A 9-year-old boy, Calogero, sits on his Bronx stoop, when – POP! – he witnesses a mob boss, Sonny, murder someone. Calogero’s decision not to rat sets into motion a years-long relationship with Sonny which causes him to grapple with following the life of crime or making an honest living like his father, Lorenzo.
Thus the stage is set for “A Bronx Tale,” the autobiographical one-man show by Chazz Palminteri that continues to wow audiences after 35 years. In 1988, the struggling actor was inspired to create his own opportunity. He began writing a play based on his childhood, his Italian-American neighborhood, the colorful characters in his past, his relationship with his father, and the relationship he forged with the mob boss who perpetrated the crime that young Chazz witnessed. He wrote for months; five or ten minutes each week in his theater workshop, bringing 18 characters to life in a one-man stage show. He performed the play and his life changed.
The show was a smash hit. Hollywood came around with offers for a screen adaptation, but Palminteri insisted on writing the screenplay and playing the lead. After seeing the show in 1990, Robert DeNiro walked into Palminteri’s dressing room and with a handshake, agreed to Palminteri’s terms. The film “A Bronx Tale,” DeNiro’s directorial debut, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1993; Palminteri skyrocketed to stardom. Subsequently, Palminteri wrote the book for “A Bronx Tale: The Musical.” It’s the first time in history that the same actor wrote the one-man play, the movie, and the Broadway Musical and starred in each one. As the one-man show continues to play to sold-out crowds all across the country, the Delaware Valley Italian-American Herald spoke to Palminteri about his family’s history, the relatability of the story, what Italian-American traditions are important to him, and what he likes about growing up “old school.”
Can you tell me about your grandparents? Parents?
I’m 100% Sicilian. My father’s side was from Menfi, in the province of Agrigento, Sicily, and my mother’s [Rose] was from Messina, Sicily. I’m named after my grandfather – Calogero – a lot of people from Sicily have that name. My grandfather came with his wife through Ellis Island. My grandfather didn’t have much, but he came with a dream and made a life for himself. They made a better life for their kids, and so on, generation after generation. If it wasn’t for my grandfather, “A Bronx Tale” would have never happened. I’m [about to market] a cigar. It’s dedicated to my grandfather. He loved good wine and a cigar.
My father was a bus driver. He was a hard worker. Part of the greatest generation, my father was never late for work and only took five sick days in 30 years. The working man is the real fabric of the Italian-American community. I had parents who cared about me and my sisters. My father said, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent!” I still carry a card with his words.
Can you tell me about the relation- ship between Sonny, Calogero, and Lorenzo and why people relate to them?
I wrote “A Bronx Tale” from the heart about things that happened to me. I am the boy. Some of my friends fell prey to crime but I was influenced by Sonny not to do something wrong because I never wanted to hurt my parents. It’s what makes the story so real and honest. Basic writing involves good vs. evil. To show light, you have to show dark. The relationship between Calogero and Sonny, and Calogero and Lorenzo, is not black and white. It’s gray and gray. People connect with that.
What Italian-American traditions do you continue to practice?
We continue to have family dinners and Sunday pasta. Having respect for parents and being a great parent is important. The only way to teach your kid to be a great parent is by being a great parent. I’ve also carried on the tradition of boxing since my great-grandfather. He passed it on to my grandfather, my father passed it on to me and I passed it on to my son. You should know how to handle yourself.
What do you like about growing up “old school”?
Growing up old school means doing the right thing. It’s being respectful of women, picking up a check when it’s your turn, and doing your job the right way. When my sisters’ friends were at the house, I would ride with my Pop when he’d drive them home. He’d wait until they got into the house before he left. Whenever you take a girl home you wait – that’s old school. To this day, I can’t drop somebody off without doing that.
Palminteri concludes the screenplay with Calogero saying, “I learned something from these two men. I learned to give love and get love unconditionally. And I learned the greatest gift of all … acceptance. You can never change anybody. You just have to accept people for what they are. But you could ask anybody from my neighborhood, and they’ll tell you, this is just another Bronx tale.”
Palminteri wrote a story that transcends ethnic backgrounds and junctures in time. He perfectly captures the universal themes of coming of age, good vs. evil, love and loss, and family drama. No wasted talent here.