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Palminteri got tired of waiting, so he wrote the role that made him famous


Chazz Palminteri's career, a long time coming, was launched on his ability to move gangster characters past idiot goombah stereotypes. He did it first as the paternalistic neighborhood capo in his partly autobiographical "A Bronx Tale," directed by Robert De Niro; then he scored again as the comic thug with an unexpected literary sensibility in Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway." Staring typecasting in the eye, Palminteri vowed his next screen appearance would get out of New York and over to the right side of the law.

In "The Perez Family," which opened Friday, we see him playing a Miami-based FBI man wondering if Anjelica Huston's character will tire of waiting for her husband jailed in Cuba and maybe get interested in him.

"There was more than a thought of breaking out of that mold," Mr. Palminteri says, large soft brown eyes intent, carefully laying his folded suit jacket across the arm of a Beverly Hills hotel sofa. "There was a mission." He smiles a relaxed little smile. "After 'A Bronx Tale,' all I got sent were gangster parts. I decided I wouldn't do any, but then 'Bullets' came along, and I said, 'Well, this is too good to pass up.'" Indeed, it eventually earned him an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor. "But that's why I wanted to then do something that was kind of a romantic lead, just a normal, charming guy." "Perez Family" director Mira Nair, breaking out of her own mold after directing "Salaam Bombay!" and "Mississippi Masala," said she got Mr. Palminteri by leaving him a message saying that he didn't have to slap anybody around and he gets the girl.

What Mr. Palminteri particularly liked about his first romantic screen assignment, he says, is the way the romance builds gradually. "In so many movies, you get, you know, kissing from the moment they meet to rolling in the shower. This was something that was more inside. We weren't groping . . . The whole movie, everybody's waiting for something. In each scene, Mira just let more and more of the walls out so finally at the end you couldn't control it anymore."

At 42, Mr. Palminteri is something of an expert at playing the waiting game, professionally and personally. In June, he'll celebrate the fourth anniversary of his marriage to actress Gianna Renaudo.

"The first time I saw her, I was coming out of this church in the Valley, St. Charles Church. And she was coming out and I was coming out. We looked at each other and I didn't want to ask her for her phone number. I felt kind of funny coming out of church asking a woman for her phone number. And then I got mad all week 'cause I said, 'Gee, I should have asked that girl, I thought she was really beautiful.' That weekend, I saw her at a nightclub and I walked over to her and we started talking. We both remembered each other. And we've been together ever since.

"We got married back in the Bronx, at the same church where my grandmother and my aunt and my sisters and my mother got married. There were 600 people inside the church. There were another 400 outside. It was crazy. And at the reception, too, at my favorite restaurant not too far from there, Gino's Cafe. We're based in New York. That's where we live, even though we're out here [in Los Angeles] so much with these films now. But we enjoy being out of the eye of the hurricane. Here it's like there's a hurricane. The minute you wake up in the morning to the minute you go to sleep, it's all about making movies. I try not to let the hoopla get to me. I still see my old friends that I grew up with. I still go to Yankee games, Knick games. I just try to act the same way I always have."

Not easy to do when you've passed into the folklore of Hollywood, the self-reinvention capital of the world, for starring in your own story, as Mr. Palminteri did after reaching into his roots for "A Bronx Tale." He was 36, living in a North Hollywood apartment, driving a Honda Civic that leaked water and had a dent in the door. He got a few wise guy roles, mostly on TV, but logged more time working outside clubs as a doorman than inside on stage.

"Frustration started me writing," he says. "I was $14,000 in debt and I had $178 in the bank. I drove to a Thrifty drugstore, bought five yellow legal pads and started to write. I wrote a monologue of an instant that happened to me when I was a young boy. I was sitting on a stoop and I saw a man get killed. I performed it for my acting class. I'd write more every week and perform it every Monday night. After nine months, I had an hour and 40 minutes. Then I put the show on."

But here's what you have to know about Mr. Palminteri. When his show was well reviewed, Universal offered him $250,000 for it. Determined to star and write the screenplay, Mr. Palminteri turned the studio down. The offer went up to $500,000. Then $750,000. Then $1 million. But because the deal wouldn't allow him to star, Mr. Palminteri wouldn't sell. When he restaged the show in New York, Mr. De Niro came.

"He said, 'You know, this is ridiculous. I'll direct it, you play Sonny, I'll book the studio.' And the movie got made. Changed my life." Mr. Palminteri's second script, "Faithful," about a Westchester couple (Cher and Ryan O'Neal), each of whom hires hit man Palminteri to bump the other off, is due this year.

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