Photographer: Yolanda Perez
Around 535 B.C. a greek playwright named Thespis became the first actor, when he stepped out of a chorus to add the dimension of playing the text. Actors have been called ‘thespians’ ever since, and it’s the perfect tag for Chazz and Gianna Palminteri, and their kids, Dante and Gabriella. The Palminteris are all thespians. …And they call Bedford ‘home’.
Though it wasn’t a typical choice for a boy growing up in the Bronx in the Sixties, Chazz says, in his still-thick Bronx accent, “I kinda always knew I wanted to be an actor. My mom used to take me to the movies all the time and gave me a love for film. I remember the first time I saw Marlon Brando in ‘On The Waterfront’ – which is still my favorite film – and I immediately fell in love with acting. I saw myself portraying an artist in a tough guy’s world. I wrote poetry when I was 14 and, although I didn’t do much but hang out with the guys on the block during high school, I became a better student in college. I majored in Drama but took a lot of classes in English Literature. I took a class on Shakespeare that really opened my eyes and made me a much better writer. Then, in a class when we were breaking down a book by D.H. Lawrence, the professor picked my essay as the best in the class and announced that I really understood what the author meant. It was the first time I started to think that I was smart. School had always been a struggle for me. I realized later in life that I was dyslexic all along. Learning that I had some natural ability in literature and drama was a godsend to me. I developed a real love for learning, and I became fascinated with stories and storytelling. Acting became the center of my world, and so I began to study with the legendary acting coach Lee Strassberg, who really taught me the craft. I was then invited to join The Actors Studio. Lee used to say, famously, that ‘if you want to be a great actor you have to starve first’ …and, for me, he proved to be right!”
Chazz continues, “I was the lead singer in my band and decided to quit so that I could devote my time to acting and writing. In 1982 I took a job working for Peter Gatien running the door for the then new club of his, called The Limelight. At the same time, I was auditioning around New York getting parts in Off-Broadway plays and whatever other acting work I could find. Then, in 1986, Gatien offered me the Manager job at a new club he was opening in Chicago, which would have been a much more comfortable situation than what I had. I determined it was a sign I needed to dedicate myself to professional acting and instead asked Gatien to fire me…and I used the $127 a week I collected in unemployment to move to Los Angeles.”
“In L.A., I started to get some really good parts. I guest starred on Hill Street Blues, Dallas, Matlock and the mini- series Peter Gunn. But it wasn’t steady, and I wasn’t getting the kind of lead roles I wanted. And I was running out of money. So I took a job as a doorman at a fancy club called ‘20-20’ in Beverly Hills. Now let me tell you, there are 3 rules you should never break when trying to get into a hot club… 1. Never say to the doorman ‘do you know who I am’; 2. Never get in the bouncer’s face, and; 3. Never ever grab the rope!! …Well one night they were having a really high-end exclusive party at 20-20, and this cocky little guy pushes right up – and I tell him he can’t come in. Well, you guessed it: 1. He kinda shouts ‘do you know who I am’; 2. He gets right up in my face, and; 3. He tries to grab the rope and go around me!; So I tell him to get lost – and he tells me I’ll ‘be fired in 15 minutes’…and, wouldn’t you know it, less than 15 minutes later, I get called inside to talk to the owner of 20-20 – who says to me, ‘Chazz, you’re a great guy, but you just turned away Swifty Lazar, the most famous Hollywood agent of all time…and it’s his party tonight!’ So…I got fired… and I drove home to my crappy apartment on Acqua Vista, in my 1972 Honda Civic, and had a good long sit on the side of my bed. I guess I’d reached the point Strassberg was talking about when he said ‘you have to starve first’. I kept reading the note I kept in my pocket with my father’s words: ‘the saddest thing in life is wasted talent’. And I sat down and wrote ‘A Bronx Tale’ – as a play in which I would perform all the roles.”
A BRONX TALE
is the semi auto-biographical story of Chazz’ Bronx childhood. It features the local mob boss, ‘Sonny’, the pivotal real-life moment when, as a young boy, Chazz witnesses Sonny shoot someone on the street in front of Chazz’s do-good working-man municipal bus-driving father with Sonny’s character, it highlights the meaning of and conflict between good and evil and all the shades of gray in between.
“I still had to get this crazy one-man show produced that meant I needed a theater,” Chazz explains. “I called Peter Gatien out-of-the-blue and told him about the play. He told me to send him the script…but then the next morning, before Gatien saw my script, a FedEx arrived at my apartment with $30,000 and Peter’s note saying ‘you got talent’. So I booked a small theater for a 6 week run and opened in 1989. …The first night I got a standing ovation and a crowd was waiting to congratulate me when I left the theater. I WALKED A COUPLE OF BLOCKS UNTIL I KNEW I WAS ALONE AND LET OUT A PRIMAL SCREAM. I KNEW I HAD SOMETHING IN A BRONX TALE, AND EVEN MORE I JUST FINALLY REALIZED THAT I WAS ON MY WAY – AS AN ACTOR – AND IN LIFE.”
“Everyone in Hollywood came to see it,” Chazz declares. “Every star, every director, every producer and every studio head came to see the show. Peter Guber came backstage and told me it was the greatest pitch and audition for a movie he’d ever seen. Right away, I got a call from Universal offering me $250,000 for the rights to the story. I wanted desperately to turn it into a movie, and I had exactly $187 left in the bank, but they wouldn’t guarantee that I got to play Sonny in the movie…and so I turned them down. They tried again, at $500,000!, and I said no, again. Then I got a call from the William Morris Agency, and they said that they wanted a meeting that day. On my way to William Morris my old Honda overheated on the 405 – and I missed the meeting! A William Morris guy named Fred Westheimer called me to find out what was up, and I told him about my car. The next day he showed up at my apartment and handed me the keys to a brand-new black 1989 Cadillac Eldorado and told me to make sure I showed up to the next meeting. At my next meeting a studio offered me a million dollars for the script!; but said I’d never get the movie made with me as one of the stars…so, with a deep gulp, I turned them down, too. Two weeks later I’m doing the show and the stage manager says there’s someone who wants to come backstage to see me. In walks DeNiro! He says he thinks the show is great, that he’d like to buy the movie rights, produce and direct it himself, that he’ll play my father and that I’d play Sonny, and says ‘if you shake my hand right now, that’s how it shall be’. I shook, and that’s how it was. That was my big break.”
Indeed Chazz had become a STAR.
In 1994, he played ‘Cheech’ in a Woody Allen film called ‘Bullets Over Broadway’ that won him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. In 1995, he was in ‘The Usual Suspects’ alongside Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey and Steven Baldwin. In 1996, he was in ‘Diabolique’, ‘Faithful’, ‘Mulholland Falls’ and ‘Dante and the Debutante’ – which he also wrote and produced. In 1998, he was in ‘Scar City’, ‘Hurlyburly’, and a ‘Night at the Roxbury’. And in 1999, again alongside DeNiro, he played Primo Sidone in the mob comedy ‘Analyze This’. …And Chazz was welcomed as one of the Hollywood elite. In just one of the fantastic stories Chazz has to tell about it, he says, “I got invited to a party at Frank Sinatra’s house in Malibu! Don Rickles, Elizabeth Taylor, and Steve and Edie Gourmet were there! I somehow ended up sitting alone out on a porch with Frank Sinatra! He told me he thought I had talent! When he finished his martini, he asked me to come close and he had me eat one of the olives from his martini. When I got back into the party and was trying to digest what had just happened, Gregory Peck walked up and asked, with a mix of astonishment and respect, ‘Frank shared an olive with you?! That’s an old rat pack tradition and a sign of great friendship! Wow! Welcome to the club!’ …I was a made man – at least as an actor in Hollywood!”
Chazz met GIANNA Ranaudo, fourteen years his junior, when she moved to L.A. in 1990. Gianna grew up in New Jersey, and, like Chazz, all she ever wanted to do was be an actor. She trained at the William Esper Studio, majored in Communications at Villanova University, and modeled as a sideline. While still at Villanova, Gianna became one of the the first hosts of a then new cable channel called ‘The Travel Channel’. After that contract was up, Gianna started getting parts in daytime TV, commercials, and network TV, including parts in the NBC series ‘Tattingers’ and the series ‘Tribeca’. “I moved to L.A. hoping to do more TV. Not long after I got out there, I saw Chazz one Sunday morning at St. Charles Church, on Lankersham, while I was praying for this particular part. But I didn’t say hello. It just didn’t seem right to pick up a guy in church! A week later, I took my roommate to my cast party for an indie film I was in called ‘Soulmates’ at a club on Sunset. This place had so much going on, and we heard there was also a cast party going on for ‘Oscar’ – a film that Chazz and Sylvestor Stallone were making. My roommate went over to say hi to Sly and I walked over to the bar…and guess who I ran straight into?? Yup, it was my Church-crush, Chazz. Chazz told me that I looked like I didn’t really belong in the club, or in L.A., and picked-up on my urge to get back to NYC. This was before he filmed ‘A Bronx Tale’ – so I didn’t know anything about him. We talked about being two New Yorkers from very Italian families…living out in ‘LaLa Land’. On our first date a few days later, he took me to the theater. We fell in love, and have been together ever since. We found a house together on Van Noord off Coldwater Canyon in L.A., which was paradise. It became the actors hangout, and we entertained and fed all our actor friends at big weekend parties. We loved living in L.A., but had to go back to New York City to start production on ‘A Bronx Tale’.
We were married in June of 1992 in New York, and started filming there in July. …Chazz picks up the story, saying “When I met Gianna, I was getting a lot of work in New York as well as L.A., so we decided to be bi-coastal. In addition to the place in L.A., we wanted to have a place in New York City. That was a dream come true for both Gianna and I. Dante was born a few years after, so we looked at a larger apartment, right across the street from the World Trade Center, in the summer of 2000 – and I got a bad feeling, and actually said to Gianna that it wasn’t good to be near the World Trade Center, that they’d bombed it in 1993, and that it could happen again. I’ve always been a little bit psychic and I follow my gut. …And so we decided to build our house in Bedford instead.”
Once in Bedford, Gianna turned full-time mom, saying about it, “Motherhood has always been everything for me. And keeping the family as normal as possible with Chazz always away filming was my priority.” Nevertheless, always the thespian jumping from the chorus to perform, Gianna managed to land parts in ‘Ghetto Dawg’ in 2000, ‘The Obscure Brother’ in 2004, ‘Tracks of Color’ in 2006, ‘Balletomane’ in 2009, and ‘A Fish Story’, which she also produced, in 2014.
Dante went to Rippowam Cisqua and then The Harvey School, before going to Berklee College of Music and majoring in Performance/Singer-Songwriting. “He’s a singer/songwriter/ actor just like his dad,” Chazz smiles. “And he’s been working in acting all through high school and college. He just finished filming an indie here in New York that he co-stars in, called ‘Rocky’s Deli’. Right now he’s living back in L.A., working on a project and his latest EP recording.” And the Palminteri’s daughter, Gabriella, went to Bedford Elementary and Fox Lane, as well as performing throughout her school years at LYT Theatre, YorktownStage, Westchester Broadway Theatre, and Random Farms. She’s presently a junior in the prestigious Musical Theater program at the University of Michigan. All last year, while she was a sophomore at Michigan, Gabriella was also filming Season 2 of ‘Gravesend’, for Amazon – which airs this Fall. She plays a very cool character named RoseMarie, and had an amazing time working with a stellar cast.
Life for the Palminteris is – in a good way – drama, drama, drama! Though they are a popular, and in many ways prototypical, Bedford family, the Palminteris are also always managing their lives around a busy theater schedule. In the two decades they’ve lived in Bedford, Chazz has appeared in over 50 movies and a dozen TV shows, and has, astoundingly, completed more than a thousand one- man performances of ‘A Bronx Tale’, including runs on Broadway in 2007 and 2016, and about 30 shows a year Chazz does in regional theaters around the U.S. About doing the show Chazz says, “Each and every time, it’s a high! When I’m doing it…I don’t feel like I’m doing it! I feel like I’m kind of channeling the story and it’s coming from God on top of my head. When I finish – I’m lost. It takes me about 20 minutes to calm down. The play is about me. You know how Oscar Wilde said, ‘be yourself because everyone else is already taken’ – well this is the ultimate.” And since March 2021, Chazz has also been doing a podcast, called The Chazz Palminteri Show, that drops on YouTube every Monday morning. Chazz interviews guests like his friends Alan Menken, Chris DiStefano, Billy Joel, Billy Baldwin and Gian Carlo Esposito, and talks about Hollywood, Broadway, and life lessons.
Ready to get back to working full-time in theater herself, in 2016 Gianna started The Audition Academy, a full-service college admissions readiness and applications solution for those pursuing Drama and/or Musical Theater. “Getting into the top Drama and Musical Theater programs requires a lot more than the normal college admissions process,” Gianna explains. “In addition to the regular SAT/ACT, transcript, resume, essay requirements and introductory video entries required of all college applicants, Drama and Musical Theater applicants have to submit pre-screens and auditions. They have to submit separate pre-screen audition videos for two songs, two contrasting monologues plus a Shakespeare or classic monologue, two originally choreographed dance routines, and a wild card video showing the student in their artistic element. And that’s just in the pre-screen process – which is an audition to audition. Then the actual audition season at colleges across the U.S. runs from December to March. It’s a tour, and we treat it like that…parents need support as well as the students. I get the family through it. I run workshops, and provide concierge coaching to maximize each student’s application and chances of getting into their top choice school. It’s a one- stop service for the student who wants to pursue a career in the theater arts. I also offer college consulting services to meet specific requirements.”
are also active philanthropists, about which Chazz says only, “We’re Catholic, and feel the need for service to others.” Gianna and Chazz are very proud of the non-profit charitable organization they founded 15 years ago, called The Childreach Foundation. Its purpose is to bring awareness and funds to pediatric diseases that otherwise receive too little attention, such as Thalassemia. Separately, the Palminteris also give grants to police officers with special needs children, provide grants to fallen officers and their families, mentor young students in need of summer camp, and award grants to youth theaters so that all children can have opportunities in the theater arts.
And if all that wasn’t enough, the Palminteris also own and operate two eponymous Italian restaurants. They opened the wildly popular Chazz Palminteri Italian Restaurant at 30 West 46th Street eight years ago, and used it as a nightly hangout during Chazz’ 2015 Broadway run in ‘A Bronx Tale the Musical’ at The LongAcre Theater, and his friend Bruce Springstein’s show at the Walter Kerr Theater. Gianna recounts, “The two shows turned West 48th street into a nightly non-stop block party, and we would all walk from the theaters on W 48th St. to the restaurant on W 46th St. every night after the show, with different cast members. It was magical.”
Then the Palminteris found a great location at 264 Main Street in White Plains, and opened their second restaurant in June 2021, despite covid. Like a proud mama, Gianna says, “One or both of us is in the White Plains restaurant two or three times a week. We like being there and it’s a great place for us to meet friends or anyone we’re working with on a project. And I like to help create the dishes, taste the food, and watch the service. We adore our staff and see the restaurant as an extension of our own kitchen, with all the old-style Italian recipes my mother and Chazz’s mother used to make, as well as some great pizza.”
As for who gets a seat at Chazz Palminteri Italian Restaurant for the Palminteri’s ultimate fantasy dinner party, Chazz and Gianna start the list with: Jesus Christ, Leonardo DaVinci, William Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Caravaggio, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Malcolm X, Konstantine Stanislavksi, Frank Sinatra, and Josephine Baker. To which, Chazz adds, “This oughta make for some theater! What’s the limit? I’d love to have Bob [DeNiro], Meryl Streep, and Sophia Lauren!” And Gianna quips, “We’re Italian, and this dinner is happening in our restaurant?…Let’s focus on what we’re going to serve! A great steak and pasta carbonara. Or maybe my truffle risotto and stuffed pheasant with a bottle of 2001 Brunello di Montalcino?”