Chazz Palminteri was offered $1 million for the rights to "A Bronx Tale." He turned it down when they wouldn't agree to make him the star. It was a gamble that paid off, sealing the deal on his fame and fortune. Now, "A Bronx Tale: The Musical" is headed to Broadway, directed by his longtime friend Robert De Niro and stage veteran Jerry Zaks. Palminteri recently parlayed his celebrity into the business world, with Chazz Paliminteri Ristorante Italiano in mid-town Manhattan and BiVi Vodka, the first vodka brand imported from Sicily. Here, he talks about his success and offers advice for others hoping to make it in any industry.
Who is the one person that changed the course of your life/career?
My parents put me on the right road, but the one person who changed my career, that was Robert De Niro. He came in and saw me do my one man show, "A Bronx Tale," [off Broadway] and said "Let's go partners." And the rest is history. It was the rocket ship that changed everything. I went from an unknown doing [bit parts in] "Hill Street Blues" to starring in a film with Robert De Niro.
There was one other person. I was working as a doorman at a fancy club in Beverly Hills and this nasty guy wanted to get in and I wouldn't let him. He warned me that if I didn't get out of his way, he'd have me fired in 15 minutes. The owner came out and it turned out the guy was Swifty Lazar, the biggest talent agent in the world. I got fired. And that's when I started writing "A Bronx Tale."
What's the biggest obstacle you've had to overcome in your career?
The biggest obstacle was actually me being in the movie "A Bronx Tale." When I wrote it, I decided that I was going to play the lead. I was offered $1 million to sell the script and let someone else star in the film. Everyone wanted to be in it—but I kept refusing. (P.S. I made a lot more than $1 million!)
What was the best business decision you ever made?
Turning down a million dollars and taking a chance. I absolutely do not recommend this for everyone.
"It's something I learned from Frank Sinatra ... He finishes his martini, takes out the toothpick with the olives and says, 'Share my olive.' I took one off the toothpick and he says, 'I love you.' Turns out it was a Rat Pack tradition."
What's it like bringing "A Bronx Tale" to Broadway as a musical? How emotional a journey is it?
I love it. It's my life story. Watching people pay homage to my father is amazing. Hoping we can get there [to Broadway] in October. We just need to find an available theater. The one person that made the musical happen is one of the great entrepreneurs, Tommy Mottola [the music mogul.] I have to give him credit. He made it happen.
What is your advice to young people just starting out?
Be the best that you can be and be well liked and you can't fail. It makes doors easier to get into. People want to push others up if they like them, if not, you better be so damn brilliant they can't afford to lose you. That's my advice in life. Just be good at what you do and be well liked. That's the secret right there.
What is the best advice you have ever received — and who was it from?
The best advice I received was from my shrink who told me, "Don't ever read reviews." And I don't. I haven't read a review in 25 years.
How did you get into the restaurant business?
I used to go to the Empire Steak House and my friend introduced me to the owners, the Sinanaj brothers. Every time I went there, I noticed how they were always on top of things. I'm a perfectionist. When I'm directing a movie, everything has to be right. They were like that. I got to meet and talk with them. I said I always wanted to get involved in the business. This went on for year. Finally, they said, "We really want to do this." And I said, "OK."
How do you make your restaurant stand out? What's your special sauce?
What you really need is experience. Every day you're putting out a fire. You need the best help; the chef has to be right. It's not a business you can just jump into. It's like telling someone to walk into a hospital and perform an operation. That's why nine out of 10 restaurants fail. People jump in who don't know how to do it. With the Sinanaj brothers there's consistency. People will come once because of my name, but they're not coming back unless the food is great.
You recently lauched BiVi Vodka. What's the story there?
It's from Messina, my mother's hometown in Sicily. There's never been a Sicilian vodka brand before. We have a tradition at the restaurant, where we serve BiVi [from beve which means drink in Italian] and we share the olives. It's something I learned from Frank Sinatra. I was with Frank at his house in Malibu. We were there alone, staring at the water. He was just finishing a martini. We were talking about life and the movies. He finishes his martini, takes out the toothpick with the olives and says, "Share my olive." I took one off the toothpick and he says, "I love you." Turns out it was a Rat Pack tradition.
If you could do one thing over again in your career, what would it be?
I turned down a movie role because I was going to be directing another film. The movie was "Donnie Brasco" with Robert De Niro. They wanted me to play Simon Black. Michael Madsen took the part. It was a great movie. I wish I was in it.
Commentary from Chazz Palminteri, an actor, writer, director, restaurateur and entrepreneur . Follow him on Twitter @chazzpalminteri.
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