09/20/2009 05:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Chazz Palminteri: A Lot More Than Little Italy Walks Into the Room When He Does

2009-09-20-chazz.jpg OK, I'll confess. After being (quite gently) "accused" of writing mostly about entertainment here and spending a weekend immersed in the best theater has to offer anywhere in the world (more about that another time) I've changed my bio here to confess to having a life-long affair with theater. As for writing about entertainment, it just depends upon whom one knows, whose email lists you're on, etc. So, I'll cheerfully cop to writing mostly about entertainment but will hasten to add that if you have any Las Vegas-related topic that you think might be interesting for me to explore, just let me know. (Local politics, especially, would be very fertile ground, I believe.)

Thus, it was in theater lover mode that I went to meet Chazz Palminteri, who's bringing his acclaimed one-man autobiographical play, A Bronx Tale, to the Venetian Las Vegas next month.

We met in the Venetian Theater's green room. I was surprised at the fact that he's taller and slimmer than I'd expected. But that wonderful, classic Italian face was just as it is on the screen. I felt as if I was in New York, in Little Italy, when I saw him and wished I had some cannoli to offer. But I didn't, so we talked. Palminteri's extremely soft-spoken, giving an overriding impression of a very gentle man, calm and very centered. And there's a lot more depth than one might imagine from seeing him only in films.

A Bronx Tale was first performed by Palminteri in 1990 in Los Angeles. It was a smash and, he recalls, "It was the hottest property in LA since Rocky. When it opened I had $200 in the bank. I was offered $250,000 to turn the rights over to a producer. but I wanted to write the screenplay and play Sonny. They said 'no.' Then they offered $500,000 but wouldn't let me be involved. Two weeks later they offered me a million and I said no. Then Robert DeNiro came to see it and came backstage. He said, 'I know you want to write the screenplay and play Sonny. I want to direct it and I'll play the father.' I agreed and he said, 'Okay, let's shake on it.' That was our contract and we did it."

The 1993 film was a success and Palminteri went on to further success in Bullets Over Broadway, Mulholland Falls, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, Hurlyburly, Analyze This and dozens of others including the most unusually-plotted film, The Usual Suspects.

In the latter he played US Customs Inspector Dave Kujan and the final scene in that movie is one of the more memorable ever. The truly surprise ending left audiences gasping. When he was first given Christopher McQuarrie's screenplay -- which ultimately won the Academy Award -- Palminteri recalls, "I was like, 'WOW! What is this?' if someone can put this on the screen it's going to be really good or really bad. Bryan Singer was a young director and this was his first big film. He had so much passion and you can't beat passion. That's what won me over."

Why, after almost 20 years and much success in movies, did he decide to bring back A Bronx Tale? "This made me a star 20 years ago. I decided that it was such a great show and I'm still young enough to do it. So I decided to bring it back."

Las Vegas-based producers John Gaughan and Trent Othick offered to back the show and, he says, "Six weeks later we were on Broadway. People went nuts over it and the people from The Venetian saw it and wanted to bring it here." He's taken it across the country.

When he's not acting, Chazz Palminteri can usually be found writing. In addition to A Bronx Tale, his play Faithful was made into a film with Cher and Ryan O'Neal. It tells the story of a husband who hires contract killer to deal with his wife but, then, roles are reversed as she tries to persuade killer to make husband the victim. And he's working on a screenplay for an independent film called The Mob and Wall Street.

He says the directors who taught him the most are DeNiro, Woody Allen [Bullets Over Broadway] and Billy Friedkin {Jade]. The people whose work he will always go to see are, again, DeNiro, Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese. "I've never worked with Scorsese, but I'd love to."

He says he'd rather write than read but, when he does read, it is non-fiction. "I love real," he says. "I want to know real. I want to know about the Bay of Pigs. I want to know what happened to JFK."

As noted above, Palminteri's aura is one of quietude. He seems, even to the casual observer, very centered -- so centered that it manifests itself physically. One cannot help commenting on it.

"I'm a very spiritual guy," he responds. "I believe in angels and miracles and God. I'm not a born-again Christian, but I know we reap what we sow, karma is real and you have to live a good life.

"I believe in the work of Rudolf Steiner and his philosophy of athroposophy." According to wikipedia,, anthroposophy is a school of philosophy that believes in "the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world accessible to direct experience through inner development--more specifically through cultivating conscientiously a form of thinking independent of sensory experience. In its investigations of the spiritual world, anthroposophy aims to attain the precision and clarity of natural science's investigations of the physical world."

While he carries this spiritual world with him, Palminteri's physical world is in New York City where he lives with his wife and their two children, Dante, 14, and Gabriella, 7. "I don't want to live anywhere else. I love the four seasons -- the winter -- and I love the Yankees."

As for the production of A Bronx Tale, he says, "If you loved the movie, you'll love the show even more. In fact, even if you didn't see the movie you'll love it.

"Alfred Hitchcok said you can do three things with an audience. You can make them laugh. You can make them cry. You can scare them. I do all three. I'll make you laugh, make you cry and I'll scare you. Out of all the work I've ever done, A Bronx Tale is what I'm most proud of. It's an experience you'll never forget."

He adds, "People say 'don't oversell.' I'm not. I know this is true."

Finally, just out of curiosity, I ask Chazz Palminteri how it feels to be on the cutting edge of a trend in names. After all, until he came along, there seemed to be no one named Chazz, just the occasional (as Auntie Mame called 'em) "aryan from Darian" who shortened Charles to "Chas."

He laughed. "No one ever asked me that before, but it feels good. My real name, like the boy in A Bronx Tale, is Calogero. 'Chazz' is short for Calogero which is Italian for 'Charles.'. At times I'll meet someone in the street who has a kid, seven years old or so. They'll say to the boy, 'Tell the man your name' and the boy will say 'Chazz.' I ask how he spells it and he'll say 'C-h-a-z-z.' The parent will tell me he's named after me. I like that."

A Bronx Tale will be at The Venetian October 7 - 12 and 15 -18, 8 pm, Tickets are $38.25 to $138 VIP (includes an after-show meet-and-greet). For tickets go to or call 702.414.9000