- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 19, 2015

CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, Ill. — Roger Ebert loved movies so much that the longtime film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times returned to his hometown to found his own film festival as a way to champion films he believed were overlooked or in need of greater appreciation. For the 17th annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival — better known as “Ebertfest” — the critic’s widow, Chaz, and her festival partners selected work and invited guests in keeping with Ebert’s spirit.

On Friday evening, Ms. Ebert introduced Robert De Niro’s 1993 directorial debut, “A Bronx Tale,” starring Mr. De Niro and Chazz Palminteri, whose one-man play was the source material.

Ms. Ebert proudly announced that the 35 mm print used for the screening was donated to the festival from the personal collection of director Martin Scorsese, a longtime friend of Ebert‘s.

The film stars Mr. Palminteri and Mr. De Niro as a Bronx gangster and bus driver, respectively, battling over the soul of Mr. De Niro’s character’s son, played by Lillo Brancato.

Roger always called this guest ‘the Chazz with two Z’s,’” Ms. Ebert said as she brought Mr. Palminteri out on the stage with her after the screening.

Mr. Palminteri was joined by producer Jon Kilik for a discussion moderated by Richard Roeper — Ebert’s former television co-host — and esteemed critic and professor Leonard Maltin.

“My father was a bus driver; his name was Lorenzo,” Mr. Palminteri said to the crowd gathered at the Virginia Theatre — a classic single-screen movie house in Ebert’s hometown.

“A lot of the words in the film are my father’s words. He said, ‘Don’t waste your life, son, I know you have talent.’ I promised him that I wouldn’t waste my life and do something with it, and it worked out OK,” Mr. Palminteri said to thunderous applause.

“So many things about this movie felt like divine intervention,” Mr. Kilik said. He recalled Ms. Ebert asking him recently at Cannes which of his film productions is his favorite, to which he responded, “A Bronx Tale.”

“To see it tonight on a big screen with a great audience meant so much to me,” Mr. Kilik said.

Mr. Kilik also recalled that Ebert was an early champion of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” which he produced and was coincidentally screened at Ebertfest last year. Mr. Lee attended the screening.

Mr. Palminteri said that “A Bronx Tale” was largely culled from his own life growing up in New York, where he was privy to the activities of local Italian mobsters.

Through workshops with other actors in Los Angeles, he turned several monologues into what became his one-man show. Mr. Palminteri said he turned down offers of well over $1 million for the rights to make the property a film. Even though the struggling actor had $400 to his name at the time, he said, he feared Hollywood would ruin his baby.

Mr. De Niro saw the show and immediately offered to help translate the play onto the screen.

“But I said, ‘I want to [play] Sonny, [and] I want to write [the screenplay],’” Mr. Palminteri said. “He said, ‘Sure, and I’ll direct it. And if you shake my hand, that’s the way it’ll be.’”

Although Mr. De Niro was a Hollywood heavyweight in the early 1990s, there was resistance to having him direct a major project for the first time. Every big director wanted to direct “A Bronx Tale,” but Mr. Palminteri knew Mr. De Niro was correct for the work, having grown up as a fellow Italian in New York and knowing the streets.

“When I met with De Niro, he said, ‘Look, I love the story, I won’t touch the story, it should be the way it is,’” said Mr. Palminteri. “There was an honesty about Bob. I knew he was going to make a great movie.”

The young man at the center of the film is called Cologero, which happens to be Mr. Palminteri’s real first name. He recalled fondly the audition process for an actor to play Cologero as a 9-year-old.

“All of a sudden, this kid walks in and he goes, ‘How do you doin’, Chazz? Hello, Bob.’ And Bob and me looked at each other and said, ‘Look at the set on this kid,’” Mr. Palminteri said of Francis Capra, who was ultimately cast. “He said, ‘Hey, Bob, should I cry or should I not cry?’ There was no one even close to him.”

In an ironic twist, Brancato, who portrayed Cologero as a teenager, served several years in prison for a burglary conviction that involved the shooting death of a police officer. He was released on parole 16 months ago, and the triggerman is still serving a life sentence.

Rather than cast actors to portray the neighborhood wise guys, Mr. Palminteri recommended to Mr. De Niro the actual people upon whom many of them were based, such as gambler Eddie Montanaro, aka “Eddie Mush.”

“I said, ‘Listen, just be cool, come over to the car, don’t say nothing, but Bob De Niro’s in the car,’” Mr. Palminteri said of finding Mr. Montanaro at the sports track. “He says, ‘I ain’t going to no strange car; I owe too many people money.’ He tapped on the window, and he looks at Bob De Niro and says, ‘It is you!’”

Mr. De Niro entreated Mr. Montanaro to come to his office for a noon audition. Mr. Montanaro said he was due at the track and asked whether he could show up at 3 p.m. instead.

“Bob turned to me and said, ‘He’s perfect,’” Mr. Palminteri recalled.

In the film, the teenage Cologero begins to romance a black girl, played by Taral Hicks, considered a no-no in both of their respective neighborhoods. Mr. Palminteri related how this was based on his own recollections of being 17 in 1968.

“My friends would say, ‘We hate the black kids because we’re poor and this [neighborhood] is ours,’” he said. “And they felt the same way about us going up past Webster Avenue.

“I didn’t have that kind of hate that some of my friends had,” he said of the racially segregated neighborhoods. “That’s why [the film is] still relevant today” in terms of race relations.

However, he said his aim was never to go out purposely to raise his audience’s consciousness. “If you set out to write message movies, it never happens,” he said.

The audience laughed hearing the writer/actor recalling that the crucial scene of the craps game used real money, some of which consistently vanished.

“I said, ‘Guys, you can’t do this,’” Mr. Palminteri said. “They couldn’t help themselves. These guys, they’re thieves.”

The crowd at the Virginia Theatre also got a good laugh learning that “A Bronx Tale” was in fact shot in the neighboring borough of Queens.

Mr. Palminteri continued to sing Mr. De Niro’s praises for leaving the source material alone and for encouraging the up-and-coming actor/playwright, telling him, “Chazz, it takes just as much talent to recognize a great idea as it is to come up with it yourself.”

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