Five Essential Roles
A Bronx Tale (1993)
In 1990, Chazz Palminteri premiered his play, “A Bronx Tale,” in Los Angeles to rave reviews. The play was an autobiographical account of Palminteri’s upbringing, and, perhaps most impressively, it starred Palminteri and only Palminteri. When he moved the show to Broadway, Robert De Niro caught a performance, and soon approached Palminteri about turning the play into a film. Palminteri agreed, but only if he could write the script and star as mafia boss, Sonny. They shook hands, and a few years later, they delivered A Bronx Tale, one of the best, if not criminally overlooked, mob films of the ‘90s.
Watching A Bronx Tale, it is so obvious how personally invested Palminteri was in the project. Honestly, there isn’t a shred of Chazz Palminteri to be found in the performance. This is all Sonny, and every frame of it is brilliant. Sonny is a premiere goodfella: ruthless and charming; hot-tempered and well mannered. Sonny lives by the mantra that it is better to be feared than loved. It’s a notion that fuels the character, in all his charisma and dread. Palminteri is simply magnetic as Sonny – you can’t take your eyes off him if you tried.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Dave Kujan is a guy with a grudge. As a Special Agent for U.S. Customs, Kujan is pissed that a crooked ex-cop named Dean Keaton has apparently gone clean, having gotten away with his prior crimes. Kujan is pissed and demands answers. Those answers come in the form of a long story told by Verbal Kint. For most of Verbal’s tale, Kujan sits in his friend’s office and listens intently. Occasionally, he calls bullshit and ignites the office with a fury of oral intimidations. In one of the film’s most thrilling moments, Kujan deduces Verbal’s life to a cheap piece of paper, which causes Verbal to tremble with fear. It’s a complex monologue, packed with tongue twisters and delivered at razor sharp speed. The confidence of Palminteri’s delivery of that speech gets me every time. For a moment there, we think Kujan is actually in charge. If only for a moment.
Mulholland Falls (1996)
Comic relief in an otherwise serious film is a tough thing to pull off. At its worst, it plays as stale and lazy. But if done properly, comic relief can prove to be essential. Such is how I describe Chazz Palminteri’s work in Mulholland Falls. The film is a 1950s Los Angeles whodunit, in which four rough and tough detectives try to solve the brutal murder of a young woman. The cops are big and burly men; they smoke, curse, bruise and kill. They say little and rarely explain themselves, except when one of their own, Elleroy Coolidge, asks them to. For the past for weeks, Detective Coolidge has been seeing a psychiatrist to help combat his hot temper. After a few sessions, Coolidge likens himself to a young Freud, always with new, hilariously profound insight to offer. Mulholland Falls is a decent film, but it is such a delight to watch Nick Nolte, Michael Madsen and Chris Penn listen to Chazz Palminteri spout psychobabble nonsense throughout the entire film. Without Palminteri’s humor, Mulholland Falls wouldn’t nearly be as good as it is.
“So this broad is always here?! What is she, a chair?! She got the TV on, she got the stereo on, what are you workin’ for, the electric company?”
Poor Phil. The tough old bastard just can’t catch a break. A struggling actor with a short fuse, Phil is always on edge and completely unpredictable. You never know if he’s going to rage or smile, punch or laugh. Palminteri spends most of the Hollywood-insider dramedy, Hurlyburly, slinging insults at his on-screen friends, pushing women out of cars, and berating a young Anna Paquin with doozies like the one I quoted above. Hurlyburly is based on a play and, for most the picture, the actors are forced to deliver lines a mile a minute. But no one involved (including Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, and Garry Shandling) are able to spit as much vile as Palminteri. Phil is surely one of the best examples of Palminteri in full command his foreboding presence.
Analyze This (1999)
One of my favorite scenes of Palminteri’s career is when he grows increasingly enraged by Billy Crystal’s attempt to psychoanalyze him in Analyze This. Toward the end of the film, Crystal’s character, Ben Sobel, is forced to pretend he’s the consigliere to Paul Vitti (Robert De Niro) in front of, seemingly, the entirety of the American mafia. Vitti’s arch enemy, Primo Sidone, isn’t having it, so he presses Sobel to explain who he is. As a reflex, Sobel begins asking Primo questions about himself, which results in Chazz Palminteri going off on a frenzy. Palminteri is obviously a master of playing wiseguys, and Primo Sidone is one of the best, most entertaining villains he’s played yet.
The Best of the Best
Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
This is honestly one of the hardest calls I’ve made for an In Character post. Chazz Palminteri is perfect in A Bronx Tale. Flawless, even. After rewacthing it recently, I was more than ready to hail Sonny as his best work. But then I had the urge to rewatch Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, and within minutes, I realized that Palminteri’s confident and hilarious turn as Cheech is the best acting he’s ever done. It’s a standout performance in a film full of them; the kind of work you want to watch again, as soon as the film is over.
As an enforcer for a powerful mafia boss, Cheech is dismayed when he’s ordered to protect the boss’ woman, a no-talent actress named Olive (Jennifer Tilly), while she rehearses for a Broadway play. Shortly into rehearsals, Cheech does not like what he hears. He thinks the writing is bullshit, and the acting even worse. So, being the Type-A mafioso that he is, Cheech voices his opinions, much to the chagrin of the play’s creator, David (John Cusack). But then a funny thing happens: everyone realizes that Cheech’s proposed changes are brilliant. David starts to incorporate them into the material, and the play takes off.
What makes Cheech so great is the way Palminteri plays him straight. He never goes for the joke, instead letting Woody Allen’s writing do its job. There’s also a confident acceptance to Cheech that makes him so goddamn charming. For example, every time David compliments Cheech’s ideas, Cheech shrugs and says something to the effect of, “Yeah, I know, it’s good.” He’s not cocky, because wiseguys like Cheech don’t have to be cocky. He’s the man, and he knows it. Same could be said for the actor playing him, certainly.
Innocent Blood (1992)
Innocent Blood (1992)
Stuart Little (1999)
A Night at the Roxbury (1998)
Down to Earth (2001)
Poolhall Junkies (2002)
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006)
Running Scared (2006)
The Dukes (2007)
Yonkers Joe (2008)
Modern Family (2010-2014)
Rizzoli & Isles (2010-2014)Mighty Fine (2012)