Making It Right
At home with Chazz Palminteri
Photos by Kristen Jensen
Guest editor Joseph Abboud visited actor/director/writer Chazz Palminteri at the Bedford Colonial he shares with wife Gianna and their two children. They settled into Palminteri’s home office, a large space with mahogany beams and deep-green walls. “This is my sanctuary,” says Palminteri. “It’s where I go to create new projects, to think.” New projects soon to be released include movies The Dukes, Jolene, and Yonkers Joe, and the return of his original one-man show, A Bronx Tale, to Broadway. During the photo shoot, Chazz, the star of more than 50 films, discussed his take on baseball, creative work, humble beginnings, and Hollywood style. Here are some outtakes from a laughter-filled morning.
On his office
This is the only room in the house that I decorated. I wanted rich colors—the mahogany, the wood beams, the intensity of the atmosphere reminds me of the ‘21’ Club. I just didn’t think this kind of room should be light. Initially, I wasn’t going to hang the movie posters. I worried it was self-promotion, but my wife convinced me that it was okay. “It’s your office,” she said.
This is where I do my writing. This is where I watch my movies. If I want to screen something, I do that here. I watch my Yankee games here, except when it gets to the ninth inning in a tight game. Then I go to the kitchen and I put the game on my 13-inch TV and peek at it through the pantry. Sometimes I can’t stand to watch. But that’s another story.
We’ve had great parties in here—Super Bowl parties, screenings. One time, I invited a lot of old friends from the neighborhood, you know 187th Street in the Bronx. Then I invited some Hollywood friends. The guys from the neighborhood are walking around going ‘Oh, my God, that’s ...” I’m like, ‘Hey, we’re watching the game here!’
Anything that’s really important to me, I keep here. The torch I carried for the 2002 Olympics. Right there. My antique edition of the Bible. The Derek Jeter jersey. That golden angel was a gift from my wife. Then, there’s the letter from Frank Sinatra. See it, there. My office reflects the life I’ve lived so far.
On divine intervention
One day I was walking by the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The doorman said, “Hey, Mr. Palminteri, they’re doing a conference in here on Italian-American movies. You should go in.”
So I walked in and slipped into the back of the ballroom. It was like on cue. As I settled in, the moderator says, “Let’s discuss A Bronx Tale.” A professor on the panel then said he hated the film because it glorified gangsters and made one gangster, Sonny, out to be a folk hero. Meanwhile, word was spreading through the ballroom that I was in the back of the room. The moderator then said, “I’ve just been told that Chazz Palminteri is here in the audience.”
So I walk down the aisle to a microphone and replied, “You know, Professor, you have a right to not like my movie. But to be honest with you, you just didn’t get it. This movie is not about the gangster. This movie is about the working man. When the gangster dies, the catharsis of the young boy begins—you see, the gangster dies so the boy can live.”
The audience starts applauding. The professor’s face is on the floor. He must have thought he was set up. But, you know what they say about coincidence—that’s God’s way of showing you that he’s there.
I’m a bit obsessed. Sometimes, when I’m watching the game, I actually turn the sound off and I just look at it. If I see a base hit, I walk out of the room. I don’t want to hear it. It’s bad. I mean, I had a conversation with Yankee manager Joe Torre once. I said, “I watch the encore”—you know, after the game when they show the highlights—“and I’m still upset even though I know you won. I’m still yelling at the television.” You know what Joe says? He says, “You’re a sick man, Chazz.”
On not selling out
Before A Bronx Tale, I had no money. I was living in a dumpy apartment and decided that if no one would give me a great part, then I’d write one myself. I decided to write a one-man show. I was thinking: I’ll be the only one on the stage, they’ve got to notice me! The killing of a man that I witnessed as a kid flashed in my head, and I thought, “the killing, my relationship with Sonny.” And I started to write.
After ten months of writing, I had the script. I borrowed money from a friend to produce the play, and my life changed. The reviews were so amazing. It was like my mother wrote them! After two weeks, I was offered $250,000 for the movie rights to the play, but the studio wasn’t willing to let me write the screenplay or play the part of Sonny. I had like $137 to my name, but I said “no.” Another month of sold-out performances went by, and the same studio doubled the offer, but I still couldn’t write it or play Sonny. Then my new agents at the William Morris Agency took me to a new studio. The studio offered me one million dollars. One million dollars. I told them, “I’ll sign that paper, but I play Sonny, and I write the script.” They said “no.”
So one night one of the great actors of our time came to see the play. Afterward, he came backstage and said, “Chazz, the play is great. It should be a movie. You should play Sonny, and you should write the screenplay. I’ll play Lorenzo, the father of the kid, and I’ll direct it. And if you shake my hand, that’s the way it will be. I know everyone in Hollywood wants to make it, but if you make it with me, I will make it right.” So, I shook Robert De Niro’s hand, and we made it right together.
On what he wears
Joseph, you and I went shopping together a while ago. You said everyone looks great in a black turtleneck, and I feel comfortable in this look. These are the jeans I bought when we were shopping. We were talking about the image that classic actors like Cary Grant and Gary Cooper projected. I like to look classy—no nonsense, no frills. I like a black turtleneck and jeans or a classic tuxedo.