"We're all East Coast kids, so we're tough," said Chazz Palminteri, writer and star of A Bronx Tale
, to a crowd of 750 exuberant New York high schoolers assembled at Town Hall. "We don't give up."
He was addressing a specific question from a teen about overcoming obstacles in life, but Palminteri-who may be best known for the movie version of A Bronx Tale,
as well as for the films The Usual Suspects
and Bullets Over Broadway
-could have ben talking about the event itself. The Theatre Development Fund's Stage Doors program, which introduces thousands of area students to New York's best theatre each year, had bought out Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre for a Wednesday matinee, but the stagehands' strike against producers intervened.
And so students from 13 different schools representing all five NYC boroughs filed into Town Hall at the schedule matinee time, 2 p.m., for a talk with Chazz. "He agreed to meet you in an untheatrical event bcause he cares about you," said Marianna Houston, TDF's Director of Education, in an introduction.
"This isn't about me, this is about you," said Palminteri in his opening remarks. He went on to perform a few minutes of A Bronx Tale
to illustrate how he delineates separate characters, and he then took a series of questions from students about life, acting and the difference between the two.
"You may look at me and see a movie star who has money, but I look at you and let me tell you, you have much more than I do-you have time," Palminteri stressed. "You can be anything you want to be!"
He said that his affirming message boiled down to something his father taught him: "The saddest thing in life is wasted talent." Another way to say it, as he later explained: "You have the gift inside you already, and my message today is, don't blow it-don't waste it."
He estimated that success, not only in acting but in life, is "80 percent networking and social grace, and about 20 percent talent." He said he'd seen a number of actors he regarded as more talented than himself not find success because they couldn't cope with life. "If you don't follow the rules of life, you'll go down," he said, emphasizing a strong anti-drug message.
A young actor performed a monologue for the assembly, and Chazz gave him some choice feedback. "Memorize it," he said, "because when they ask you for a monologue, you can't come back tomorrow." He also instructed the young actor, who had cried in his scene, in the finer points of subtext. "It's better if they cry," he said, gesturing to the audience, "than if you cry."
When asked about the toughest time he'd faced in his life, Palminteri talked about the period before he wrote the one-man show A Bronx Tale
. He was a struggling actor in Los Angeles, he had just been fired from a job as a doorman, and had just a few hundred dollars in his bank account. But his father's advice about not wasting talent, written on an index card, was posted on his wall. Palminteri said to himself: "If they won't give me a part, I'll write one."
It was a few years later, when he was working on the film of A Bronx Tale
, that he went to the home of Robert DeNiro, who was directing the film. After acting a few scenes with the acting legend, he got in the elevator and said to himself, "Wow, I just acted with DeNiro, sitting on his couch." That's when he realized he'd "made it," he said.
The larger lesson, he stressed, is that "we all get to points in our lives when we hit a wall, and life is about what we do to get over that wall. You can't retreat into self-pity."
Though it couldn't quite be called theatre, this spirited give-and-take between Chazz and some fellow New Yorkers was perhaps as lively and as memorable as any performance.