Hasitha Fernando on A Bronx Tale, which celebrates its 30th anniversary…
To say the 90s put out some excellent gangster dramas is something of an understatement. But squeezed between the likes of Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs, Carlito’s Way and Casino is an underrated affair that has gone on to achieve a cult-like status amongst film aficionados the world over. That movie is A Bronx Tale, and as it celebrates its 30th anniversary we take a look back at the flick and the memorable goings on that made the effort what it is…
It was Robert De Niro’s directorial debut
Robert De Niro is an icon. A national treasure. In the early 90s the guy was one of the most sought-after talents in Hollywood. However, it took him some time to get around to directing, but after seeing Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale on stage, the veteran actor realized he’d found the right property that was worthy of a feature film adaptation. “I just wanted to direct something and I couldn’t find anything,” said De Niro. “It’s a lot of work to develop something. And then I saw this one man show and I said, ‘Let me try to do this… I know I can add to it, and contribute to it.’” Two decades later De Niro once again joined forces with Palminteri to co-direct the musical adaptation based on his play, with music provided by Academy Award winning composer Alan Menken.
The movie was based on an award-winning stage play
1988 was a year that changed Palminteri’s life forever. At the time he was a down-on-his-luck actor, struggling to make ends meet. Out of desperation the guy started working as a bouncer for a nightclub and one fateful evening Palminteri refused entry to an arrogant guy who turned out to be none other than Hollywood super-agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar. Enraged, Lazar got Palminteri fired, and all out of options the actor decided to write his own play and cast himself in it, and that effort was what ultimately became A Bronx Tale, which he largely based upon his childhood. The details of Calogero’s father – including his name and occupation – as well as, the shooting he witnessed, were all real-life incidents which Palminteri himself experienced.
Chazz Palminteri rejected many offers seeking to adapt his play
A Bronx Tale premiered at Theater West in Los Angeles to rave reviews and this soon caught the attention of numerous Hollywood producers and filmmakers, who wanted to adapt the property for the big screen. One party even wanted to purchase the IP for $ 1 million but Palminteri turned them all down, as none of them agreed to his conditions. One fine day, however, Robert De Niro walked into his dressing room after seeing the show and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. De Niro wanted to keep Palminteri as the primary screenwriter, and also play the role of Sonny, whilst directing the flick and playing the role of Lorenzo. Palminteri agreed to De Niro’s terms and the deal was sealed over a handshake.
Palminteri was involved in every aspect of production
Since A Bronx Tale was based on Palminteri’s childhood experiences De Niro wanted him to be involved in pretty much every aspect of the film’s production. So, apart from his role as primary screenwriter and playing the lead, Palminteri also was heavily involved with the casting process, location scouting, and technical aspects such as sound mixing and editing.
De Niro played against type for the film
Robert De Niro has practically made a career of playing ruthless gangsters in movies. But for A Bronx Tale, the talented performer played against type and took on quite a different role – that of a working-class stiff trying desperately to protect his son from the influence of the mob. De Niro even got himself a commercial driver’s license, in order to drive around the buses in the film. Talk about commitment.
Lillo Brancato was famous for his De Niro impressions
Lillo Brancato, who plays Calogero in the movie, was quite famous in his neighborhood of Jones Beach for doing impersonations of Robert De Niro and resembling the iconic star. So, naturally when casting scouts were searching around New York City and Long Island for a suitable teenager to embody Calogero, they settled on Brancato after seeing the child’s brilliant impression of De Niro.
A real-life Hell’s Angel assisted with the casting process
The fictionalized motorcycle gang “Satan’s Messengers” featured in A Bronx Tale was based on the infamous, real-life Hell’s Angel biker gang. Therefore, in order to accomplish a sense of authenticity De Niro and Palminteri called on their longtime friend and Hell’s Angel member Chuck Zito, to help them cast the bikers for the scuffle that takes place at the bar. In accordance with his request Zito hired five of his biker brothers to play the members of the Satan’s Messengers Motorcycle Club.
Solid critic reviews, a modest box-office haul and an undying legacy
A Bronx Tale opened to great critic reviews, with some even hailing it as one of the year’s best efforts. However, the critic praise didn’t translate to box-office receipts as the movie ended up making only a mere $ 17.3 million on a budget of $ 21 million. This even dissuaded De Niro from pursuing another directorial effort for the longest time, but the artist harbors no regrets because since its release the movie has build up a strong, cult-like following who have embraced it as one the best gangster movies of the 90s era. And Palminteri still continues to perform the original, critically-acclaimed one-man show in approximately twenty-five cities a year due to popular demand.
Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.