MIAMI — Across a table on his patio, the real Chili Palmer is working "the look"--mouth a tight line, heavy-lidded eyes drooping to coldly ominous slits. Then he blinks. His mouth twitches, first one corner, then the other, then curls into an unwilling smile. "Aaahhh," he says, throwing down his cigarette and giving up. "Well, back then I didn't have people sitting there giggling at me."
Novelist Elmore Leonard took Palmer's name, "the look" and a few other characteristics for the central character in "Get Shorty," a loan shark with a devastating stare who turns movie producer. As played by John Travolta in the current hit film comedy, people are laughing a lot more than they did at the real thing.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 4, 1995 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Picture credit-- A photograph of Chili Palmer and John Travolta in Friday's Calendar section was incorrectly credited. The photographer is Gregg Sutter.
"During my shylock days," Palmer explains in his Brooklyn accent, "I learned that when you have a hard time getting your money, your best asset is fear. Fear does wonderful things. Me, I really didn't want to hurt anybody. I found that if I could give 'em that look, and make 'em think that I'm really serious . . . it worked. And that's the way 'the look' came about."
It came in handy on a 17-year partnership beginning in the early '70s with Bill Marshall, a private investigator and college buddy of Leonard's. Palmer says the two would sometimes collect on gambling debts for a Las Vegas' casino. Marshall, a gregarious Irishman, would joke and talk. "But Chili would just stare at the guy," Leonard says. "He never said 'look at me.' I made that up. But he would give the guy this look. And I think that was the message, even though they never ever threatened the guy."
They became friends, and Palmer did research for several of Leonard's books. And so, Palmer says, when Leonard called one day and said, " 'Chili, I love your name, and I like your background, and I'd like to do a book with Chili Palmer,' I said, 'Dutch, be my guest.' "
These days Palmer's life is more like the American dream than a crime novel. Now 58, he and his wife, Grace, have been married for 30 years, and he's a devotedly proud father of Joanna, 20, a student at the University of Miami, and 15-year-old Jacqueline, who's a star cheerleader in high school. He works security at a downtown hotel and lives in a comfortable suburban house filled with giant photos of his children, plus recently added pictures of himself with Travolta, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito and others from the movie. Excitement consists of chasing the Pekingese, Coco, back in the house or rescuing Jacqueline from a mangy street cat.
"I don't think there is a category for Chili," Leonard says. Actually, Palmer is a classic Leonard character; a basically decent, working-class guy with an independent streak who lived by his wits and a little on the edge. He is coyly vague about his past. Palmer, one of six children of a Spanish waiter and an Italian housewife in Coney Island, N.Y., came to Miami Beach in 1960.
He says that in 1968 he started managing nightclubs with money from an "unknown investor--Italian from Brooklyn," and from the same "investor" put out $100,000 "on the street" as high-interest loans to gamblers, businessmen, "all kinds of people from all walks of life. . . . You gotta remember every major hotel had a resident bookie, with a cabana by the pool. That was standard back then."
He once chased a Fontainebleau mai^tre d'to Vegas on a bad debt. He was detained for "strolling without a destination," a charge Miami Beach police used at one time, along with "lounging in the outdoors--I swear to God," to check on suspicious characters. But marriage and fatherhood changed his life. "Oh yeah, it was fun," he says of his past. "You lived by your wits, and you made your own luck or destiny or whatever you want to call it. But your values change as you move along in life."
When asked if his "investors" were really the Colombo crime family, as an article in the October issue of GQ asserts, and how much of the Mob stuff in the book is real, Chili Palmer just grins. "C'mon. You figure it out."
He seems to be thoroughly enjoying the attention, though, and playing mystery games with Hollywood about his past. "They all wanted to know how much of this stuff was real. So I told 'em, about 25%."
National magazines are profiling him, though he turned down the TV tabloid "A Current Affair." A request from Leonard got him an appearance in the movie's opening scene (when Dennis Farina, as mobster Ray Barboni, says to Travolta, "It's Chili inside, it's Chili outside, it's a regular [expletive] Chili fest," Palmer is the hanger-on who adds, "That's a good one, Ray").
On the set, only DeVito, Travolta and director Barry Sonnenfeld knew there was a real Chili Palmer, so when he showed up during filming, it caused quite a stir. Even Michael Eisner wanted to meet him. Sonnenfeld remembers Travolta observing, "Boy, we are all incredibly lucky I didn't know there really was a Chili Palmer. Because I would have insisted on going down to Miami and living with him, and I would have ruined my performance."
"It's a good thing he didn't," Palmer says, "because it worked out perfect. The movie's a big hit, he done a wonderful job."
And, like his namesake, does he have any Hollywood aspirations? "Nah," Chili Palmer scoffs. "I'm comfortable the way I am."