Chazz Palminteri Talks New Play 'Unorganized Crime,' Getting His Start from Robert DeNiro (Q&A)

Chazz Palminteri - P 2014
Todd Williamson/Invision/AP

Chazz Palminteri - P 2014

The actor dishes on the new play from Kenny D'Aquila, why cancer was the best thing that ever happened to him, and the time he witnessed a murder.

About two years ago, Chazz Palminteri was given a script by Kenny D’Aquila, a working actor who hit his peak as a day player on TV shows in the '80s. D’Aquila reminded Palminteri of himself about twenty-five years ago when he had a similar list of credits to his name. Back then, Palminteri was pushing forty and found himself running out of options so he sat down and wrote a one-man show called A Bronx Tale. When Robert DeNiro turned it into a movie, it launched Palminteri’s career.

Now it’s his turn to pay it forward. D’Aquila’s new play, Unorganized Crime, starring Palminteri, D’Aquila and Tony-nominee Elizabeth Rodriguez, (The Motherf**ker With the Hat) is having its world premiere at Hollywood’s Elephant Theatre through May 31.

“I read the play, I said, ‘Holy shit!’ This is a new voice I haven’t heard,” Palminteri tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Robert DeNiro gave me a shot. I said I always wanted to give somebody a shot.” And so he did, agreeing to star as ruthless outlaw Sal Sicuso who turns up on the doorstep of his brother, banished mafioso, Gino (D’Aquila).

Here, Palminteri talks about witnessing murder, getting fired by Swifty Lazar and why cancer was the best thing that ever happened to him.

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For you it all started when you were a bouncer at Club 2020.

I was working the door and this guy came over and was a little arrogant with me and I didn’t like that. He said, ‘You’ll be fired in 15 minutes.’ And I said, ‘Get on line everybody tells me that.’ And lo and behold it was Swifty Lazar, and it was his party I was keeping him out of. I got fired in 15 minutes. I went home and I sat there and that’s when I stared writing A Bronx Tale.

You opened in a little theater on Hollywood Boulevard and that’s when everything started to move.

My f--king life exploded. The first week I got offered $250 thousand, but they didn’t want me in it. I said no, I want to write it and I want to play Sonny. They laughed at me and said good-bye. Two weeks later another studio came in and offered $500 thousand to walk away. I had $200 in the bank, okay? I ended up signing with William Morris. I got another offer, $1 million to walkaway. I wouldn’t do it. (The producer) looked at me and said, ‘Y’know Chazz, this movie won’t get made.’ I said, ‘You’re right. It won’t get made with you, but it will get made.’ He said, ‘What makes you so confident?’ I go, ‘Cause it’s too f**king good, that’s why.’

And of course it did get made.

Two weeks later I came upstairs. They said, ‘Robert DeNiro just saw your show. He’s in your dressing room waiting.’ I walked into the dressing room and there was Robert DeNiro. He said, ‘I’ll tell you how I feel, you should play Sonny and you should write the screenplay.’ He said, ‘I’ll play your father and I’ll direct and if you shake my hand, that’s the way it will be.’ I shook his and hand that’s the way it was.

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A Bronx Tale is loaded with autobiographical incidents, like the time you saw a guy murdered.

It’s kind of a dream to me. I was about ten. He shot this guy and killed him right in from of me, and then he stared at me. At the time I didn’t know he was dead. He was just laying there. But he stared at me and my father just dragged me upstairs. People always say it must have been traumatic and I got to be honest, I never got effected about it. Funny, obviously it effected me in some way cause I did write about it. I never got nightmares about it or anything.

After the Oscar nod for Bullets Over Broadway you’re on top of the world and just a few years later you get knocked back down to earth.

I was losing touch a little bit. I was starting to believe the bullshit people were writing. Hollywood can do that to you. Then boom, this happened, a masseuse found it, there was this little tumor on my neck. She caught it so early I didn’t need chemo. You get a lesson like that, God slaps you in the face and you go whoa! It’s actually the best thing that ever happened to me.

One of the reasons you got into acting was the movie On the Waterfront. In his private letters Elia Kazan said he felt Paul Newman was more suited than Brando for the role of Terry Malloy.

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I think that’s insane. I think Paul Newman is a brilliant actor. In fact he was so damn good looking I think that’s what hurt him, people didn’t think he could act that great. But in that movie it’s Brando. Sometimes a director gets an actor in his head and he can’t get it out. But as far as I’m concerned (On the Waterfront) that’s when acting, writing, directing, cinematography all blend together. 

And coming up you have Modern Family, Blue Bloods, Rizzoli and Isles and –

Unorganized Crime! I’m so excited to do this story. Kenny (D’Aquila) said, ‘Why are you doing this? I can’t believe you’re doing this for me.’ I said, ‘Kenny, all I want is one thing from you, you have to promise me you’ll do the same for someone else. That’s all I want.’