Chazz Palminteri

Chazz Palminteri If his tough, hard-working, honest and decent bus driver father hadn`t set his son straight at an early age, Calogero (Chazz) Lorenzo Palminteri may have been a "made man" with the Bronx mob today. Instead, Palminteri just portrays Mafia bad guys in dozens of movies and TV projects, including his Oscar-nominated performance as the brilliant playwright/hitman Cheech in Woody Allen`s "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994).

Acting may not be as profitable as truck hijackings, drugs and prostitution, but it is a fairly honorable profession, where film critics are tough, but rarely put out a contract on you.

Feeling safe and secure, the tall, craggy-faced, 49-year-old actor is adding another godfather part to his credits in "Boss Of Bosses" (Sun., June 3, 8-10 p.m., TNT) as the infamous Paul Castellano, the notorious head of the Gambino crime family until his gangland slaying in front of New York`s Sparks Steak House on Dec. 17, 1985.

Accused of directing the triggerman, John Gotti ("the Iron Don") stepped into the fuzzy limelight until he landed in the slammer a few years later on a variety of charges.

"I loved the `Boss Of Bosses` book (by former FBI agents Joseph F. O`Brien and Andris Kurins, plus Laurence Shames) detailing the rise and fall of the last traditional Don, a very bright man who ultimately believed in non-violence, keeping a low profile and taking the Mob into legitimate businesses. He already controlled the local construction, garment, meat and poultry business - it was a matter of taking those ventures to where the government couldn`t touch them. I`m not condoning what he did, but he did love his family and didn`t want his sons involved in the business he was in."

Also a playwright and screenwriter, who wrote the largely autobiographical "A Bronx Tale" (1993) about a young boy torn between loyalty to a gangster and his father`s love, Palminteri didn`t have research for his Castellano role.

"When I was 9 years old, I saw a guy kill a man right in front of me," he recalls, declining to elaborate. "I knew some guys who were killed in a car. At 15, I befriended and did work for the Wise Guys, getting them coffee, cakes and all that stuff. And, once in a while, they would ask me to roll the dice, and they would bet on me."

One wrong move and the impressionable youngster "could have fallen right into that world," he says softly. "But I really heard my father`s words about doing the right thing ringing in my ears. One should never hurt people; it takes guts to be a working man as opposed to being a mobster. After seeing all these guys get killed, I believed that my father was right."

Although comfortable with his gangster role, Palminteri would not be surprised if it causes another strong protest from the Italian-American community - which already has taken "The Sopranos" series to task repeatedly.

"I do want to state that the Mafia is just an aberration in our community, which is made up of working people," he says. "We are cops, fireman, bakers, butchers, singers, actors, doctors and lawyers. Just like all the other ethnic groups in this country. It`s just a shame that the Mob gets all the credit.

"I think that the Mob is the modern-day version of the old-time cowboys," Palminteri explains patiently. "We all get intoxicated by someone having all that power and who seems to be untouchable.

"Mob people are also a paradox of personalities - one minute they are kissing their families in church, the next they are giving a rival the kiss of death," he continues. "That`s what I love about `The Sopranos,` a beautifully written series with a terrific cast. James Gandolfini is great as Tony Soprano. But I think they should balance it off with some positive (Italian-American) characters, maybe someone like (New York Mayor) Rudy Giuliani."

The fog-voiced Palminteri - who also has played screen characters ranging from incorruptible FBI agents to the voice of Smokey in "Stuart Little" (1999) - has his own set of criteria for shady characters.

"A mobster or not, I would never play a character who is simply demeaning, who hurts children, and so on.," he says. "But when I do play bad guys, I do try to make the audience understand him, if not sympathize with him. I try to mix up my characters and I have an obligation to my family; they trust me to pick good material."

A serious movie buff since he saw Marlon Brando in "On The Waterfront" as a kid, Palminteri was sidetracked for about 10 years after high school singing in lowly paid rock bands. But he was a drama major at the Bronx Community College before moving on to private teachers and pounding the pavement in and around Broadway.

The low-key performer made his professional acting debut in an obscure 1975 off-off Broadway play, but it took 11 years before he could make a living from the profession.

Meanwhile, he paid the rent as a doorman at various clubs and hotels in New York and Los Angeles. By the mid-`80s, he had launched a decade-long assault on Hollywood with a small guest shot on "Hill Street Blues." To date, his feature film credits include "Oscar," "Innocent Blood," "The Last Word," "The Usual Suspects," "Jade" and "Analyze This." His current and upcoming movies include "Down To Earth," "Lady And The Tramp II; Scamp`s Adventure," "Pool Hall Junkies" and "One-Eyed King."

Palminteri recently wrapped production in L.A. as the director of the independent motion picture "Oooph!" - a "comedy with a lot of heart about a married couple after the guy gets caught cheating" - and headed back to New York as fast as the jumbo jet could carry him. Home is where his heart is, and that`s where his actress wife, Gianna Ranudo, and their 5-year-old son, Dante Lorenzo, wait impatiently for his return.

A life-long baseball fan, Palminteri salivates whenever he thinks about playing catch with his son in the backyard.

"The big treat, for both of us, is taking Dante to a Yankees game," he says, laughing at the thought. "It doesn`t get any better than that."

(c) Copley News Service

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Author: Eirik Knutzen

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