In a few minutes, actor Chazz Palminteri will take the stage for a Q&A session with an audience that's just seen his new film, Mighty Fine -- and he'll kill it, telling funny stories about his early life as a struggling actor, getting his big break with A Bronx Tale, and how he spent that afternoon watching a matinee of Jersey Boys on Broadway with buddy Robert De Niro.
But sitting backstage at the Emelin Theater in Mamaroneck, NY, not far from his home in Bedford, Palminteri is quiet: "I've been doing press for this film all day," he says of the family drama. "I'm a little tired."
That's part of the gig, however, when you're both the star and a producer of the film. Palminteri became interested in the project as soon as he read Debbie Goodstein's semi-autobiographical script.
"It was like a real story," Palminteri says. "He sounded like a person who had lived some. She told me about her dad; that's why the script felt real. It wasn't somebody writing second-hand."
In Mighty Fine, which opened in limited release May 25, Palminteri plays Joe Fine, a struggling ready-to-wear manufacturer who, in 1974, suddenly moves his family from Brooklyn to New Orleans. The cost of labor is cheaper in the South and Joe is convinced that he can turn things around by moving his business. But when the business starts to crumble, it triggers the rage that Joe has to work to keep under control. As he begins to spin out of control, his wife (Andie MacDowell) and two teen-age daughters are forced to cope with a patriarch with serious anger-management issues.
"I thought it was a good issue to talk about," Palminteri says. "Mental violence is as bad as physical violence. You don't see that very often in movies, so it was a good subject to tackle.
"Anger and rage are like this step-child issue that nobody talks about. The women say, 'Well, at least he doesn't hit me. He's fine - he's just a little angry.' If you yell and scream, there's no law against it. And this guy would never be the kind to seek help."
Growing up in the Bronx, Palminteri says, he had a very different experience, being reared in a home by loving, supportive parents who, when he was still trying to get a start as an actor, would slip $20 under the door of his room whenever he needed it.
"My parents were the total opposite of this guy," he says.
Indeed, they helped keep him afloat as he worked as a bouncer and writer while trying to break in as an actor. By his mid-30s, he was living in Los Angeles, barely paying the rent, not getting cast -- until he finally decided to write a part for himself.
The work, A Bronx Tale, was a one-man show, developed 10 minutes at a time over the course of a year. By the time he was finished, he had a 90-minute one-man show in which he played 18 characters, while telling a story based on an experience he'd had as a youngster, seeing a neighborhood gangster (who had treated him kindly) gunned down on a street corner.
The work brought him to the attention of Hollywood. It played in Los Angeles and off-Broadway in New York, attracting rich offers that didn't include him as actor or screenwriter -- offers which the nearly penniless Palminteri turned down. He finally made a movie deal that included him as the star and screenwriter for Robert De Niro, who made his directorial debut with the film (and also appeared in it, playing the Palminteri character's bus-driver father).
Palminteri subsequently received an Oscar nomination (for Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway) and brought A Bronx Tale to Broadway in 2007. He now writes, produces, directs -- and even leads a writers' workshop for aspiring playwrights. Though he struggled into his late 30s, Palminteri says, success came along at the right time.
"I probably would have blown it if it happened to me in my 20s," he says. "Nobody should be a star before they're 30. It's not normal.
"When A Bronx Tale exploded, people were throwing money at me. But I was an adult and was able to handle myself. I was able to go through the forest and come out the other side. At 20, I couldn't have done it."
Now, at 60, with two children (16 and 11) and a long list of projects he wants to get to (including A Bronx Tale: The Musical), Palminteri tries not to focus on age.
"I'm not too crazy about that number," he admits. "On the positive side, it makes me work harder. I know the clock is ticking. If I'm going to do something, I've got to do it now. I'm never satisfied. I always think the best work is about to come. The next thing will be the best thing I ever did."
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