What’s What With … Chazz Palminteri

Next week, actor Chazz Palminteri comes to the Merriam Theatre in A Bronx Tale, his semi-autobiographical one-man play that became a movie starring and directed by Robert De Niro. I caught up with him to discuss multiple personalities, not riding on the Sopranos’ coattails, and stupid, stupid reviewers.

How many characters do you play in the stage version of A Bronx Tale?
Eighteen. Eighteen different characters. Some of them are based on actual people. Some of them are fictionalized.

Seems hard enough to play one character well, let alone 18. How do you pull that off?
The thing about playing this many characters — there are no props or clothes to differentiate. When you have three or four people talking at the same time, you have to really delineate between each person. Vocal gestures, different vocal octaves. Hands, feet. Everything has to be just right. I worked on it for a very long time.

The show debuted 20 years ago and you’ve just brought it back. Did the success of the Sopranos have anything to do with that?
Not at all. My show existed years before the Sopranos. I brought it back because there’s a whole new generation of people that never got a chance to see it. The impact of it — it’s unbelievable. People that have seen the movie come to see the play and they realize that I am the guy. It’s much more visceral than the movie. It gets you by the throat.

What do you say to some of the reviewers who have suggested that A Bronx Tale glamorizes violent mob life and furthers negative stereotypes about Italian-Americans?
It couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s people who are shortsighted and didn’t get it. Most people get it. How could you say that I’m glamorizing wise guys? Have these people seen the show? As the father says to the boy at the end, it doesn’t take much strength to pull the trigger. But try to get up every morning and work for a living. The working man’s the tough guy. I feel sorry for these people. You wanna know the truth? A Bronx Tale is a family movie. It’s a family show. And the end, the narration says, “This is just another Bronx Tale. The choices you make will shape your life forever.” He’s telling you to do the right thing.

So, if you need to go, say, meet a guy about a thing and you need someone to, say, get your back, do you bring de Niro, James Caan, or Joe Pesci, all actors with whom you’ve worked?
Any one of those guys would be great, but seeing as I’m really good friends with De Niro or Pesci, probably one of them. Then again, James can handle himself pretty well.