NEW YORK — It’s a sight and sound that’s been seared in Chazz Palminteri’s brain all his life. When the famed actor and writer was just 9 years old, he watched a local wiseguy shoot and kill another man in broad daylight in front of his apartment building in the Belmont section of the Bronx.
“I was five feet away. The next thing I knew, my father dragged me upstairs, and then the cops came and asked me if I saw anything, and I said, ‘I didn’t see nothing.’ I was a street kid. So I wouldn’t rat on the guy,” says Palminteri, during a conversation at his eponymous midtown restaurant just a stone’s throw from Broadway. “The next day when he saw me, he stared at me, and I stared at him, and he kind of smiled — ‘I know that you know that I know.’”
That shocking event became the central, inciting incident in “A Bronx Tale,” a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that Palminteri first wrote and performed as a solo show in the late ’80s. A few years later, he adapted it into a warmly received 1993 movie directed by and starring Robert De Niro and costarring Palminteri as a brutal-yet-benevolent gangster, Sonny. Now the story has been transformed into a splashy, “Jersey Boys”-style musical that bowed on Broadway in 2016 and ran for two years. A tour of the show arrives at the Citizens Bank Opera House April 2-14.
Looking back, Palminteri, 66, believes that witnessing the murder wasn’t all that traumatizing. “I remember when my son was 9, I turned to my wife and go, ‘I was that age when it happened. How did I get through it?’ But I wasn’t even bothered by it. Now, yes, it did affect me in some way, because obviously I thought about it my whole life — until it finally had to come out,” he says, in his Bronx-accented baritone.
Palminteri acknowledges the act of putting the story on the page and performing it onstage did serve as a kind of therapy. “Now it’s like a dream to me. It was a catharsis. When I wrote it, it just came out of me like that,” says the actor, whose films include “The Usual Suspects,” “Analyze This,” and “Bullets Over Broadway” (for which he received an Oscar nomination).
Growing up in a tight-knit enclave in the 1950s and ’60s, Palminteri and his friends would play on the front stoop, enraptured by the mobsters who hung out on the street corner and in front of the local watering hole. They were mesmerized by the gangsters’ flashy ways — their shiny Cadillacs, the beautiful women they escorted, and how they dressed and carried themselves. “We idolized them. They were rock stars,” he says.
In the show, Sonny takes a shine to young Calogero (Palminteri’s given name) and brings him under his wing, despite the stern objections of the boy’s father, Lorenzo. As he grows into a teenager, Calogero is increasingly torn between his dad’s working-class values and the temptations of the street and his ne’er-do-well friends. He must also wrestle with the virulent racism and parochialism of the time when he falls for an African-American girl at school.
Sonny, a blending of three real-life people Palminteri knew growing up, has both good and bad in him. “They’re not black-and-white,” Palminteri says. “You have to realize that Sonny is telling me the exact same things as my father! Sonny’s not telling me to be a wiseguy. He’s telling me the opposite. ‘Stay away from these guys and these bad influences . . . Make something out of yourself . . . Go to college.’ That’s what makes these guys such a paradox and makes the story unique.”
While his life was shaped by more than one father figure, his dad is his real hero. “[He] was just a bus driver. So it took me a while to understand that my father was really the man. He’s the one who said, ‘It doesn’t take much strength to pull a trigger. But get up in the morning and try to go to a job you hate and feed your family. See how tough that is.’ I learned later on that my father was right.”
With his imposing 6-foot-4 figure and striking visage, Palminteri is a soulful, salt-of-the-earth type. He beams with parental pride as he shows off photos of his son Dante (who attended Berklee College of Music) and daughter Gabriella, both aspiring singers and actors, and gushes about their budding talent. In fact, his daughter will play the character based on his mother in a high school production of “A Bronx Tale” this spring, and that has him marveling at the generation-spanning kismet.
Palminteri has been telling the story of his youth in various forms for three decades. In 2007, he brought the original solo show, in which he played 18 different characters, to Broadway. But writing the book for a musical was a new learning experience. “In a musical, you can’t say something in a scene, and then say it again in the song. The scene has to be a lift-up to the song. So that’s the tricky part.”
In the film, Palminteri says, De Niro wanted the score to evoke the period and for each group of characters to have their own musical style. “So not only are the crews fighting, the music is fighting,” Palminteri says. With Tony Award-winning composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater on board, that idea found its way into the score, which has influences ranging from 1950s and ’60s doo-wop and Motown-style R&B to Frank Sinatra swing.
For Jerry Zaks, who co-directed the musical with De Niro, Palminteri made for an ideal collaborator because he’s open to new ideas. “You can imagine how much ‘A Bronx Tale’ means to him. But he wasn’t precious about the material,” Zaks says. “He enjoyed the back-and-forth and being challenged, and he’s enough of a craftsman to appreciate that we might need something a little different in this or that moment in the show.”
As a struggling actor in the ’80s, what could have been a devastating professional setback wound up igniting Palminteri’s career. In between auditions and small acting gigs, he moonlighted as a bouncer at a Beverly Hills nightclub. One night, he refused entry to the powerful Hollywood agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar because of his rude behavior. Lazar asked Palminteri if he knew who he was and said he’d get him fired within 15 minutes. That’s precisely what happened.
“When I came home, I saw the card I had written to myself on the refrigerator that had my father’s line, ‘The saddest thing in life is wasted talent,’ and I just said, ‘I’m not going to go down. I’m not going to be a wasted talent. . . . If they won’t give me a part, I’ll write one myself,’ and that’s how it started.”
Later, Palminteri turned down a $1 million offer for the film rights of his story, despite only having $200 in his bank account, because he wanted to write and star in the movie himself. He held out until De Niro came calling. Thirty years later, he’s still telling the story of how his powerful early-life experiences made him the man he is today. “The three plays that inspired me as a writer were ‘West Side Story,’ ‘Guys and Dolls,’ and ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’” he says. “I wanted to talk about racism and the gangsters, but with the love story, and it came together. I just spoke about my own life, and I wrote from the heart.”
A Bronx Tale
Presented by Broadway in Boston, April 2-14, at Citizens Bank Opera House. Tickets: From $44.50, 800-982-2787, www.BroadwayInBoston.com