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Checking Out Chazz What's-His-Name From the Bronx

May 18, 1989|RAY LOYND

Chazz Palminteri is a humble guy--for an actor. He knows he's playing with a royal flush in his autobiographical, solo hit play, "A Bronx Tale," but he is not so brazen that he envisions his name wrapped around a marquee. Not yet anyway.

Palminteri's notoriety, to date, is the grist of a Hollywood insider story. He has no agent, no personal publicist, no movie deal for his "Bronx Tale." But that could change next week, says Palminteri.

That's not bluster. Around Hollywood, in the major agencies, in studios, in casting offices, the word has spread: Check out this Italian-American, Chazz whatzit from New York.

"Everybody invites me to Italian restaurants," Palminteri said with a laugh. "I always get the same overture, which begins 'You and your property. . . .' "

No one knows why some actors get hot, in this case a comparative nobody who arrived in Los Angeles two years ago trailing a lot of Bronx laundry that he turned into a tour de force play. But for the last seven weeks, since the early March opening and the rave reviews, power brokers--including William Morris chief Norman Brokaw, Broadway producer Arthur Cantor, and directors John Avildsen and Martin Brest, among others--have flocked to the 99-seat West Coast Ensemble to catch Palminteri's virtuosic acting and writing.

What makes this attention uncommon is that it blossomed in a small theater. Every actor's dream. Normally actors can't even get their own agent to watch them perform in a small theater.

"A Bronx Tale" recently moved to Theater West for an extended run through June 18. It was at Theatre West, as a member of the company's workshop, that Palminteri last autumn first experimented with a five-minute monologue that caught the attention of director Mark Travis. With Travis' help, Palminteri developed the material into a ripe gallery of cutpurses and miscreants from Palminteri's 1960s Bronx childhood that became his "Bronx Tale."

The chameleon Palminteri plays all the characters, assuming a variety of accents and mannerisms, in a raucous street tapestry dramatizing a young boy's conflict between loyalty to his hard-working father and his fascination with a true-life capo.

"I've had offers from producers to buy the play to turn it into a movie," said Palminteri. "Universal offered $250,000 for the rights, but I'm holding out because I insist on acting in any film of my play."

Universal issued a "no comment" when asked to confirm the offer.

Palminteri, who said he developed the material "alone on stage every night for weeks at Theatre West between midnight and 4 in the morning when nobody was around," is determined to star in the film adaptation. A bachelor residing in Studio City, Palminteri, 37, is just finishing the screenplay.

"I've worked too hard as an actor to let the script slip away from me, however much I understand the studios wanting to cast a big name. I'm an actor who likes to write. I wrote this as a vehicle for me."

What Palminteri is holding out for, in a movie, is the mobster character. That is the true life Little Johnny, who ruled by wit and fear in Palminteri's Bronx Italian neighborhood at 187th Street and Belmont Avenue in the '60s.

In the play, he mercurially plays Little Johnny and himself at age 9 as the boy becomes Little Johnny's numbers runner, protege and beloved friend, before seeing the flashy racketeer gunned down 10 years later in a bar.

The dark, curly-haired actor with street-wise looks arrived here toting Broadway stage experience, some personal study under Lee Strasberg, and travel in Europe from 1975 to 1980 as a performer with the New York Comedy Players.

"I came here knowing nobody. I worked clubs as a singer and even the doors a few times (as a doorman) before I landed some TV roles ("Hill Street Blues," "Matlock," "Glory Years").

"Now I've met with the agencies--CAA, ICM, Triad, William Morris--and sat in executive suites with studio production people. They like my play, but I'm not selling (it) unless I can star in it."

Palminteri is equally determined to keep aboard the play's director, Travis, when "A Bronx Tale" goes to Off Broadway in September. The producers are Peter Gatien and Dan Lauria, who plays the father on TV's "Wonder Years."

As for a movie, Palminteri's stubbornness may not be the self-defeating nerve of a cocky upstart. Who can forget the 1975 Sylvester Stallone rags-to-riches story? The 30-year-old then-unknown actor had written this formula boxing story called "Rocky," which studios wanted to buy for the likes of Burt Reynolds, James Caan or Ryan O'Neal. Stallone refused to sell his script unless he was included as the star. And we all know what happened there.

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