Family & Companions
Actor, writer and director Chazz Palminteri wrote his own ticket to the top with his one-man stage play "A Bronx Tale," an Italian-American coming of age story that wooed movie studios and Robert De Niro, who directed the 1993 screen adaptation. Palminteri's starring film role as a Mafia boss set the tone for his subsequent film career, where he lent dimension to streetwise characters, like the undiscovered literary genius behind a craps-shooting bodyguard in "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994), for which he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His soft-hearted tough guys were offset by staunch law enforcement officials and conflicted working-class Joes in acclaimed indies "The Usual Suspects" (1995) and "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" (2006), while his incredibly timeless "character" face made him a fedora-sporting favorite in neo-noirs like "Mulholland Falls" (1996). Unfortunately, Hollywood was not willing to cast Palminteri as anything other than a mob boss, gambler or tough cop, and while he was sometimes reduced to sending up his image in low-brow comedies like "Little Man" (2006) his better, later performances came thanks to independent film directors who had faith in the stage-trained actor's ability to portray a wider range of characters.
Born Calogero Lorenzo Palminteri on May 15, 1952, Palminteri was raised in the Belmont area of the Bronx, New York - an Italian-American working class neighborhood. He dreamed of being an actor from the time he saw the classic film "On the Waterfront" (1954) at age 10, and came to be known as the joke and storytelling entertainer of the neighborhood. His parents encouraged his apparent talent, and Palminteri enjoyed a happy, albeit no-frills childhood that included the witness of a murder in front of his home when he was nine years old. In his future career, he would derive inspiration from that incident, as well as from the hard-working, loving families and swaggering tough guys that surrounded him growing up. Palminteri graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School in 1965 and launched right into entertainment when his singing with a sidewalk a cappella group led to his employment as a singer at a local nightclub. Eventually he began to work his way into the New York theater scene, studying drama under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio and appearing in off-Broadway productions while working as a doorman at the trendy Limelight disco.
Palminteri earned some attention for his starring role in a festival-screened film by then-NYU film student Ang Lee, "Fine Line" (1984), and headed to Hollywood where he landed guest appearances on TV series, including "Wiseguy" (CBS, 1987-1990) and "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1981-87). By the late-1980s, however, Palminteri was discouraged by the limited types of one-dimensional roles he was being offered, and decided that if he was going to play a truly "great" role, he was going to have to write it himself. Reflecting back through his own personal story he wrote and starred in the play "A Bronx Tale," a powerful coming-of-age story of an Italian-American boy torn between admiration for his honest, hardworking, but poor father and the promise of a flashy life with the local gangsters. Palminteri morphed into 35 characters during the one-man show, garnering great reviews during his Los Angeles run in 1988. He moved the play from L.A. to New York in the fall of 1989, where it ran for four sold-out months. For years, Palminteri turned down offers of a big screen adaptation, as none of the offers would relent to giving the relatively unknown actor the lead in his own life story.
Meanwhile the nearly 40-year-old actor finally began to break into feature films with small roles in the unsuccessful Sylvester Stallone comedy "Oscar" (1991), "Innocent Blood" (1992) and "Night and the City" (1992). After Robert De Niro enthusiastically signed on to make his directorial debut on a film version of "A Bronx Tale" (1993), Palminteri was able to strike a deal and finally had his big movie break as screenwriter and leading actor, playing the role of an organized crime thug opposite De Niro as a hard working bus driver. The film was a hit with critics, if not a box office blockbuster, and gave way to new opportunities for Palminteri. With his next on-screen appearance, he became an Academy Award nominee (for Best Supporting Actor), playing a 1930s gangster-turned-ghostwriter for a less talented Broadway playwright in Woody Allen's hilarious ode to the theater, "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994). He branched out to play a romantic lead (and a Cuban) officer of the law in the Miami-set dramedy "The Perez Family" (1995) and won a cult following for his role in the ensemble "The Usual Suspects" (1995), an exceedingly complicated but satisfying neo-noir that was universally praised.
Palminteri gave a strong performance in the William Friedkin erotic thriller "Jade" (1995) and returned to TV in the Showtime movie "The Last Word." In 1996, Palminteri's timeless look was tapped again to portray a member of the 1950s LAPD "Hat Squad" in the slick neo-noir "Mulholland Falls." His second screenplay "Faithful" (1996), based on his 1985 stage play about a husband (Ryan O'Neal) who puts out a hit on his whining wife (Cher) translated unsuccessfully to the screen, but Palminteri redeemed himself with an excellent performance as the brutish spouse of an unfaithful but frail owner of a private school for boys (Isabelle Adjani) in "Diabolique" (1996), a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1954 French thriller. He went on to star in the film version of David Rabe's Broadway send-up of Hollywood lives, "Hurlyburly" (1998), playing an out-of-work actor kicked out of his home by his wife. Palminteri was tapped by HBO to star in a pair of original movies, playing a homicidal police lieutenant in the forgettable "Scarred City" (HBO, 1998) and a courageous prosecutor waging a one-man war against the Sicilian Mafia in the true-life story, "Excellent Cadavers" (HBO, 1999).
In one of Palminteri's few family-friendly film appearances, he lent his distinct voice to the animated hit "Stuart Little" (1999), before a memorable supporting role as the chief rival of a mob boss (Robert De Niro) in the top-grossing comedy "Analyze This" (1999). Palminteri continued to develop new scripts and shop them around Hollywood, as well as branching out by making his directing debut on an episode of HBO's gritty prison series, "Oz" (HBO, 1997-2003). His recognizable voice again found its way into animation on the short-lived animated series, "Dilbert" (UPN, 1998-2000) and "The Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure" (2000). In one of Palminteri's biggest box office hits, he played an inept angel who puts the spirit of a struggling standup comic (Chris Rock) into the body of a wealthy old white mogul in the broad comedy "Down to Earth" (2001). Returning briefly to television, Palminteri starred in "Boss of Bosses" (TNT, 2001), the true story of crime boss Paul Castellano, whose radical plan to evolve the Costra Nostra into a legitimate enterprise lead to his eventual downfall. He followed up with director duties on "Men vs. Women" (Showtime, 2002), a lackluster romantic comedy about a pair of battling couples.
After a long absence from the stage, Palminteri appeared in "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" in New York and stuck close to independent film for a while, playing a pool hustler in "Poolhall Junkies" (2003), and a police detective in "One Eyed Kings" (2004), a drama about love, betrayal and redemption in New York's famed Hell's Kitchen. In 2005, Palminteri had a supporting role on the short-lived revival of the 1970s police drama "Kojak" (USA, 2005) before returning to mob-related films with the flat comedy "In the Mix" (2005) and more skillfully executed thriller "Running Scared" (2006), about two 10-year-old boys who get their hands on a gun used by the mob to kill a cop. The successful broad comic caper "Little Man" starring Shawn and Marlon Wayans, found Palminteri sending up his image in a supporting role as a Mafia kingpin. Palminteri was back at the top of his game in "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" (2006), Dito Montiel's autobiography of growing up in Queens in the 1980s, in which Palminteri played the future author's firm and eventually estranged father. The film's cast received a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival, and that same year, Palminteri saw the release of his script for "10th and Wolf" (2006), based on the true-life accounts of FBI Special Agent Joseph D. Pistone, otherwise known as Donnie Brasco.
In 2007, he offered a refreshingly charming performance (and a co-producer credit) in the little-seen indie "Dukes," where he played a former 1950s doo-wop star struggling with life as a has-been. Palminteri revived "A Bronx Tale" on Broadway in 2007 and after its positive reception, took the production on the road the following spring. In 2009, he starred in the indie drama "Yonkers Joe" (2009) as a professional gambler struggling with an estranged relationship with his Downs Syndrome-afflicted son. His follow-up performance as a psychiatrist whose mid-life crisis leads him to pursue a singing career in "Once More With Feeling" (2009) debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, but he returned to thug roles in low-brow comedies with the "Saturday Night Live" alumni-fest, "Hollywood and Wine" (2009).
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Moved to L.A.
TV acting debut in an episode of "Hill Street Blues"
First production of "A Bronx Tale", a one-man show that ran at the West Coast Ensemble theater; produced by Peter Gatien
Wrote first stage version of "A Bronx Tale"
Feature acting debut, "An Even Break"
TV-movie debut, "Peter Gunn"
Moved the show to New York, where it ran for four months at Playhouse 91
First film in a lead role, also screenwriting debut, "A Bronx Tale"
First romantic lead, "The Perez Family"
Underwent surgery to remove cancerous tumor from his neck
Appeared in the ensemble drama "Hurlyburly"
Starred as a zealous prosecutor in the HBO original movie "Excellent Cadavers"
Directed an episode of HBO's "Oz"
Supported Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro in "Analyze This"
Headlined the TNT original drama "Boss of Bosses", playing real-life mobster Paul Castellano
Cast in the feature "Poolhall Junkies"
Cast opposite Ving Rhames in the USA series "Kojack" a remake of the original 70's series, which starred Telly Savalas
Played a mob boss opposite Usher in Ron Underwood's crime drama "In The Mix"
Co-wrote the screenplay for "10th and Wolf," which is based on the real life events of Joseph Pistone aka Donnie Brasco
Played a detective in Wayne Kramer's "Running Scared"