Toronto, Canada -- A kid is sitting on his front stoop in the Bronx when two guys get into a fight over a parking space. One pulls out a baseball bat. The other one pulls out a gun and shoots the first guy dead. The kid sits there wide-eyed and sees everything, and the killer notices him, and looks at him, hard, and the kid gets the message: In the neighborhood, nobody is lower than a squealer.
That experience really happened to Chazz Palminteri when he was growing up in the Bronx, and many years later he turned it into a one-man play that he performed in New York and Los Angeles. One night Robert De Niro came to see the play, and now there is a wonderful movie named "A Bronx Tale" that is De Niro's first as a director, and Palminteri's first as a star, and it's likely they'll both get Academy Award nominations for this collaboration.
The movie is about that kid, whose father is a bus driver named Lorenzo, and whose hero is a street-corner Mafioso named Sonny. The two men dislike one another, but they both like the kid, and between them he gets some advice that is useful all of his life. De Niro plays Lorenzo, and Palminteri plays Sonny--a smart, violent, lonely man who sometimes sighs, "Just remember this, kid. Nobody really cares."
Palminteri, who is around 40, has been knocking around for years on the fringes of the movies. You may have glimpsed him in some minor roles. He knew "A Bronx Tale" was his shot at the gold ring, and he wasn't going to let anybody take it away from him. He got some big offers from Hollywood studios for the screenplay, but when he said he wanted to play Sonny, the studios shook their heads.
They said the role required an established star. Someone like Robert De Niro.
The afternoon after the movie played in Toronto, De Niro smiled at that irony. "I went to Chazz," he said, "and I told him, they'll promise you you're gonna do it, and eventually somewhere down the line they're gonna come to someone like me. But if you let me direct this screenplay, I'm telling you that you'll play Sonny."
It was a neat irony: The only way to keep De Niro out of the role was to let him direct the picture. Palminteri was in the same position as another unknown Italian-American from New York, Sylvester Stallone, who in 1975 had a screenplay all the studios wanted--but they didn't want Stallone to play Rocky. Palminteri, who was broke but determined, held on, and the result, as it was with "Rocky," is a great performance we might not have gotten from anybody else, even De Niro.
The movie lives and breaths the street life of the Bronx, as young Calogero, nicknamed "C," grows up getting sound advice from his father. "Nothing is worse than a wasted talent," he tells his son. He is a hard-working family man with good values, and orders his son to stay away from Sonny and the other neighborhood mobsters who hang out at the corner saloon. But C is fascinated by them, and drawn to Sonny, who hires him to run numbers and also gives him advice.
In a routine screenplay, this situation would be predictable: The bus driver would give good advice, the mobster would give evil advice, and eventually there would be a violent showdown. But "A Bronx Tale" is not ordinary, and the boy is able to learn from both mentors. One of the things he learns is to be true to his own heart, and when, in high school, he develops a crush on a black girl from a nearby neighborhood, he finds the courage to go out with her despite the racism on both sides of the local dividing line. In scenes so carefully written that every word is important, both Sonny and the father react to the kid's decision, and their advice is about the same: Do what you gotta do, to feel good about yourself.
Talking about his movie after the Toronto premiere, Chazz Palminteri looks larger and younger than Sonny, but there is an essential niceness that feels the same. He said he wanted his movie to give a more balanced portrait of Italian-American communities.
"Too many movies speak about us as just gombas or Mafioso," he said. "I wanted a movie about the working man, about a real Italian-American community. The real fabric comes from working men. My dad was similar to Lorenzo. I used to see him put his boots on in the morning to go out and drive the bus. He'd get up in the rain, the snow. smiling, just to make his children's' lives better. That's all he wanted. No dreams to be this, or that. To me, a man like that is a hero, and I wanted the movie to reflect that."
Is your father still alive?
"Yes, and he still drives a bus. He'll see the movie when it opens in New York."
Was there also a Sonny in your life?
"Not a character like that, although of course living in the neighborhood you know who the guys were. But I did see a killing as a young boy, and it happened almost exactly the way it does in the movie. I saw it all. My father grabbed me by the arm and hauled me upstairs."
A week ago, I told him, I was talking to Martin Scorsese, who grew up in Little Italy, and had just seen "A Bronx Tale." He said his own upbringing was similar: "My father was not involved with the Mafia, but, living in the neighborhood, he had to figure out how to coexist with them."
Palminteri nodded. "The Mafioso are just an aberrational subculture. You know they're there, but the neighborhood is a lot more than that."
De Niro dedicated the film to his own father, the painter Robert De Niro, Sr., who died earlier this year. "My father had a lot of integrity," he said. "As a painter, he was very clear about what was art, and what wasn't. So there was a similarity with the character in the movie, who knows what he believes."
Growing up, he said, "I knew kids who were very similar to the ones in the movie. I knew a lot of what to show and how to show it." He also knew he wanted mostly unknowns, new faces, in the cast. That was crucial for the role of young Calogero (which happens to be Chazz's real first name).
"We looked at actors for over a year," De Niro recalled. "One day Marco Greco, who was casting for us, was on Jones Beach and he saw this kid and asked him if he wanted to audition for us. The kid says, 'You're not looking for me. You're looking for my brother.' And his brother, Lillo Brancato, came out of the water, and started doing impersonations of me and Joe Pesci in 'Goodfellas.'
"He was great. He was perfect for C. It always excites me to work with people who are new, who fit. To create this world--this medieval village in the Bronx--I needed real teenagers, not actors trying to be teenagers."
Palminteri recalled another casting coup: "We were looking for someone to play Bad Luck Eddie Mush, the guy who is a jinx. We couldn't find anyone. Finally I told Bob the real guy, Eddie Montanaro, was still around, 63 years old. Bob saw him and cast him--but I was worried, because Eddie really does bring bad luck, and sure enough, the first day he worked, it rained."
Both De Niro and Palminteri thought that the movie's interracial romance between C and a fellow student named Jane (Tarai Hicks) was crucial to the story, because it provides a test for the stand-up values both of C's mentors have given him. When blacks venture into his neighborhood they are sometimes beaten (and sometimes blacks return the favor). Yet when C first sees Jane (in a slow-motion shot with much the same mood as De Niro's first glimpse of Cathy Moriarity in "Raging Bull"), he is instantly attracted, and feels compelled to seek her out, despite the disapproval of the neighborhood. He has become his own man, not simply a repository for the opinions of others.
"His decision shows he is ready to live his own life," De Niro says. "Even Sonny sees that. Sony adheres to a very strict code of rules, but this is something that he understands, and even if he couldn't do such a thing himself, he would advise the kid to do it." When C asks his father a hypothetical question about a "friend" who was thinking of dating a black girl, the De Niro character replies, "You know I've never been prejudiced," but observes that he believes people should stay with their own kind. There isn't a scene where the father actually reacts to his son's decision, but De Niro thinks "the father would have understood it on one level and resisted it on another, but ultimately would have accepted it."
Palminteri says the subplot is based on his own high school romance with a black classmate.
"The racial tensions were very strong in our neighborhood," he said. "I don't want to say it was a racist neighborhood, but there was racism there, and also loving people who weren't racist, of course. But in this community everybody was poor and it was also a territorial thing--this is our neighborhood, this is all we have, and we don't want anybody else here.
"Like one of the teenagers who sees a black kid riding down the street on a bike, and says his father says 'that's how it begins.' And another teenager says his father says they have a right to ride down the street. I wanted to show how racist attitudes are not something you're born with; they're passed down."
Palminteri said the screenplay follows his own teenage attitudes. "It was hard for me. I was in the middle. I wanted to be one of the guys, but--why am I hurting these people? They're good people. What am I doing?"
In the film, C's friends steal a car and go on a trouble-making trip into the black neighborhood. C is in the car, but is removed forcibly by Sonny.
"That was based in a way on something that happened to me. There's tremendous peer pressure. When I was about C's age, some friends pulled up in a car and I got in, and found out the car was hot. They're all laughing, and I shut my mouth because I was afraid to say anything. Finally we ditched the car. I desperately wanted out of that car. I didn't want to get arrested for car theft. But peer pressure kept me in the car. Often we ignore out own best natures, just to go along."
In 1968 it must have been relatively unheard of in the Bronx for Italian-American and African-American teenagers to date.
"Yes, but I did date a black girl. I remember it was hard because we couldn't meet in my neighborhood, or in hers. But she liked me and I liked her. We didn't force each other. We looked at each other and we liked each other and so what was the big deal? As an adult, I put my feelings into Sonny's mouth. He says, 'The only thing that matters is when we're under the covers and we hold each other, and the rest?--don't worry about'."