Based on his own 1988 one man stage show, A Bronx Tale is a lightly fictionalised account of Chazz Palminteri’s boyhood on the tough streets of the titular New York City burrough. One of only two films ever directed by acclaimed actor Robert De Niro, it tells the story of young Calogero Anello (Francis Capra, acting as Palminteri’s surrogate) whose fascination with charismatic local gangster Sonny (Palminteri) troubles his hard working father (De Niro). Lauded at the time of its release, the film has since been adapated to the stage once more, this time as a hugely successful Broadway musical.
First a one man show, then a movie, then a musical, over the course of three decades – would you say A Bronx Tale is the defining artistic endeavour of your life?
Yes, I would have to say that. I mean, it’s the first time something like this has ever happened. It went from a one man show, a one man theatre piece, to a movie, and then to a hit Broadway musical that’s still running on Broadway right now. It’s pretty amazing the thing has stood the test of time. I’s a great story, it’s about my life: my real name is Calogero, I saw a guy kill a man when I was nine years old. I guess people really connect with it.
I think the theme of the movie, what it says, is what my father always told me: the saddest thing in life is wasted talent. I think people connect with that. I see a lot of parents bringing their children to see the play, they see the movie and they talk about how it changed their lives. The piece just stands the test of time – 30 years, almost.
I understand you were very reticent to sell the film rights to the show, until De Niro came along.
What happened was everybody wanted it in Hollywood. It became the hottest property in the world at the time since Rocky. They offered my $250,000 to walk away, and I had $200 in the bank, and I said no, I’m not doing it. Then two weeks later they offered me half a million dollars. I said no, and people in Hollywood thought I was crazy – $200 dollars in the bank, don’t forget! Then they offered me one million dollars and again I said, I write the screenplay, I play Sonny, and they said no.
Then about a couple of weeks after that Robert De Niro came to see the show where I was doing it. Nobody knew, and he met me backstage afterward and he said, “Look, this is the greatest one man show I ever saw, I think it’ll make a great movie. I think you should play Sonny and I think you should write the screenplay, because it’s about your life. And if you shake my hand, we’ll go partners.” And that’s the way it was, that’s what happened.
Was it difficult to hand over that much creative control over your story?
Well, you know, it’s Robert De Niro. We had many conversations about it, I trusted him, he was from a neighbourhood very similar to mine so I thought he really knew the milieu really well, and we got along fantastic, just fantastic, we really did.
As a film, it’s not stagey at all – it feels expansive and real. What was the process like, translating the monologue-based one man show to something with so many characters and scenes?
Well, I actually did all the characters on stage myself. I did 18 characters on stage, so it really lends itself to a screenplay easily – I just kind of wrote it, you know? Again, I just trusted Bob a lot, I trusted that he knew the characters, and I was on the set every day, I was always there if he needed something, for me to write something. It was really just a wonderful collaboration to make a movie.
The scene where Lorenzo, played by De Niro, comes to confront Sonny, your character, about Calogero and the influence he has over him, is one of the film’s big moments. What was it like on the day of shooting?
It’s one of those moments when a regular man confronts the boss, which is really dangerous. But what makes the film so honest and real is that… Sonny didn’t want me to be a bad guy. He said the same things to me that my father did, but my father didn’t want me hanging out there because he thought I’d be influenced by all of that. And, you know, you never know when there’s gonna be trouble – you don’t want to be involved with that. But Sonny knew that my father was right, he knew my father. It was pretty exciting that day, I remember.
That’s a level of complexity beyond what we normally see in this scenario – it’s not just good vs evil with the boy in the middle. Was it important for you to retain that greyness, that ambiguity?
Exactly, you’re right, and that’s a very intuitive question because that’s what makes the film and the musical so great. It’s not Goodfellas – and Goodfellas is one of the great movies of all time – but it’s not that. It’s two father figures telling the boy the same thing. Sonny says, “get outta this neighbourhood, go to school, do something with your life.” That’s what makes it different. But my father felt threatened that I would be influenced by that.
Being set at the dawn of the ’60s, the film has a great sense of time as well as place – you see the African American kids being bussed to local schools, the Hell’s Angels turn up for one great scene, you can feel the counterculture just around the corner. Was it a challenge getting to that level of specificity?
That was very important, and it was Bob’s idea for each group to have their own kind of music. So just like they were competing physically and fighting, the music was competing with each other. So the blacks have R&B, certain kids have rock, the wiseguys have Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, so between all of that and all of these real people that he had in the movie… a lot of people don’t realise that. Me and De Niro and Joe Pesci were the only actors in the movie, everybody else was actually people from the street! Those were the guys. In fact, that was the real Eddie Mush [Eddie Montanaro] in the movie!
Now A Bronx Tale is a musical – how has it changed over the years?
The thing that’s important is that the one man show stands alone, the movie was the same story but obviously I was able to do more, and the musical is a brand new incarnation and that stands alone, because I was able to talk more about my father, my mother, and their dreams and put it into music. Each one stands on its own, which is really great.