By Aaron Hillis
If New York-born actor (and sometime writer/director) Chazz Palminteri were just a decade older, he probably would’ve been an Italian-American staple in the ’70s films of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Instead, during that time he studied at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg, then made his way to off-Broadway and TV shows in the ’80s before writing the 1988 play “A Bronx Tale” that would eventually be adapted for the screen as Robert De Niro’s directorial debut and offer him his breakout movie role. Now one of the most prominent Italian-American actors working today, Palminteri currently stars as the titular Vegas shark in “Yonkers Joe,” an entertaining drama about a con man whose seedy world of palming dice, cheating casinos, and conning any poor sucker is uprooted when he’s forced to look after his adult son with Down’s syndrome. I took a seat with Palminteri (while writer/director Robert Celestino quietly looked on) to talk about his cultural background, fatherhood and his New Year’s resolutions.
Are you a gambling man?
Yeah, I like to gamble. Am I like Yonkers? No, but I’ll go to Vegas and gamble a little bit. Why not? I like playing roulette, I like dice. I grew up with gamblers. But the way Yonkers is, which is really fascinating to me, it’s kind of this subculture of people, like magicians with dice and cards. Here’s this guy who’s great at what he does, but he can’t tell anybody because if he does, he’ll get killed. And if he tells his friends, his friends won’t use him anymore. So he lives a life of being kind of lonely.
How long did it take you pick up those sleight-of-hand tricks you perform through the film?
Well, obviously, could I do it like the real Yonkers Joe? No. But Bob, the writer-director, that was his father. Bob can do it as good as his dad can because his father taught him — Bob was teaching me. The beauty of film is that I would study it for hours and hours, but if I do it one out of ten times, that’s the take we’d use. I would screw up a lot, but the one that I did it right, that’s the one we used, so it was okay.
I like that the film never feels obligated to judge this character’s moral compass, considering he regularly rips people off.
No, that’s what he does. There’s no apologizing, that’s what it is. When you read the script, some people would say: “How do you root for a guy like this?” You end up rooting for him because you don’t have to like him as much. But if you understand him, you’ll start to like him.
You’ve taken a lot of roles that reflect your Italian-American background. Are you offered a ton of projects that play into cultural stereotypes, like gangster movies?
Yeah, and I usually don’t do them. [laughs] That’s why I do movies like “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” “Yonkers Joe,” or “Once More with Feeling,” that I have at Sundance. I don’t want to play a goombah character if he’s just one note. I’m very proud of being Italian-American, but people don’t realize that the mafia is just this aberration. The real community is built on the working man, the guy who’s the cop, the fireman, the truck driver, the bus driver. This is my father. These mafia guys get all the press because they’re fun to write about, they’re fun to watch. That’s why I wrote “A Bronx Tale.” The working guy’s the tough guy: “It doesn’t take much strength to pull the trigger, son.” He says that in the movie, that’s why it was important for me.
Not that you’ve had to take care of a child with Down’s syndrome, but can you think of anything in your own life that has been a tough responsibility?
Not like that. God bless the parents who handle things like that. I’m astounded by them. I have a friend who has a son with Down’s syndrome. He’s about 30 years old, the boy, and the things that they went through in the very beginning: in school, in talking with girls, and the things that he would say in front of people — they would just say anything. You’d get embarrassed: “Oh my god!” And you know what? The child has brought them nothing but joy. So my heart goes out to anyone who has a special needs child, and the work that they must have to do, the constant supervision, and the love. I’m so grateful to be a father, and I have two healthy children, and it made me even more grateful for my kids when I saw how hard it is.
Well, but what about you? What frustrating obligations have you personally embraced?
Well, I think… [deep breath] I don’t know if I should talk about this, but… yeah, I guess so. My father, who was 89, passed away a year ago. He was the inspiration and essence of Lorenzo Anello in “A Bronx Tale,” the character played by Robert De Niro. He was healthy all his life, and then he got sick. For six or seven weeks, he deteriorated, and we knew it was time for him to go. That was it. Holding the family together, I thought I’d be the basket case of all the kids, but I ended up manning up and taking control with my mom and my sisters. I guess I had to, for whatever reason. No one else could. I was looking for someone else to take over, but I had to do it. I’m happy I was there at the end, and I never thought I could do that, but I thank God everyday that I did.
Besides Celestino, you’ve worked with other up-and-coming filmmakers before. What do you like about working on a project where you’re the veteran and they’re a bit green?
I love people who just started making movies — first-timers, second-timers. They take chances. Usually, they have a script that they’ve had for 20 years that’s really good that no one wants to make, so you want to do it. I think Bob wrote the script maybe 10, 15 ago years, Bob? [Celestino nods.] 15 years. You try to make it and it falls through. You get the money and you don’t have the actor, or you get the actor and you don’t have the money. It’s a nightmare. So finally, if the right actor comes at the right time, I don’t know. I’m happy with the movie, and I can’t picture anybody else doing “Yonkers Joe.” Could you, Bob? [Celestino shakes his head emphatically.] Well, he wouldn’t tell me anyway. [laughs]
How did you two get connected?
He sent the script to the agent, and the agent gave it to me and I read it. Great material gets a response right away because you don’t read much of it. I read a lot of scripts, and most are bullshit. Most scripts are 60% written — you like the ending, the beginning, you might like the middle, but then you read it, and you get 30 pages before you put your head down. I just like a good story, and a character that has flaws and complexities. Could you compare the Yonkers Joe character to anybody in the history of films? “Yonkers Joe is like the guy in…” I can’t do that. I say that honestly. So when I see a movie that’s so original and has three-dimensional pull to it, this subculture of gamblers and the guy has a son with Down syndrome? Show me a movie like that, I haven’t seen it.
Entering this depressing economic year, how much does the potential SAG strike affect you and your upcoming projects?
Obviously, the country is having a tough time right now. Is now the time to strike? I hope not. But I’m only one voice here. There are other actors who have different agendas, and maybe they want to strike for whatever reason. I mean, could we give away the store? No, we can’t give away all Internet rights and things like that. I want to hear both sides a little more. I just don’t think now is the time to strike. I think it would make a bad situation worse.
Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?
Yeah, I just try to be better than I was the year before. I know that sounds lame a little bit, but I go: “Okay, well, what could I do this year that I didn’t do great last year?” I try to be the best father I can be. You could be a billionaire and live in the biggest mansion, but if your kids don’t love you, what success do you have?
What’s been most surprising about fatherhood for you?
I think checking yourself because you are a mirror to your children. You have to get yourself in shape because whatever you are, your children will become. If you’re mean to people, your children will be mean to people. If you’re an asshole, your children will become assholes.
My children are good kids. I taught them that [skin] color means nothing. I have friends who are African-American, and I wanted them to talk to them, hang with them. I don’t want them to one day say, “Oh, gee, there’s other people with different colors than us?” I wrote “A Bronx Tale” because of racism. It’s a big issue with me. You’re not born a racist. You’re taught to be a racist. When you see, like in the South, those five-year-olds walking around with sheets on their heads, what’s more despicable than that? So you teach your kids not to be racist, and they will teach their kids, and their kids will teach their kids. My legacy as a father, I hope, is that our children will welcome everyone.
You’ve played so many tough guy roles. Are you a strict father?
Yes, I am. Sometimes a little too tough? I can be. But I work on that. My wife isn’t as tough, but she balances me out a little bit.
[Photos: Chazz Palminteri in “Yonkers Joe,” Magnolia Pictures, 2008]
“Yonkers Joe” opens in New York and Los Angeles on January 9th.