‘Bronx Tale’ saga: A story unto itself

Courtesy of Chazz Palminteri
Actor Chazz Palminteri’s Atlantic City production of “A Bronx Tale” has him playing 18 roles, including women.

The 1993 film “A Bronx Tale” is the story of an 8-year-old boy taken under the wing of a Mafia capo and the ensuing, years-long battle between the mob boss and the kid’s father for the child’s heart and soul.

That it’s based on events in the life of its creator and co-star, Chazz Palminteri, is incredible enough: When he was 8, the veteran character actor witnessed a top-ranking gangster murder a rival, setting the story’s plot in motion. But equally fantastic is how “A Bronx Tale” reached the big screen.

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Palminteri brings his tour de force, one-man theater version of “A Bronx Tale” to Ocean Casino-Resort on April 20, playing 18 roles – including women. He was an actor living in Los Angeles in the 1980s when he realized his experiences as a child formed the basis of a theatrical piece.

But right from the jump, Palminteri explained, he saw it as a solo endeavor rather than a standard, multi-person production.

“I had this idea that I could write this play, and when I had it in my head, I saw a movie,” Palminteri recalled during a recent phone call, “but I said, ‘I’m gonna write the play and do all the scenes and play all the characters myself.’

“I knew it was crazy,” he added. “It had never been done before and it’s never been done since, really. I just had this idea that I could do it.”

Palminteri – who turns 72 next month – noted that he always saw the piece in cinematic terms.

“I had this idea that when I clap my hands, it’s like a cut, it’s a film cut,” he said. “You go to the other scene, the other scene, the other scene. And I just thought if I could pull it off, it would be the greatest audition for an actor and the greatest pitch for a movie anyone’s ever seen.

“And it worked.”

The theaater version of “A Bronx Tale” caught the attention of the public and critics alike, and created major buzz on the L.A. theater scene.

“The reviews came out and they were phenomenal,” Palminteri remembered. “And every writer, producer and director in Hollywood wanted to see it.”

And that’s when Palminteri’s tale took its first crazy turn. He was initially offered $250,000 for the rights to the work – more than $640,000 in today’s dollars – a phenomenal amount of money for an unknown actor-writer. But it came with a condition that Palminteri rejected out of hand: He would have nothing to do with the film version.

Because money is the lingua Franca of show business, those courting Palminteri assumed he was simply holding out for a higher number. But that, he insisted, was never the case, and that’s why a $500,000 offer was also rejected.

“I wanted to write it and play Sonny (the mob boss) because it was my life,” he reasoned. “And again, they wouldn’t let me play Sonny. And I said, ‘No.’ I kept doing (the show) and the crowds kept getting bigger – lines around the block – and I had big executives calling my house: Ray Stark (who produced “Funny Girl”), Jerry Weintraub (“Oh, God!”) and Al Ruddy (“The Godfather” and its sequels].

“How they got my home phone number, I have no idea.”

The bidding ultimately reached $1 million, yet it remained an offer Palminteri refused.

“Again, I said no,” he recounted. “And they got a little upset by that. They said, ‘Well, you realize this movie will never get made.’ And I said, ‘But it will get made.’ And they said, ‘What makes you so sure?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s just too good.'”

According to Palminteri, whose resume also boasts such films as “The Usual Suspects” and “Bullets Over Broadway” and the TV series “Rizzoli & Isles” and “Law & Order SVU,” it wasn’t long before his bold – some at the time would have said ridiculous – prediction was validated.

“About two weeks later I did the show,” the actor related. “I walked off stage and the stage manager said, ‘Robert De Niro is in your dressing room. He’s waiting for you.’ I walked down there, and Bob was sitting there. And he told me it was the greatest one-man show he’d ever seen. And he said, ‘You did a movie onstage.’

“He was very complimentary, Palminteri added, “and he said, ‘Look, I want to make it (as a movie). They’re gonna come to me eventually anyway, but I’d rather do it with you.'”

Then De Niro told Palminteri, “‘You should play Sonny and you should write the screenplay, ’cause it’s your life, and it’ll be honest. And I’ll play your father and I’ll direct it. I’ll make it right.’

“And I shook his hand and we made a deal.”

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the saga that is “A Bronx Tale” is that De Niro went against show biz tradition by keeping his word and allowing Palminteri to write and co-star in the film.

“He was very collaborative through the whole movie,” Palminteri noted. “He let me be there and give my opinions. It was wonderful. It was probably the greatest artistic experience I ever had.”

For tickets, go to ticketmaster.com.

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