Chazz Palminteri may be best known for playing the mob boss Sonny from the 1993 coming-of-age film A Bronx Tale. And rightfully so — Palminteri wears the character just as well as Sonny wears his sharkskin suits.
The film originally started as a 1989 play developed and performed by Palminteri. And Pittsburgh audiences will get to see the film’s stage origins when Palminteri performs A Bronx Tale: One Man Show on Fri., Nov. 11 and Sat., Nov. 12 at the Byham Theater.
Set in 1960s New York City, A Bronx Tale tells the story of Calogero, a young boy who witnesses Sonny kill a man, seemingly over a parking space. The film version chronicles Calogero’s youth as he navigates love, loss, loyalty, and racism, and what it all means. With convincing and emotional performances by Robert De Niro (who also directed the film), Lillo Brancato, and Taral Hicks, as well as Palminteri, the film was a critical and commercial success.
The story of how the film came to be is just as compelling as the story told on screen. During a Zoom interview, Bronx-born and raised Palminteri explains that the show draws largely from his own childhood. When he was 9 years old, he witnessed a murder, an event that would become the basis of a story he would tell repeatedly for more than 30 years.
As a young actor trying to break into the business in 1988, Palminteri says he wasn’t being offered the parts that he really wanted. So, he decided to write one. Writing 10 to 15 minutes of the story at a time, Palminteri had 90 minutes of a tight one-man show completed within a year.
“So, I borrowed some money from a friend,” Palminteri explains. “I put it up, I produced it, and my life skyrocketed.”
The show sees him bring 18 different characters, all based on friends, family, and even enemies, to life on the stage. Much like the film, the production intertwines stories of his old Bronx neighborhood, idolizing the mob boss, Sonny, being in a forbidden romance with a Black girl, and becoming his own man.
The show originally premiered in 1989 at Theatre West in Los Angeles and had a sold-out run. Palminteri remembers “standing ovations and lines around the corner,” adding that “audiences loved the show.” Palminteri would then receive a Special Award from the Outer Critics Circle.
It wasn’t long before the show caught the attention of Hollywood, and Palminteri received offers to turn it into a major film. But there was a catch — the studios wanted to give the role of Sonny to a “star,” and they wanted someone else to write the screenplay. With only $200 to his name, Palminteri recalls saying “No” multiple times. This was his life story, and he was going to write the screenplay, as well as play Sonny. He was willing to put in the extra time and work to make it happen.
“If you have God-given talent, you can be pretty much good at what you do,” he says. “But if you want to be elite, you have to work,”
Palminteri knew he had something special and that the right opportunity would present itself. “It was the belief in myself that I could do this,” Palminteri remarks. After a Los Angeles performance in 1990, that opportunity walked into his dressing room.
“I got off the stage and the stage manager said, ‘Robert DeNiro just snuck into the dressing room,’” Palminteri recalls. De Niro recognized that this show was something special and gave Palminteri an offer he couldn’t refuse. De Niro agreed that Palminteri should play Sonny as well as write the screenplay. De Niro also decided that he would direct the film and play Calogero’s father, Lorenzo. They shook hands and, with that, a gentleman’s agreement was made.
“I owe it all to Bob De Niro for giving me my first break,” says Palminteri.
The movie has since spun into other opportunities. A Bronx Tale was most recently adapted into a Broadway musical for which Palminteri wrote the book and briefly reprised his role as Sonny. The musical would come to the Benedum Center as part of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh 2019-2020 season.
According to a statement, A Bronx Tale marks the first time in history that the same actor wrote the one-man play, and the movie and Broadway musical adaptations, and starred in each one.
The Pittsburgh performance will give audiences a chance to witness the exact same show Palminteri did 34 years ago, and which made him a star.
Palminteri wants the audience to walk away from the show feeling inspired. With a twinkle in his eye, he states, “It doesn’t matter how old you are, it’s your next move that always counts.”
He expands on this with an adage shared by Palminteri’s father on-screen and off, which became an overarching theme in A Bronx Tale — “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
Palminteri can never be accused of wasting his talent.
A Bronx Tale: One Man Show. Fri., Nov. 11-Sat., Nov. 12. Byham Theater. 101 Sixth St., Downtown. $55-70.50. trustarts.org