ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jim LaMotta is one of Pittsburgh’s premiere wrestling announcers, as well as a great writer. I’m really happy that he chose to write this and share it with the site. This article originally appeared on Steel City Underground. You can follow Jim on Twitter.
When I saw the chance to write about a film here, I was thrilled because much like the drama that unfolds in other forms of entertainment, movies can have such a deep layer of meaning beyond just the run time on-screen. I was introduced to A Bronx Tale in my middle school years when my dad put a copy that he taped from HBO into the VCR, one of my home recorded movies we watched together at the time.
Formulated from Chazz Palminteri’s one-man stage show show that began its run off-broadway in 1989, the film is a semi-autobiographical account of Palminteri’s childhood in the Bronx in the 1960s. My dad, who grew up in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a steel town just outside of Pittsburgh, around the same era often drew comparisons to the environment that beamed through the television. The late Grandma LaMotta was full-blooded Italian and her recipes are still made today through my dad’s cooking skills, as he slices bread and reminds me to stir the sauce, something fans of another De Niro film, Goodfellas, can appreciate.
Speaking of the legendary De Niro, he not only played a powerful role opposite of Palminteri’s gangster character, Sonny, but was also critical to getting the film made. After Chazz garnered rave reviews for his ability to play several different parts during the course of the stage show, he received offers from studios for the rights to the story. He insisted on writing the screenplay and to play the previously mentioned Sonny, the neighborhood mob leader that served as an intriguing and complex fixture of the narrative. When studios still persisted for only the rights and the ability to cast their own star, Chazz walked, leaving considerable money on the table to stay true to his vision of what he thought the New York saga should be. Shortly afterwards, De Niro attended the stage show and was impressed with Palminteri’s performance, offering him the chance to write the screen play for the production that De Niro himself would direct.
The 1993 release chronicles the youth of Calogero, a young boy that innocently pals around his Bronx neighborhood and idolizes the Yankee’s Mickey Mantle. As Calogero sits on the front steps of his apartment building, an argument breaks out over what appears to be a parking spot. After someone gets cracked with a baseball bat, Sonny halts the incident with the shot to the aggressor’s head. The Mickey Mantle fan always admired Sonny’s magnetic presence from afar, but it wasn’t until those gun shots rang out in the streets that he locked eyes with the Mafia boss. The cold, calculating stare only relinquishes Calogero from its grasp when Lorenzo, the boy’s father played by De Niro, scoops him from the cement steps to hustle him up to their apartment to avoid any connection to the murder.
Moments later, the police arrive and claim that those on the street saw the boy witness the crime and ask him to identify the shooter. As Calogero looks into the eyes of the line-up of wise guys, even he knows that the code of those Bronx streets is never to rat. After the offices begrudgingly dismiss him, The young boy asks his father if he did a good thing, and Lorenzo replies, “yeah, you did a good thing for a bad man,” a subtle nod to a theme that plays out during the narrative between the balance of morality and legality. Following the save, Sonny’s crew offers Lorenzo, the name and occupation based on Palminteri’s real-life father, a job dropping off numbers on his bus route. The $250 a week was an hefty sum in that era, but the upstanding Lorenzo politely declines because he doesn’t want to put his legitimate job as a city bus driver in jeopardy. Calogero often rode on that same bus route with his father, who delivered one of the iconic lines of the film in the form of advice to his son, “the saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
Still, Calogero’s silence gained him favor with the charismatic boss, and Sonny sends one of his crew to fetch him as he worked on his bicycle from the safety of his stoop. Just down the street, he finds himself inside the neighborhood bar where the mafia crew hangs out. After Sonny formally introduces himself, the young boy asked him if he really shot the man in the street over a parking space. The powerful figure replied in an almost caring tone, “when you get older, you’ll understand,” another central theme in the film. This is also the scene where Calogero gets his first street lesson, as Sonny asked if he was a Yankee fan and the young boy explains his admiration for the previously mentioned Mickey Mantle. Sonny’s harsh, but realistic response was, “Is Mickey Mantle going to pay your rent? Mickey Mantle don’t care about you, why should you care about him? Nobody cares, nobody cares”
As time goes on, Sonny takes the boy under his wing, allowing him to serve coffee at their club and earn generous tips for it. In one of the scenes that shows the complex side of Sonny, after Calogero goes on a roll when invited to throw dice, the mafia leader tells him to get home because it was getting late and gives him a portion of the winnings. He also gave him the nickname Cee, another subtle element of foreshadowing of an eventual conflict. When the blue collar Lorenzo, who works long hours on his bus route to provide for his family, discovers Cee’s cash and finds out where it was from, he attempted to return the money before an argument ensued with Sonny at the mafia club. The two men wouldn’t speak again for eight years.
The next scene finds Lillo Brancato Jr. as Cee eight years older, now in high school, emulating the style of the mafia boss that schooled him on the ways of the streets during the time that passed. Cee’s childhood friends became a few of the neighborhood hoodlums that Sonny eventually warned him about. Lorenzo still dutifully keeps his bus route and invited his son along when he spotted him sitting on the sidewalk with his crew of friends. Cee, not wanted to be embarrassed by his dad, begrudgingly accepts the invitation to join him for a few stops. As Lorenzo’s jazz blared from his radio on the bus, Cee was memorized by Jane, a beautiful African American girl played by Taral Hicks. Her bright smile, beaming eyes, and glowing complexion are contrasted with the racial tension of the era as Cee’s inner thoughts can be heard, “she was tall, she was beautiful, and she was classy, but she was black, and that was a no-no in my neighborhood”
As Cee exits the bus and his father continues the route, the mafia crew are waiting for him on the corner. Lorenzo and Sonny exchange tense nods of acknowledgment as the hard-working bus driver disapproves of his son’s association with the mob leader. Eventually, Cee runs into Jane outside their school and offers to walk her home. On the few blocks they travel from the school, they make plans to see a movie the next day. As the approach Webster avenue, the black section of the Bronx, there’s another reminder of the racial divide of the time. Jane finishes the final block herself, but agrees to their plans for the movies. When Cee catches up to his hoodlum neighborhood friends later that day, they jump a few black kids riding their bikes through the white section. Cee tries to disguise one of the victims and doesn’t actually throw any punches. Following the brawl in the streets, Cee seeks advice from Sonny, who inexplicably drives backwards for blocks while delivering this life lesson. As he peers over his shoulder to continue his reverse travel, Sonny has a rather causal response to the revelation that Jane is black. When Cee expresses discontent with what his childhood friends might say, Sonny explains that half of them will end up dead or in jail anyway. The mafia kingpin goes on to explain that how the two care about each other is all that matters, and passes on the knowledge of “the door test.” He tells Cee he can borrow his car to pick up Jane.
With Sonny’s assurance, Cee plans to meet up with Jane as scheduled, but not before Sonny catches those same neighborhood friends attempting to buy guns from a neighborhood lowlife. Sonny smacks a few of them around and gives Cee a verbal warning about guns not making a tough guy. The next day as Cee carefully shaves his chin, he asked Lorenzo what he thought about going out with black girls and claims he was asking for a friend. Lorenzo replies with precautionary advice before telling his son to be careful, a small gesture that lets the audience know that the father knew the son meant this advice for himself. The movie night never got started as the planned meeting spot became a place of confrontation as one of the kids jumped in the white neighborhood was Jane’s brother, Willie. Cee attempted to explain that he tried to help, but Jane storms off, and Cee delivers Sonny’s car back before he disappointingly shuffles back to his apartment.
Lorenzo saw his son behind the wheel of the mob leader’s car and confronts him about it before an argument ensues. Lorenzo reiterates that Sonny can’t trust anyone, something that the naive teenage vehemently disagrees with. As Cee goes to seek refuge in the bar, Sonny snatches him outside the club and slams him against a wall, demanding to know where he took the car. It was revealed that a bomb was planted on the engine, but didn’t detonate as designed. Cee tearfully proclaims his innocence and says that Sonny was like a father to him. The kingpin relinquishes his leather jacket and the distraught youngster shuffles down the street where his friends are now in a car and invite him for the ride. Lorenzo witnessed the confrontation and demands to know what happened to his son. Sonny’s goons hold Lorenzo back and the mob leader delivers one punch to the stomach, sending the blue collar bus driver to the pavement.
Inside the car, Cee’s friends plan further retaliation on the black section of the Bronx with a dozen molotov cocktails ready. As Jimi Hendrix’s “Along the Watchtower” accompanies the ride, again the viewing audience can hear Cee’s inner thoughts as he reflects upon the advice that Sonny and his father gave him, advice from two different men with a common theme of his best interest in mind. As Cee is conflicted about how to get out of the situation, another car cuts off the youngsters and Sonny appears, demanding that Cee get out of the car. Sonny issues a final warning to the hoodlums to stay away from his protege. On the ride back to the club, Cee asked Sonny if he even thought that he and Jane could’ve inadvertently been killed by the car bomb. Sonny acknowledges that he knows Cee didn’t set it up, but the teenager is betrayed by his mentor’s lack of trust and refuses to follow him into the club. Instead, he catches up with Jane, who went to his house to reveal that her brother admitted that he did actually try to shield him from the previous attack. As they walk down the street, Cee and Jane share a kiss, a sign of the beginning of their relationship.
Suddenly, Cee realizes that her brother might be in danger from the planned molotov attack and hurried to the record store of the black section. When they arrived, they discover that the hoodlums’ plan backfired and the car exploded, killing everyone inside. Sonny’s earlier interception had saved Cee’s life. He makes peace with Willie and tells Jane he has to go find Sonny. Cee runs all the way to the club, where a massive party is going on. As Cee makes his way through the crowded bar, Sonny is smiling and waved him through. Cee notices someone isn’t smiling and it was that man that shoots Sonny in the back of the head, as the club erupts in chaos. It’s revealed that the man that shot Sonny was the son of the man he killed eight years earlier in front of Cee’s house during the apparent parking space dispute.
Sonny’s funeral scene is what can be expected of most mob funerals, lavish floral arrangements and his contemporaries causally talking as if the departed wasn’t even in the room. An ironic “nobody cares” aspect to the scene. Eventually, Cee finds himself alone in the funeral home after the others have left. He tells Sonny how his life was saved and his plans to start a relationship with Jane. A cameo from the legendary Joe Pesci takes place as he enters the viewing room in a suit. During their brief exchange, he tells Cee that he will look over the neighborhood for a while and points to a scar on his head, a reminder that he was the other man involved in the baseball bat incident that began Cee’s entire association with Sonny. After Pesci’s character exits, Lorenzo emerges in the funeral parlor to pay respects to the man that saved Cee. The teenager apologizes to his father if he ever made him feel overlooked and the two resolve the earlier apartment dispute. Lorenzo speaks to Sonny in the casket and said that he never hated him, but rather mad that he made his son grow up so fast. After Lorenzo thanks Sonny for saving his kid’s life, Cee tells Sonny, “nobody cares? you were wrong about that one. See you around” before he uses Sonny’s famous three-finger hand gesture. As Lorenzo and his son leave the funeral home, the father says, “Come on, Cee let’s go home,” an acknowledgment of acceptance for his son as more than just the young kid on the front steps. The film encompasses many different contrasts as it traces the path of the Bronx youth. Lorenzo and Sonny, the racial divides and then eventually the common aspects seen within each of them.
Palminteri’s stage show continues today in the form of a full-cast musical and is currently touring various cities. De Niro paired up with director Martin Scorsese and fellow screen legend Al Pacino again to get the previously mentioned Pesci to emerge from retirement for this year’s “The Irishman,” an epic saga produced by Netflix with a limited run in theaters before wide distribution on the streaming service. In an ironic incident of life intimating art, Lillo Brancato Jr., who appeared in half a dozen episodes of the second season of The Sopranos, saw his seemingly promising career derailed following a series of unwise decisions. The allure of show business led him into drug problems and that eventually saw him arrested for drug possession in 2005. Later that year, during an attempted burglary, Brancato Jr. and an accomplice tried to break into a house when an off-duty police officer tried to stop them. The criminal with Brancato Jr. shot the officer, who later died. The accomplice was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole. Brancato Jr. was convicted of first-degree attempted burglary and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but received parole in 2013. Lorenzo was right, the saddest thing in life is wasted talent.
Update: Tubi TV now carries the 2018 documentary Wasted Talent: A Hollywood Tale, about Lillo Brancato, Jr.’s trials and tribulations in breaking back into Hollywood.