In a realm where movie scripts are about as sacred as cocktail napkins, Chazz Palminteri’s success with his first screenplay is the stuff that Hollywood dreams—and litigation—are made of. Since it opened Sept. 29, A Bronx Tale—adapted by the actor-writer from his own one-man play—has drawn fire from some of his old gang in the L.A. theater world, who say they helped him structure and write the original, deserve a share of the glory, or are owed money. The cast of this Tinseltown tale includes:
* Palminteri, 41, who opened A Bronx Tale at the tiny West Coast Ensemble theater in March 1989. Eight months later he sold the screen rights to Universal Pictures for a reported $1.5 million.
* Director Mark W. Travis, 50, in whose Theatre West acting workshop Palminteri built a five-minute monologue into a full-length play. Travis directed that version of A Bronx Tale (Robert De Niro directed the movie) and on Oct. 5 filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court to collect 10 percent of Palminteri’s $1.5 million fee, plus damages.
* Actor-screenwriter Frank Renzulli, 35, who in 1988 considered Palminteri his best friend. He says he conceived and wrote major portions of the play, a claim Palminteri calls ”ludicrous.”
No one disputes that A Bronx Tale is Chazz Palminteri’s vehicle. Playing all 18 roles in a bravura stage performance, he scored an instant hit with his fable of a boy coming of age in the ’60s who must reconcile the values of two mentors: his incorruptible bus-driver father and the crime boss who rules his neighborhood. And no one denies Palminteri’s savvy when studios came calling with six-figure offers. ”I held out,” he says, ”until I knew I would star and write the screenplay and my friend Peter Gatien would be one of the producers.”
But Travis (whose suit also names Universal, the William Morris agency, and the film’s producers, including De Niro’s Tribeca film company and Gatien) claims Palminteri agreed in 1989 to pay him 10 percent of any movie sale and to list him in A Bronx Tale‘s credits as the play’s codeveloper. He also says Palminteri begged off signing a written agreement even when their mutual agent, Gilbert Parker of William Morris, offered to draft the contract (Parker was unavailable for comment). According to Travis, Palminteri told him, ”You’ll just have to trust me to take care of you. I’m good for this.”
When Palminteri and Gatien paid Travis $10,000 in 1990 as ”appreciation for my contribution,” he gave up hope of seeing the other $140,000 he says he was promised. But in March, when a Los Angeles Superior Court jury found that Kim Basinger had made an oral agreement to appear in Boxing Helena, Travis began wondering if he didn’t have a case after all. He wrote to Palminteri’s and Tribeca’s attorneys, demanding a development credit.
”The final straw came when Chazz said, through his attorney, that I had nothing to do with the creation and development of the play and was just the director,” Travis says of his decision to file suit. ”It was as though the 16 months I’d spent working on the play no longer existed.”
Palminteri would not comment on Travis’ specific charges; his attorney did not return repeated telephone calls. Tribeca and Universal also refused to comment, and William Morris’ attorneys and Peter Gatien did not return phone calls. But others who watched the events of 1988 and ’89 unfold are lining up on both sides.
”Mark was the architect, selecting which anecdotes should be used, critiquing them, and putting them in order-Mark provided the blueprints and Chazz built the house,” says Steve Kluger, a screenwriter (Once Upon a Crime) who reports he sat in on several Travis-Palminteri writing sessions and offered comments on the first draft of the screenplay. ”The irony,” Kluger continues, ”is that Mark had to talk Chazz into putting in the role of the father-the role that De Niro is now playing. That’s why this is so unforgivable.”
Palminteri’s old pal Renzulli agrees that Travis ”certainly developed the play. Whenever Chazz came back (from Theatre West) he’d say, ‘Oh, Mark did this, Mark did that.’ Whenever I made suggestions, Chazz would say, ‘I have to run that by Mark.”’
What suggestions? Renzulli says he urged making the gangster the killer, suggested the central conflict between the local capo and the father, helped – write the opening and closing monologues, wrote several other passages and punch lines, and provided the title. But Renzulli says he never intended to sue, even after Palminteri refused to acknowledge his role, because ”losing my friendship was punishment enough.
”I was the one who was allowed in the gangster social clubs and raised by negative elements in the neighborhood,” says Renzulli, an East Boston native whose Rolodex contains friends’ names with prison addresses. ”These weren’t lines I gave Chazz. This was wisdom paid for at a great price. For him to deny that I made a contribution to this play is to cheapen the gift.
”I worked with him on this piece in the daytime, then he’d go to Theatre West at night and work things out on stage,” adds Renzulli, who appears with Gerard Depardieu in an upcoming Disney film, My Father, the Hero, and just sold a screenplay, Where’s Brooklyn?, to Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions. ”I wish nothing but the best for Chazz. But he has to learn to give credit where credit is due.”
Not that there’s any consensus on where credit belongs. Actor-writer Patrick Cupo, a member of the Theatre West workshop, says it is all Palminteri’s. ”I was there when Chazz put pen to paper,” says Cupo. ”These allegations are a joke. I never heard about Chazz having help writing or developing the play until it started becoming successful. If A Bronx Tale bombed, would they have wanted to be connected with it? When someone makes suggestions, does that make them a writer or developer?”
Palminteri certainly doesn’t think so. ”Nobody helped me with the writing. It’s such a ludicrous remark,” he says. ”A hundred-something people saw it grow. There’s always going to be people trying to take credit because of jealousy and envy.”
Yet Renzulli isn’t the only one who recognized his voice in A Bronx Tale. ”When I saw the play, there were actual stories from Frank’s stand-up act or conversations with him,” recalls Nina Tassler, Warner Bros. Television’s director of drama development. ”After the play, I called Chazz and said it was amazing how much of Frank I saw in this piece. He acknowledged this.”
”When you have a community of actors, and one breaks out, as I did,” Palminteri counters, ”it’s hard for that person to fit in. There’s bitter feeling and jealousy. I think Frank is a talented guy and I wish him the best, but I think he’s getting bad advice from his friends.”
And there it stands, with friendships broken and conflicting charges unresolved. Meanwhile, A Bronx Tale, ironically, is off to a sluggish start at the box office despite strong reviews. Palminteri is writing the screen version of Faithful, his second play, for Tribeca. And five years after they say that they began, separately, to help Palminteri—one by day, the other by night—Renzulli and Travis finally spoke to each other for the first time on the phone last month. Renzulli says they talked for 10 minutes. Travis reports it was 20 or 30.
Additional reporting by Marshall Fine