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September 23, 2014

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Theater:

Chazz Palminteri’s ‘A Bronx Tale’ a tale of toughness

Actor, playwright based his work on an act of real violence

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Leila Navidi

Chazz Palminteri, who has acted in dozens of films, has brought his one-man play, “A Bronx Tale,” to Las Vegas.

If You Go

  • What: “A Bronx Tale”
  • When: 8 p.m. Oct. 7-12, 15-18
  • Where: Venetian Showroom
  • Tickets: $38.25 to $138.25; 414-9000

Actors look for motivation.

“Starvation was mine,” says 58-year-old Chazz Palminteri, dressed casually in black slacks, shirt and slippers.

Even in private he resembles a mob guy, his words heavily accented with New Yorkese. It’s a comfortable role for him.

Tall, slender, hair slicked back, age lines deepening in the leathery skin of his face, giving him even more character — he greets visitors to his suite at the Venetian and then sits to talk about how “A Bronx Tale” came to be.

The play begins a short run at the Venetian on Oct. 7, bringing to an end a two-year national tour after a five-month run on Broadway. Las Vegas-based GO Productions — owned by Las Vegas brothers Trent and Matt Othick and John Gaughan, son of casino owner Michael Gaughan — produced the play on Broadway and on tour.

Palminteri’s one-man show is a semi-autobiographical story reflecting events that shaped his life growing up in the New York borough.

He was a starving actor when he wrote the play as a way to earn enough money to keep pursuing his career.

“I figured if they weren’t going to give me good parts I would write my own,” he says.

It opened in Los Angeles in 1990 and then moved to off-Broadway. He played all 18 roles in the production.

“I only had a couple of hundred bucks in the bank when I was offered $250,000 for the script,” Palminteri says. “Then a couple of weeks went by and it went up to $500,000 and I kept saying no. Then it went up to $1 million and I still said no. People thought I was crazy.”

If he had sold out, he wouldn’t have been able to act in the role he created.

Robert DeNiro caught the play and offered Palminteri a deal he couldn’t refuse. Palminteri would write the film script and star as mobster Sonny LoSpecchio. DeNiro would star as bus driver Lorenzo Anello, father of the central character, young Calogero “C” Anello (Palminteri as a child and teenager).

It changed Palminteri’s life and made him a star who could pick and choose his projects.

The story’s impetus was a shooting Palminteri witnessed when he was 9. He has told the story countless times.

“That’s how the whole thing started. I saw a guy kill a guy, fighting over a parking space. One guy took a baseball bat and hit the other guy, who took out a gun and — BLAM! — shot him. The guy stared at me and I stared at him — we were about four or five feet apart. My father grabbed me and dragged me upstairs. I didn’t rat on the guy. The next day we saw each other and he knew that I knew, and I knew that he knew that I knew. Finally he says, ‘Hey, come here. What’s your name? Want to get us some coffee?’ That’s how it all started. I started hanging out with the guy and his pals. My father, who was a bus driver, always said, ‘You can’t hang out with those guys because you’re going to get in trouble. The working man is the tough guy, not the mob guy. You want to be a tough guy, go out and feed a family.’ ”

The incident grew into the play and the film.

“I think the real events affected me in a positive way,” he says. “I took something very negative for a young boy to see and made it very positive. I realized it was part of who I am, growing up with the wiseguys and throwing the dice for them, the laughs and the fun I had. I can’t run away from that. It’s part of me.”

The story puts the boy between his father and the gangster. “It takes the best of both sides and he becomes a man.”

His father had a strong personality.

“He kept me straight,” Palminteri says.

One of the guiding principles in Palminteri’s life was written on an index card by his father.

“He wrote, ‘The saddest thing in life is wasted talent’ and he put that in my room, because he saw so many people die from drugs or whatever in my neighborhood,” Palminteri says. “He just said, ‘Don’t waste your talent. You can be somebody.’

“When guys around me started to do something really bad I would think of that and tell them, ‘Nah, I can’t go. You guys go on. I’m not going.’ I always had that thing in my head.”

Palminteri doesn’t see himself playing himself forever.

“It’s a pretty demanding show,” he says. “Hal Holbrook” — who has played Mark Twain for more than 50 years — “and these guys are terrific but they do a lot of talking and telling about their characters. This is more like I literally do the whole movie onstage by myself. It’s high energy and very, very demanding.”

Palminteri has made dozens of films, including “Bullets Over Broadway,” which earned him an Oscar nomination, and “Yonkers Joe,” set in Vegas, also produced by GO Productions. He has played heavy drinkers and gamblers, but never has drunk and quit gambling years ago.

“So I bet $3,000 and win. Is that going to change my life? No. But if I lose $3,000 it’s going to really get me annoyed.”

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