FILM / A tale of Bob, the Mob and me: Chazz Palminteri could have been a gangster, but he chose to be an actor. Then Robert De Niro - the capo of the movies - made him a star. Sheila Johnston listened to his life story

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The Independent Culture
Chazz Palminteri doesn't want to compromise, he wants the best. In a town full of dreams, Chazz Palminteri is watching his come true.' This statement rounds off, without a trace of irony, the biographical notes of Mr Calogero Palminteri, playwright, actor and determined self-starter. Supremely confident, he's riding on the crest of the American dream.

He came, none the less, from unpromising origins. He grew up in a dodgy neighbourhood, Mafiosi on every street corner. He witnessed a murder at the age of nine. 'I was sitting on my stoop - I would hang out there a lot of the time - and these two cars were in front of my house, trying to get the same parking space. They were blowing their horns and cursing, and one guy got out with a baseball bat and broke a window. And the other guy came out with a gun and killed him. He was about six feet from me. Then he turned around. He looked at me, I looked at him, and then my father grabbed me by the arm and pulled me upstairs. I never saw him again.

'I grew up with guys like that, used to throw the dice for them at crap games when I was a kid. I enjoyed it, it was fun. And I got into trouble, small stuff. I was offered a life of crime.' Asked what form the offer took, Palminteri is suddenly very vague. 'Well it was kind of . . . just the form of some things that . . . I didn't wanna be involved in. It wasn't me. I couldn't do it. It's very simple: if you don't do the right thing, you will fall. It's like the domino effect. Crime is a short-term high. You reap what you sow.'

Instead, Palminteri became a singer, then an actor. He went out west to LA. And when his career hit a trough there, he resolved that, if nobody else wanted to cast him, he would cast himself - in 18 roles. For nearly two years, he wrote and workshopped a vehicle for his talents, about his memories of growing up rough and tough in the New York boroughs.

When he finally staged his one-man-show, A Bronx Tale, all Hollywood was soon beating at his door for the movie rights. But they wouldn't pledge Palminteri the plum part of Sonny, the flashy but curiously kindly capo of a clutch of colourful neighbourhood mobsters.

'And if I didn't play it, then nobody was gonna play it. It was that simple. I knew that was the role which would help make me a star. I was Sonny, I knew him. But Bob was always very true. And he also gave me his word that I would play the role. No one else would do that.'

And so it was that Palminteri gave the rights to his pet project to Bob - Robert De Niro - who, in turn, had hand-picked this charming, mellow vignette of Italian-American streetlife (GoodFellas 'Lite', as some film folk called it), for his maiden trip as director. De Niro also took a supporting role, as Lorenzo, a poor-but-honest bus-driver who struggles with Sonny for his son's soul.

'People said: 'Bob's never directed, how's he gonna do that?' I said: 'What are we talking about here, Joe the Tailor? This guy is, like, the most revered actor of our time. He's been on the set for 25 years, you're trying to tell me he didn't learn anything?' It didn't bother me, I don't know why it bothered everyone else. But that's Hollywood. Hollywood is the type of place you have to do it first for them to believe in you.'

A journalist from the Los Angeles Times recalls lunch with Palminteri as 'a bit like a motivational go-get-'em baseball practice', which turns out to be an accurate description. He talks fast, in short, snappy blasts, and with total conviction. 'I'm not writing Mary Poppins, y'know what I'm saying? You have to write, sometimes, the bad to say the good. I wanted to explore Sonny, but Lorenzo's is the philosophy that wins out in the end. Sonny dies.' (He spells his message out in measured one-liners). 'Being in the Mafia's bad. The boy lives. Lorenzo wins.

'My film is upbeat. It's a good message, it's a great message for the kids today, about the saddest thing in life being wasted talent: don't waste your life 'cos you only got one life. A lot of people could write but they're too damn lazy. I did. I started to work harder and I got successful. I'm proof that it happens.'

Still, Palminteri depicts his wise guys with enough affection for them thoroughly to approve of A Bronx Tale when it was screened for the locals - especially since several were playing themselves: Eddie Mush, for instance, the gambler on a permanent losing streak. The film's narrator says of him: 'The tote at the racetrack handed him his ticket already torn up.'

Palminteri recalls: 'We couldn't find anyone to play Eddie Mush. We were looking, looking, and finally Bob said, 'So what's the real guy like?' So I said, 'Let's go down to the neighbourhood.' And there he was, still reading the racing form, still losing everything. And we put him in the movie.

'We were very nervous, too, because we were afraid he was going to jinx us. As soon as he hired him, Bob broke his foot, so we had to cancel the shoot for three weeks. Then when Eddie came on the set it rained. We were ready to fire him, but we didn't 'cos he was so great. Almost all of the gangsters were guys off the street. Frankie Coffeecake (so called because of the weird, sponge-like texture of his skin) was a friend of mine I grew up with. They don't act. They don't know how to act, you know what I mean?'

Palminteri is not at all displeased to be told he looks at least 10 years younger than his screen character. 'I gained weight, shaved my head and had to put different hairpieces on. That type of character who's a capo, who's a boss, he's older, starchier, heavier. It was actually Bob's idea - you know how Bob is with his characters. I resisted a bit at the beginning, because you always want to look the best, but he was right.' At least he was not called upon to balloon to Raging Bull proportions.

'Bob wants you to write and rewrite until he knows it's perfect. Even if he goes back to the original way, at least he knows he explored all the possibilities. And that's why some people say: 'Gee, Bob's difficult to work with.' I don't think he was difficult at all. He just works harder than anybody and wants you to do the best you can, every time, and some people can't handle that. But he made me a better actor and a better writer.

'When you look in his eyes when you're acting opposite him, it's a hell of a thing. It's like hands that come out and grab you by your face. He's powerful, very strong. He takes it up another level, so you gotta take it up too. If you don't, people won't even notice that you're on screen.'

Palminteri is sure that his moment of glory has not been a flash in the pan. He has just played a leading role in Woody Allen's next picture, has written and will star in a film for Danny De Vito, has completed another screenplay and plans a project with 'Bob' who, he says, has become his very good friend. That murder in front of his stoop isn't the only idea in him (it's true that A Bronx Tale displays a real story-telling flair).

'It used to flash into my mind every once in a while. When I would see two people fighting over a parking space, or when I would sit in a certain position, with my hands cupped round my chin. But it never haunted me, if that makes any sense. And in fact, since I wrote about it, it doesn't bother me at all.

'It's incredible to think about, that something so negative could end up being something so positive. You wouldn't want your nine-year- old son witnessing a murder. But it ended up the best thing that ever happened to me in my life.'

A Bronx Tale opens next Friday.

(Photograph omitted)