SCREENWRITERS // Chazz Palminteri
Interview with Chazz Palminteri
Following the success of his one-man stage play A BRONX TALE, actor Chazz Palminteri (whose first screen credit was as "Hood #2" in BERRY GORDY'S THE LAST DRAGON) adapted the story for Robert De Niro's Tribeca Productions, and portrayed the character of Sonny himself. At a "round robin" interview in September 1993, Palminteri discussed how he transplanted his personal experiences from the stage to the screen.
Palminteri: When I was very young, my father trained fighters. In fact he does that now, after he retired from the bus company. There was one fighter who was about 17 years old, a great fighter, and he got an overdose of drugs and died. And my father said, 'What a waste of talent.' He always said to me, 'The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.' He wrote it on a little card and put it in my room. It was something I would see every day, I kept it there, and I think it's kind of what made me do what I did, to write this movie and do this.
What did your father think of your desires to go into the theatre?
He thought it was great. He said if that's what you dream, that's what you should do. You have to do it. So did my mother. They said, go do it and we'll support you do whatever you want. They were very, very supportive. Extremely. They always told me that I was special, that I would make it. 'Don't worry, sooner or later it would come.'
As an actor have you suffered from typecasting?
Well, I'm Italian, I'm dark, Sicilian, so they see the Mafia guy, or I could be a cop. A governor. I just feel like, they do that. You want a cowboy from Oklahoma? Then don't come to me. Go to Oklahoma and get a real cowboy! You should know your limitations. But, you should also be able to stretch.
Was there ever a time you wanted to quit acting?
Was I frustrated at times? Yes. Was I discouraged and down a little bit? Yes. But wanting to quit? No. I just knew that this day would come definitely, I knew this day would be here I really did. So that's why I'm not it's exciting and all this but, I knew it would happen.
Did you write in school?
Well, I used to write poetry a lot, I wrote lyrics for a long time because I started out as a singer. I wrote a lot of songs with Butch Barbella who happens to write the original music for the movie. I was in an improvisational comedy group and I would write comedy skits, and stuff like that. This was my first screenplay. I wrote the play first as a one-man show, and I don't know, then I found that I had this gift inside of me that I could write, because right after that in Hollywood, they start saying, 'Well, maybe he's just the Flavor-of-the-Month.' So I realized I had to write something else to show that this is not true, so I wrote my second play which got critically acclaimed, called FAITHFUL, and then I adapted that into a screenplay and that just got bought. And we're going to be doing that next year; Tribeca is producing that.
Given the personal nature of the play BRONX TALE, did you have any trepidation about a "star" coming aboard and re-working your script to suit his character?
I didn't get that feeling. I know what you're saying, and [with] other people I may have felt that way, but when I met Bob I didn't. Bob is a very collaborative person; he said, you must be on the set even when you're not acting. Usually the writer, he gets a cup of coffee, he says hello, then they come and get him out of here! But Bob insisted that I be there. I was involved in the casting, I was involved in the locations, even at the end of the movie I was ready to go back to Los Angeles, and he said no, I want you to stay here and be involved in the editing, which was amazing. I was involved in the mixing at the end, which was really incredible.
Did De Niro specifically express an interest in directing this film when you first met, or was he just looking to produce at the beginning?
He's been looking for something to direct for a long time, and he thought this would be a perfect project for him because he didn't have to carry the movie. He could play a role that was a nice role, a pivotal role, but not carry the movie.
Can you describe De Niro on the set as a director?
Bob? He's been around a set for 25 years, this man. To me, in my opinion he's one of the great actors of our time. He's an actors' director; he's phenomenal. Everybody loved him. As a director, it starts at the top; if a director's in a good mood, everybody's in a good mood. If he's in a bad mood, if he's arrogant, then everybody's mad. Bob was always very friendly, he was always a gentleman.
In adapting the story, was it hard to make the transition from a stage play to a screenplay?
Not really. When I did the play I did all the characters in the play, 18 parts. I did basically the movie on stage, alone. [For the film] I opened it up in certain spots: at the race track, the fighting, the boxing things. And then some things I narrated in the play, I didn't have to narrate because I could show it. It was different but some of the scenes are directly right out of the play, word for word.
What influence did De Niro have over the adaptation of the play?
He did push me; he said, 'Let's try other things,' and [was] always asking me to write more and try something until I rewrote and rewrote so much that out of all the rewrites he took a few of those things and put them into the original [draft]. He pushes you to another level. You show him and he'll go, "Eehhhh, it's good but, I know you can do it better." And he'll give it back to you and you rewrite it again and he'll look at it and say "Now it's getting closer." And you go back again. Bob is a real perfectionist. He approaches directing as he approaches acting; if it ain't right, we do it again. We see the dailies, if it ain't right we go back and do it again.
Can you give an example of where he pushed you further?
Well, he loved the character of Eddie Mush. We were having trouble casting the role, we could not find the character, it's such a strange character. Here's a guy who's been a born loser all his life. He's a jinx, and we had trouble casting this part. And it was Bob's idea, he said to me, 'Where is the real Eddie Mush?' I said, well, he's probably in the neighborhood still losing bets. So he said 'Let's find him.' And we go down and there he was, with The Racing Form. This guy has done this all his life. He's been running from loan sharks, borrowing money, paying the other guy, so then when we finally cast him in the movie I turn to Bob and said, I'm really nervous now because he might jinx the movie. Bob said, 'Holy shit! I didn't realize that,' and we got really nervous!
We did put him in the movie, obviously, and the first day on the set it rained. It did! We had to go to a cover set. I looked at him and said 'I want to kill you!' But he was so terrific, how could you not put him in the movie?
Was he upset at your depiction?
Well, he did say to me, 'You know, I like doing the movie, but I did win a few times!' 'Eddie,' I said, 'I don't remember!'
Were all the characters of the film based on real people?
Obviously Eddie Mush. My friend Dave Salerno plays Frankie Coffeecake; I've known Davey all my life. Frankie died when he was young, but I remember we used to call him Coffeecake because his face looked like this coffeecake. "Jo Jo the Whale" was, there was one fat big guy there, and in all Italian neighborhoods, there's always one fat guy, one ugly guy, one guy with a big nose, and they all had these names: "Joey the Beak." There's a lot of names I wanted to put in it. I had so many wonderful names, but I couldn't put them all in.
In Italian neighborhoods or Irish neighborhoods, there's a lot of people with the same name: There's a lot of Tonys, a lot of Joeys, so they go: 'Joey? Who Joey?' 'You know, Joey the Butcher.' 'Oh, you know Joey, the one with the nose?' 'Oh, Joey the Nose?' So that's how that really started.
What were some of your neighborhood characters who didn't get in?
One was called 'Harry Ahheeeeeughw.' [Sorry, I don't know how to transcribe this phlegmy sound properly.] And we called him 'Ahheeeeeughw' because when we were kids we used to play blackjack in the alleyway and we would hear the window open and this is terrible! we'd hear him go 'Raaa raa raa AHHEEEEughw!' And he would phlegm up and spit! And then we would all laugh: 'Oh, Harry Ahheeeeeughw is at it again.' I wanted to put him in the movie so bad, but we could not find a spot.
Palminteri received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Woody Allen's BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. He has also appeared in FAITHFUL, JADE, MULHOLLAND FALLS, THE USUAL SUSPECTS and HURLYBURLY.
copyright 1993, 2009 by David Morgan
All rights reserved.