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The Bard of the Bronx

The Baltimore Sun

Chazz Palminteri and his bus-driver dad, Lorenzo, became expert at keeping secrets. They could be gregarious, even expansive, but they knew when to shut their traps.

For instance, Lorenzo Palminteri withheld crucial information about a murder that his then-9-year-old son witnessed from the family's Bronx front stoop in 1961.

"At the time, I thought those men were fighting over the parking space in front of my building," says Palminteri, an Academy Award-nominated actor who specializes in playing thugs.

"I never did find out what the fight was about. My father knew. But he would never even tell his own son, not even after 40 years had passed and everyone was dead.

"He'd say: 'What do you want to know for? It was people, things.' He went to his grave with the secret."

The prohibition against squealing was as much a part of the atmosphere as the aroma of the sharp cheeses hanging from the ceilings of the neighborhood grocery stores. That shooting and the boy's refusal to turn informer were, in more ways than one, the kid's big break.

The actor later parlayed the incident into his acclaimed semi-autobiographical play, A Bronx Tale, coming to the Hippodrome Theatre on Tuesday for a two-week run.

The play was followed by the 1993 movie of the same title, starring Robert De Niro. The film, in turn, spawned major roles for the actor in such films as 1994's Bullets Over Broadway (for which Palminteri received an Oscar nod for best supporting actor) and the mob parody Analyze This from 1999.

"I first did A Bronx Tale in 1989 when I was single," Palminteri says. "Now, I'm the father of a 13-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter. The show is different now, because I'm different. I want my children to know that the choices you make when you're young affect your life forever."

During a recent interview in Washington, the actor was attired head to toe in black: black shoes and socks, black slacks, black turtleneck, thinning black hair slicked back, near-black eyes and black sense of humor. With his slender form and brooding gaze, Palminteri would resemble Hamlet, if only the Bard's prince had been 56, instead of 28, and Sicilian instead of Danish.

Still, the analogy kind of works, because the story behind A Bronx Tale is Shakespearean in scope.

The show isn't really about the Mafia. Like Henry IV, it's about a son torn between two fathers. A Bronx Tale has the charismatic gangster, Sonny LoSpecchio; and working stiff Lorenzo, who refused to accept payment for his son's silence.

Director Jerry Zaks, who has won four Tony Awards and a slew of other prizes, finds similarities between growing up Jewish (he is the son of Holocaust survivors) and growing up Italian.

"I feel a real kinship with Chazz," he says. "In both cultures, you see yourself as an outsider, so there's a need to prove yourself. Very often, Italian and Jewish parents make their children feel like the chosen ones, which can be both helpful and scary."

Palminteri wrote A Bronx Tale in the mid-1980s, when the actor was out of work, out of money and out of sorts. He'd just been fired from his job as a nightclub bouncer after he didn't recognize Irving "Swifty" Lazar and refused to allow the famed talent agent inside the club.

That night, a dejected Palminteri picked up a card on which his father had written his motto: "The saddest thing in life is wasted talent." At that moment, the actor took charge of his career.

"I decided that if I couldn't find great roles to play, I'd write one for myself," he says.

As soon as A Bronx Tale opened off-Broadway, it was a big hit, and a bidding war started among producers seeking to option the film rights. The actor received offers that would have made him rich for the rest of his life. But each contained a flaw that Palminteri couldn't overlook.

"I got offered a million dollars for the rights to my story," Palminteri says. "But the studios didn't want me to write the screenplay or act in the film. I had $200 in my bank account, and I turned all those contracts down."

Luckily, actor Robert De Niro caught the show in New York and was hooked. Not only did he agree to Palminteri's terms, he wanted to portray the role of Lorenzo himself. The 1993 film, in which De Niro also made his directing debut, was embraced by audiences and hailed by critics as a classic coming-of-age story.

But though the film and stage versions have the same plot, they provide different viewing experiences. The movie had a cast of 94; the live performance has a cast of one.

Palminteri portrays 18 characters in the show, including his childhood self, the wise guys surrounding Sonny and his first girlfriend, an African-American high school student.

"Jane was beautiful, classy," Palminteri says. "We dated for four months when we were 17, and then we broke up and I never saw her again. When I was doing the show on Broadway, I always thought she might come backstage some day, but it never happened."

Zaks was brought on board for the 2007 Broadway revival and subsequent national tour. By all accounts, the director streamlined the show and made it funnier.

"Chazz has a tremendous amount of energy," Zaks says.

"But in 1989, his performance was unfocused. It was like he was shot out of a gun. As a young actor, you want to show everybody what you can do. But he was losing comic opportunities. This time around, I encouraged him to let the audience come to him. I wanted him to give them a chance to imagine what was going on inside his head."

Despite Palminteri's affection for the Bronx of the mid-20th century, his script doesn't ignore the ugly side of the neighborhood: the pervasive racism and growing gang violence. He also depicts the two men at the play's center in their full complexity.

Sonny has genuine virtues, among them a color-blindness rare at the time. And the seemingly upright Lorenzo makes questionable moral choices. He encourages his young son to lie to the police about the murder and later makes clear his disapproval of interracial romances. The audience senses there may be valid reasons why the boy is drawn to the gangster.

"Sonny was not prejudiced," Palminteri says. "He knew I was dating Jane, and it didn't bother him at all. My father had black friends who came to dinner at our house. But he didn't want his son to date a black girl.

"I tried to talk to him about it late in life. He said, 'Son, you have to understand, I come from a different time.' "

Palminteri's script raises similar questions about the actor himself. A 9-year-old, perhaps, can't be held accountable for his actions. But as Chazz became a teenager and was constantly in the gangster's company, he witnessed other crimes. Did the actor ever question his decision to keep quiet?

"I have to be honest," he says, "No. I saw guys get beat up, hurt, and I never thought of saying anything to anyone."

Still, the script, which Palminteri wrote, seems to belie the actor's nonchalance.

In the script, the young Chazz is obviously troubled about his big lie and asks his father repeatedly if he's done the right thing.

In the script, the murder that the boy witnesses eventually comes full circle in a scene that delivers an implicit lesson about the wages of sin. And that scene has one of the few plot twists that Palminteri fabricated.

"At least 70 percent of the script is drawn from actual occurrences," he says. "But that particular event didn't happen in exactly that way."

Zaks isn't surprised that the script hints at doubts that the actor won't admit in real life.

"That's no accident," he says. "It's part of what makes Chazz so fascinating. Here's a guy from the block who escaped from the block, but who never turned his back on the block. Chazz is a deeply spiritual fellow, which most people don't know about him, but he doesn't pass judgment."

And of course, the actor still is an expert at keeping secrets. When he's asked the name of the real-life model for Sonny LoSpecchio, he laughs a little and says:

"I'm not going to tell you. They've been trying to get that name out of me now for nearly 50 years."

Like father, like son.

if you go

A Bronx Tale runs Tuesday through April 26 at the France Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St. Showtimes vary. $20-$60. 410-547-7328, ticketmaster.com or france-merrickpac.com.

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