The Big Picture

  • Robert De Niro directed
    A Bronx Tale,
    based on Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical story.
  • The film honors the gangster genre with a blend of nostalgia and the brutal realities of a criminal lifestyle.
  • The story revolves around a boy’s relationships with his hardworking father and a crime boss mentor.

After years of being Martin Scorsese‘s closest on-screen collaborator, Robert De Niro decided to make a Martin Scorsese film of his own. Frequently lauded as the greatest actor of his generation, De Niro defined an era of filmmaking with his uncanny ability to immerse himself in roles and portray the underbelly of humanity with his performances in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. The actor’s 1993 directorial debut, A Bronx Tale, apes the formal and thematic traits of Scorsese’s celebrated gangster films, notably Mean Streets and Goodfellas. While it’s difficult not to draw parallels between the two, De Niro’s film was no pure imitation, but rather, an autobiographical source, as the film was based on the childhood experiences of De Niro’s co-star Chazz Palminteri. Between its actor-director, De Niro, and his co-star, Palminteri, A Bronx Tale tells a familiar crime sagafilled with personal expression and touching nostalgia.


A Bronx Tale

An intense drama about a boy torn between his tough, hard-working father and a violent yet charismatic crime boss.

Release Date
September 29, 1993


Main Genre

‘A Bronx Tale’ Is an Autobiographical Story by Writer Chazz Palminteri

A Bronx Tale is based on a Broadway show of the same name by Chazz Palminteri, who wrote and performed the stage play as a one-man show. The story, based on Palminteri’s youth growing up in the Bronx, follows a young Italian-American, Calogero (Francis Capra as a 9-year-old, Lillo Brancato Jr. as a 17-year-old), torn between his allegiances to his upstanding, working-class father, Lorenzo (De Niro), and a local Mafia boss, Sonny (Palminteri), who acts as a surrogate father to him in his teens. Everything changed for Calogero, or “C,” as Sonny calls him, when he witnessed the mobster shoot a man in the middle of broad daylight. Sonny, appreciative of his refusal to cooperate with the police, takes Calogero under his wing, to the chagrin of his father, a bus driver protecting his son from the dangers of the streets.

When Palminteri was 9 years old, he watched a local mobster kill someone with his own eyes. The sequences following the mob shooting in the film reflect Palminteri’s real life: his father dragging him away from the crime, refusing to “rat” on the wiseguy, and the symbiotic bond instantaneously formed with the mobster. Struggling to find steady work, Palminteri opted to write a role for himself that was true to life. He explained to the AV Club in 2016 that A Bronx Tale centered around the shooting, and he gradually expanded the play into a story about his coming-of-age. After becoming a hit one-man show on Broadway, offers swarmed in for the rights to a film adaptation, but Palminteri consistently declined offers, demanding that he write the screenplay and portray Sonny — almost an identical parallel to Sylvester Stallone‘s rise to fame, as the Rocky creator balked at any offer that didn’t allow him to play the boxer on screen.

How Robert De Niro and Chazz Palminteri Agreed To Adapt ‘A Bronx Tale’

One night, Palminteri’s rags-to-riches story became complete. Robert De Niro attended one of his shows, and he just so happened to be waiting for him in the dressing room. “This is one of the greatest one-man shows I’ve ever seen, if not the greatest,” De Niro told Palminteri after finishing his show. He insisted that this was prime material for a feature film, offering his services to direct a film adaptation. Best of all, De Niro assured Palminteri that he would pen the screenplay and portray Sonny. Evoking the streetwise code that formed the young Palminteri, the two did not sign a formal contract. All they needed was a firm handshake to cement this partnership.

Palminteri’s autobiographical roots are evident in A Bronx Tale, but for De Niro, the story also touched upon personal feelings. Celebrating its 30th anniversary at the actor’s own Tribeca Festival, De Niro candidly expressed disappointment in the film’s underwhelming box office returns, as it compromised his chances to direct in the future (The Good Shepherd being his only other directing effort). Despite his frustrations, he was proud that the film garnered a following, and he remains fond of his work. Appearing as a guest with De Niro, Palminteri recalled the pivotal moment when the two met in the dressing room, demonstrating De Niro’s emphatic assurance to him that he would be playing Sonny. “‘If you make it with me, I’ll make it fuckin’ right,'” Palminteri recalled what De Niro said to him. As a story about a father and a son, A Bronx Tale certainly touched home for De Niro, whose father, Robert De Niro Sr., passed away a few months before the film’s release. The film is dedicated in his honor.

‘A Bronx Tale’ Is a Unique Spin on the Gangster Genre

With its close attention to period detail and reminiscent tone, A Bronx Tale offers a sweeter touch to the gangster genre. De Niro honors the film’s stage origins by restricting its setting to Calogero’s block in the Bronx. Even amid the hardships and hostile racial tension of the period, any neighborhood can be romanticized with just a hint of nostalgia. With a doo-wop soundtrack and frequent references to the New York Yankees dynasty, A Bronx Tale is a reminiscent film, but it doesn’t hide from the brutal realities of organized crime and its impact on the community. De Niro and Palminteri unflinchingly depict the inevitable violence of organized crime, and the rampant racism of the mafia undermines any sense of nobility from these outlaws, but because of its autobiographical roots, the film can never shake its romantic sentimentality, for better or worse.

The film’s namesake evokes the sentiment of a modern fairy tale. For the two principal authors of the film, their heroes are the dual father figures with polarizing backgrounds mentoring Calogero during his youth. Lorenzo and Sonny represent traits that young men in the 1960s ought to attain: Lorenzo’s integrity and Sonny’s independence and defiance. His biological father, Lorenzo, insists to him that the working class are the “tough guys,” and not wiseguys like Sonny. His surrogate father, Sonny, teaches him how to be a gentleman with women. He imparts him with the “door test,” a litmus test that indicates whether a potential romantic partner is selfless enough to reach over and hit the button to unlock the car door on the driver’s side. The film expresses admiration for both sides of the economic and social class, just like Calogero, who uses the positive qualities of both sides in his growth to adulthood.

For its writer and star, Chazz Palminteri, A Bronx Tale is an extension of his youth. While the personal connections aren’t quite as vibrant for director and star Robert De Niro, the film’s nostalgic tone and affection for parental mentorship make it feel like a splice of life nonetheless. The personal touch elevates De Niro’s directorial debut from merely a karaoke cover of Martin Scorsese’s gangster pictures, and his partnership with Palminteri shows the kinship that can arise from artistic collaboration.

A Bronx Tale is available to rent on Prime Video in the U.S.

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