in one of Hollywood’s biggest twists?
CP: I remember reading the script and thinking, “Holy shit. What the fuck is going on here?” The script was so good, and so different. All of us—me and Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Baldwin—we were all like, “wow.” We knew it was something special. Did we know it was going to be like it was? No.
The key to that movie, besides having a great script—from Christopher McQuarrie, who won the Academy Award—was the director. Bryan Singer, who was just a young kid at the time. I think he had just done a short before this; it was his first feature. But when you were in the same room as him, he was so passionate, just soaring. He was young, but was so passionate in the way he saw everything coming together that I knew I just had to get on board. Everyone involved saw that—when someone convinces you that they’re going to make a great movie, you get swept up in the excitement. And here, it actually turned out to be great. That’s all because of Singer. He’s a brilliant director, and just look at the career he’s had.
AVC: You mentioned doing guest roles at the start of your career. Do any of those stick out in your memory?
CP: I really enjoyed doing Wiseguy, where I played a lawyer who was running for Congress. It was a wonderful show, wonderfully written by David Burke, and with some great actors in the cast. When I was there, it was really about the work, no drama. I’ll never forget that. It was wonderful, just a terrific, terrific show. I was very happy to be in it.
AVC: In some of these cases you appeared after the show had been on for a few seasons and the ensemble had been established. Was that difficult to do?
CP: Not really. It wasn’t like I was joining the cast in a significant way. A bigger part for one of those meant four or five episodes. I was just a guest, in and out. It was pretty simple.
AVC: It looks like your first role was in something called Home Free All, where you played “Truck Highjacker.”
CP: Yes. [Laughs.] I played a hijacker. I remember we shot it in Manhattan and I was very excited. I got to jump up on the truck and stick a gun in the guy’s face. That was literally my first role and it was very exciting. I then did something called The Last Dragon, where I was “Thug Number One” or something like that. I did a bunch of those kinds of things. I didn’t get a real movie until Oscar.
AVC: What was going on with A Bronx Tale when you worked on Oscar?
CP: I had written the play and people were in the process of coming to see it. I stopped doing the show to do the movie, but people were already trying to make a deal with me.
AVC: Did you go to Sylvester Stallone for advice? Your story obviously parallels what he did with Rocky, when he wouldn’t sell the rights unless he could play the Rocky Balboa.
CP: I did speak to him, yes! He had heard about what was going on and said I should stick to my guns if I really believed that I should write the screenplay and play Sonny.
Now Sly plays a character who is not too bright in Oscar, but he is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met in the business. Really, really smart. Very savvy. He’s a man who, as I see it, basically invented the sequel. It’s not easy what he does, to have Rocky, The Expendables, Rambo. I just saw him in Creed, and whoa. Just terrific. So he’s a very smart guy, and I took his advice. He was very strong in his belief that I should follow my heart with A Bronx Tale. That was nice. That was good to hear.
AVC: What do you remember about working with Oscar director John Landis?
CP: John was really funny—he knew comedy really well. He really knew what he wanted as a director. He’d tell you what to do, and if the actor disagreed, he’d have them try it out, and they’d see he was right, and that what he wanted would work. He’s a very good director. Some directors just know comedy: Jerry Zaks, Harold Ramis, who I worked with. Woody, of course.
AVC: How did Harold Ramis compare to John Landis?
CP: They were similar. Harold would let you try things a little more, but he knew what beats need to be hit. If he trusted you he’d let you try stuff, to improvise, but he also knew what he wanted and would make sure to get that. He was wonderful in comedy, and he was wonderful with being collaborative with everyone and making everyone feel a part of it.
I really enjoyed working on Analyze This, very much. It’s a fun movie, very funny when I watch it now. And it was great to work with Bob again. I’ve worked with him a few times now, but it was nice to work with him in a comedic setting. Bob has a unique way of working, but it obviously works very well.
CP: William Friedkin, yes. I loved working with David Caruso and Linda Fiorentino—who should be doing more movies, I should add. She should be out there doing more, because she is just wonderful. I don’t know why she’s not working more.
But Billy Friedkin, wow. I’ve always loved his movies, The Exorcist and The French Connection. He’s just a great director, man. I think he’s brilliant. I had a great time working on that, a really great time. And I really like the movie. I know a lot of critics don’t like it, but I really like the movie a lot, and I’m glad it’s become something of a cult item.
CP: This started out as a play that I had written, and when the play did quite well we decided to make a movie. We had Paul Mazursky as a director. Now, I love his movies, but we kind of bumped heads a bit during the filming. It ended up being okay, but we did bump heads.
I had actually written the script for Elizabeth Taylor; I always pictured her doing the part. I even met with Elizabeth and she loved the script. Loved it, and she wanted to do it. I was so excited, but was opposed on this. The studio didn’t want to put the money up for her, and they wanted us to go younger. So we lost Elizabeth Taylor, and I was really disappointed. Eventually we talked about using Cher, who I’ve always admired. She’s a wonderful actress, has a great sense of timing, and is very funny. When she came on board she was great, really great to work with. Ryan O’Neal, who played the husband, was also really great, and they worked well together.
AVC: I’ve always felt this didn’t get the recognition it deserved.
CP: I agree with you. Totally underrated. It’s hard for me to say because I’m in it, but it’s always on the air, people always want to see it. What makes a good movie, to me, it isn’t money. Movies that do incredible box office are forgettable, while movies that don’t are often quite memorable. Raging Bull was not a big box office hit, and the year it was nominated, Ordinary People won over Raging Bull. Ordinary People is a nice movie, don’t get me wrong, but Raging Bull is one of the great feats of acting and one of the great feats of directing. I go by time—time tells you how great a movie is. Not box office, but time. No one remembers how much Casablanca made, but it’s still here. And Mulholland Falls comes back every time. People love the movie. I’m very proud of that movie. I thought the director, Lee Tamahori, was wonderful. And the cast! Chris Penn, God rest his soul, I loved working with him. Nick Nolte is an incredible actor. Mike Madsen. It’s just a good movie, man. And I liked Coolidge because he wasn’t just a cop—he was seeing a shrink, he liked Gene Autry movies. He was three dimensional.
AVC: How does being on a big movie like that, with elaborate period detail, compare with being on a more modern or low-budget one?
CP: You know, to me it really comes down to the work. When you feel good about the work you’re doing, that’s what’s important, not the budget or anything like that. If you’re happy about the actors you’re working with, that’s what’s important. The way I pick movies is, first, if the script is any good. Then, if the script is good, who else is in it, the director, the producer, all that. If you have all that, there’s a chance the movie will be great. If the script isn’t right, or the director or cast isn’t right, you’ve got no shot in hell. I mean, making a movie that’s successful is so fucking hard! You can even have a great movie, but then it will be killed by the marketing. So many things need to work out for a movie to be successful, and that didn’t quite happen here, unfortunately. But please, if you’re making a movie, start out with a good script, at least! Please!
AVC: How did you make your way onto Modern Family?
CP: They had this character in mind and my agent basically called and said they wanted me to play Ed O’Neill’s best friend. I knew Ed, not well, but I knew he was a terrific actor. So I went in and they just offered me the role.
When I read the script, I remember asking Steve [Levitan, the creator], “is this character gay?” They said no, and asked if that hadn’t been clear. I said no, let’s keep it like this. I liked the idea that he was metrosexual, that no one knew whether he was or not. That was really fun, really fun to play. And Steve is just brilliant. He writes a lot of the episodes, directs a lot of them—he really knows what he has on the show and knows how to use it. He’s very funny, and a very funny director—he knows what’s funny.
Dilbert (1999)—“Leonardo Da Vinci”
Stuart Little (1999)—“Smokey, The Chief Alley-Cat”
Lady And The Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure (2001)—“Buster”
Henry & Me (2014)—“Babe Ruth”
AVC: You’ve also done a lot of voice-over work.
CP: I have a very distinct voice, which is good and bad. I can change it, but people don’t know that you can until you do it. I’ve been very fortunate to do some of that stuff. I love doing it, and really liked doing Underdogs. They bring you in, you’re wearing jeans, you haven’t shaved, you’re wearing a baseball cap, and you go in, do it, make a lot of money and go home. It’s fun. I enjoy doing it very much. So that’s been really fun for me.
AVC: You recently made the crime drama Legend.
CP: Man, Tom Hardy. After I worked with him I thought, “If this guy doesn’t win an Academy Award for this thing, or for something soon, then something’s not justified in Hollywood.” I said that to everyone on set. This kid, I mean. You’ve got to love these young actors. You know, Bob De Niro, he set a bar, and then young Sean Penn came in, and now Leo [DiCaprio] is great. Him and Tom Hardy—this guy does things where you just go, “shit.” He does accents as good as anyone I’ve ever heard. Anybody. He is really, really great. And I’m so glad that he and Leo got nominated this year, because they’re both great. I think Tom should’ve gotten nominated for Legend, but at least he got it for something. It was a joy to work with him, and he’s obviously got a big career ahead of him.
AVC: Were you ever worried about becoming typecast as a gangster or a heavy?
CP: Nah. I never worried about that. People have said that to me, but I never worried about it. As long as the part is three dimensional, I’m okay with it, whether the role is to play the heavy, the cop. I mean, I’m not a heavy in Modern Family. I’m just a normal metrosexual guy. I did a movie called Yonkers Joe, where I played a father to an autistic son. That’s a wonderful movie. And actually, a movie I’d put up there with all the ones I’ve done is A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints. I just love that movie, with Shia LaBeouf, Channing Tatum, Robert Downey Jr., and Dianne Wiest, and Rosario Dawson. Even though it’s nothing like my Bronx Tale, it reminded me of that kind of personal story. For the director, Dito Montiel, it’s his Bronx Tale. The story of the father and the son; I personally thought that was some of the best work I’ve ever done.
Yonkers Joe (2008)—“Yonkers Joe”
Noel (2004)—“Arizona” and director
Blue Bloods (2012-2013)—“Angelo Gallo”
Mighty Fine (2012)—“Joe Fine”
Running Scared (2006)—“Detective Rydell”
Excellent Cadavers (1999)—“Giovanni Falcone”
AVC: Besides A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, is there another movie that you feel hasn’t gotten the appreciation it deserves?
CP: I hope more people see Guides, and I’m really, really proud of Hurlyburly. A lot of people in the business saw that, but I don’t think it was too widely seen elsewhere. It wasn’t as widely released, so I don’t think a lot of people could have seen it, but it’s a wonderful movie. Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, just incredible.
Let’s see. Yonkers Joe, that was another one of my favorites. I’m trying to think if there are any others—there’ve been so many. You know, sometimes you do movies and they don’t work, they don’t come together, but I’ve been really fortunate. Actors are lucky if they can say they’ve been in one classic, but I think I’ve been in a few. I’m very, very blessed and fortunate, and I’m still working and still enjoying it.
I’d also say that Noel is a movie I’d like more people to see. I directed that and I’m in it, though I only gave myself a small part. It’s a nice movie. A lot of people rent it around Christmastime and they’ve called me up and tell me it means something to them. It has Robin Williams, Susan Sarandon, Paul Walker, God rest his soul. Robin, rest his soul.
I’m also grateful for the television stuff I’ve done recently, you know, Blue Bloods, playing one of Tom Selleck’s best friends. That was really fun to do.
Mighty Fine, with a wonderful actress, named…. [Thinks.] Oh, come on! Oh! Andie MacDowell. She was great.
You know who is a wonderful director? Wayne Kramer, who I did Running Scared with. I really liked him a lot, I really liked working with him. I thought he was a brilliant director. I was really happy working with him.
Oh, I shouldn’t forget Excellent Cadavers, where I played the legendary judge Giovanni Falcone. He was a judge who put away a lot of mafia guys, and then was later assassinated. That’s one of my favorite roles that I’ve played. Doing that film meant a lot.
AVC: I assume that The Usual Suspects is the film you’re more often recognized from?
CP: There are a lot of people that people remember Poolhall Junkies. Man! I hear that all the time! “Poolhall Junkies, I love Poolhall Junkies.” And you’re not going to believe this, but the movie I hear the most—obviously Bronx Tale, people quote Bronx Tale to me a lot—but I couldn’t tell you how many time I’ve been walking down the street when a kid has yelled out, “Hey, did you grab my ass?” Night At The Roxbury. [Laughs.]
I’ve really been blessed, I’ve had a great career, both with movies and with my stage work. I’m very proud of it all, and now there’s this incredible musical that I’m really proud of. We’ll see what happens. You never know—nobody knows, but we’ll see what happens.
I keep thinking of movies I wish were better known. The Perez Family, with Marisa Tomei. Diabolique, with Sharon Stone, and Isabelle Adjani, who is just one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.
Like I said, I’ve been blessed. I’m sorry I keep saying that, but I’m a very lucky guy. The key is you have to keep doing the right thing. Do the right thing and stay around long enough, and you’ll keep getting parts. And if you don’t, you write your own parts, which I’m lucky to do. It’s like anything else: you get hot, you get cold, then you get hot again. You just keep working. I’m lucky to be at a stage where I can keep working. You want Chazz Palminteri? Boom, you call me.