It's a toughs' world

FILM: Bronx boy Chazz Palminteri has Hollywood in the palm of his hand. Sarah Gristwood met him
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WHEN Chazz Palminteri turned down a seven-figure sum for his screenplay A Bronx Tale in 1990, he had $187 in the bank. The problem was that as Palminteri was then practically unknown - "no, totally unknown, it's OK", as he confesses now - the studio wanted to put a big film star in the pivotal role of a tough but charming New York gangster. But Palminteri had really written the screenplay as a vehicle for himself and had already been performing it as a one-man stage show in America.

"The studio offered me $250,000, and I said no. Then they offered me $500,000, and I said no. They didn't call me for two months, then they offered $750,000. Two more months went by - they make you sweat - and they offered me a million.

"I got up from the table. I said: 'Am I in the movie?' They said, 'We can't do that.' I said, 'Thank you' and left. I wasn't giving it up, no way. You cannot scare me."

Did he die a little, outside that boardroom door? "My agents died," says Palminteri. But he was right to tough it out. His stage play, a touching story of father/son bonding on the mean streets, was the buzz of New York. Robert De Niro's trainer told him to see it. De Niro, now Pal-minteri's friend and mentor, did, and soon offered to direct the screen version, with Palminteri as the gangster, Sonny. The result was widely applauded and Palminteri, the struggling actor with Sicilian parents, was up and away.

Wearing his actor's cap, Palminteri recently opened in this country in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, a film which won him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Two, more conspicuous roles in other people's movies are already in the can. In The Perez Family, he plays an FBI agent; in The Usual Suspects, he's a Customs officer. Both were shown at Cannes last week. They're good tough-guy roles and life has suddenly become very high profile for Palminteri.

And as a writer, he's done screenplays for Cher (already filmed under Paul Mazursky's direction), Danny De Vito and again, De Niro. And yes, of course he also acts in them. "You want me to write a movie for you? OK, I have to be one of the stars. That's part of the deal," he says. A touch impatiently.

Palminteri is 41, he's got a Bronx accent, a sharp suit and snakeskin boots. He could be any businessman (of a very definite Italian-American stamp) discussing any deal. At a time when film appears to be a prize for the fixers - for those who start their own companies, finance their own deals, from Branagh to the American Indies - Palminteri's new package of acting and writing is ultimately shrewd. But the package has less to do with pragmatism than probity. Film is, he says, all in the quality. And naturally, he's sure he is quality.

"I knew it was going to happen. I always said that it would, one day. My mother and father always told me I was special. I bought them a great place in Florida. They lived to see the dream . . . " It sounds like a cliche, but his really is a rags-to-riches story.

Palminteri is tall, dark, but not at all handsome. He hasn't got what you'd call natural physical advantages. A jowly face, with bags under the eyes, and the permanent suggestion of a five o'clock shadow. He looks like a hood, or else a cop. He's never going to be cast as the guy who gets the girl, but as the guy who gets to shoot the girl (see Bullets Over Broadway). Or else, maybe, the guy who gets that guy. These are roles to which he can bring the flavour of personal experience.

"I grew up in New York in the Bronx, and my father was a bus driver - just like in A Bronx Tale - and I did see a man kill another man when I was a little boy sitting on the stoop. I did know some of the gangsters who were around. Everyone did.

"We were poor. And the gangs were tough. It was a territorial thing. But that feeling of a neighbour- hood is dying now in America, and everything changed in the Mafia when drugs came in. When you were jailed for six months or two years, you kept your mouth shut. When the choice is 50 years or start talking, then you start talking. Sure, the world is in love with the Mafiosi, they're what cowboys used to be." But today, he insists, they are "an aberrational subculture" in the Italian-American community. The real tough guy is the old-fashioned working man. "Like my family," he says.

His grandparents came over on the boat from Sicily. "My father was the sort of man who puts his dreams aside, who gets up every morning to do a job he doesn't very much like, but does it anyway for his family." So it took courage for his parents to let their boy follow his dreams.

For his first 12 years as an actor, he was the financial failure of the family. He had acting classes and a few off-Broadway parts with occasional guest appearances on Dallas or Hill Street Blues. He also worked as a night-club bouncer to make ends meet.

"Then all of a sudden I just decided to take matters into my own hands. I started to write." At the kitchen table, he wrote the monologue which grew into A Bronx Tale. Yes, that simple. "Like Cheech in this movie," he says.

Cheech, in Bullets Over Broadway, starts out as a peripheral character who grows into an author's alter ego. Woody Allen's backstage comedy is set in the Twenties of the speakeasy, where Cheech, the hood guarding his boss's showgirl mistress, takes over authorship of the whole play.

Palminteri says: "Lee Strasberg used to say that the best actors and writers were people who live. Had some hardships. Were broke, had to starve for money. And what Woody's trying to say is you don't have to be an intellectual to be an artist. You don't have to go to school to learn how to write screenplays. Sometimes it's just given to you as a gift by God and nobody knows how to explain it. I'm a dreamer. And a thinker.

"Making Bullets, Woody didn't even speak about the acting - it was just basketball, baseball, 'Ready! Action! Slower!' That was it. He's famous that way. He believes that if he has to tell you how to do it, you shouldn't be playing the part."

Woody Allen, Palminteri says, knew nothing about the success of A Bronx Tale when he was casting Bullets. "When the buzz got around Hollywood about A Bronx Tale, I was offered other roles. But I took Woody's movie for much less money.

"I live in a big, big house, I drive a nice car, I have a nice swimming pool, a wonderful wife." He makes it sound as if the wife, Gianna, a soap actress, came with the fittings, but in fact they met just before A Bronx Tale. "My life just went from one extreme to the other but I still live below my means. I'm very smart . . . " He bites the word off. But he is smart. Not least for keeping New York as his home.

Last time he was in Los Angeles, the dentist who had him in the chair confided that he too hoped to be an actor. And, mid-filling, he handed Palminteri over a resume. Small wonder that, for a film-maker, remaining in New York is a better bet these days.

When he started acting he wanted to work with three people in particular - De Niro, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. "Two down in a row," he says. Given the circles he moves in today, the other surely won't be far off.

! 'Bullets Over Broadway' is showing at selected cinemas nationwide.