Chazz Palminteri on Late Bloomers and Learning to Cheat at Dice for Yonkers Joe

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A stage actor and bit player in wise-guy parts when he was pushing 40, New York–born Chazz Palminteri mounted the one-man show A Bronx Tale and parlayed its acclaim into a film adaptation alongside Robert De Niro. A year later, Palminteri was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting turn in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway. In Yonkers Joe, which opens tonight, he plays a gruff, aging cardsharp who takes his son (Tom Guiry), who has Down Syndrome, to Las Vegas for a score. Palminteri spoke with Vulture about the benefits of adult-onset fame, turning down big money, and his love for New York sports teams.

Yonkers Joe prominently features dice sleight of hand. How quickly did you take to that?
The good thing was that the director [Robert Crestino] really knew how to do it, because the character of Yonkers Joe was his father. Basically for hours and hours for three months before we shot I just worked on it, because I really wanted the audience to see me do a lot of the things. I just didn't want a bunch of cutaways. But to be really good at that stuff, and to be a hustler, it has to be like you're putting your socks on — 100 percent, there's no mess-ups. So to be really that good, I would think it would take me a couple of years.

Did you put any of these tricks into practice in the field, as it were?
No, I didn't want to get hurt. I mean, kidding around with some friends, yeah. But not playing for money or anything like that.

Tom Guiry plays your son in the film, and we learn early on that this isn't just a naïve kid with mental handicaps to overcome. This is a guy who has some substantive anger problems, and is also already a sexual creature.
Sex, for a person who has Down Syndrome, especially more like that, the Mosaic type, is an issue. And the character was based on a first cousin of the director, so he really knew how those kids act and work, and he was really true to that, which I liked.

You came to fame a bit later in life. Are you in any way grateful for that?
Oh yeah, I probably would have blown it if I would have made it earlier. Anybody who makes it under the age of 30 has a tough time. Because once you get there, now you don't have that hunger anymore, and a lot of kids lose their passion and just start focusing on the rewards — I wanna get high, I want girls, models — and that's how they end up blowing it.

Your break was A Bronx Tale, which before it became a movie was a play that you wrote and starred in. How hard was it to say, “This really means something to me, and I don't want to just sell it for money. I want to be a part of it if it becomes a film”?
The first offer was the hardest. Within a couple weeks [of the premiere], I was offered $250,000, which came from out of nowhere. That threw me, and that was the one that was the hardest for me, but once I made a decision that I wasn't going to sell it for $250,000, after that it just became numbers to me: 500, 750, one million. People thought I was crazy, literally. People actually said to me, “You're gonna blow it, you're gonna be a footnote.” And then De Niro saw it, and the rest is history, as they say.

Do you still get taunted by people about Keyser Soze?
I get people saying to me, “Where's Keyser Soze — did you ever find him?” And I also get people saying, “Now you can't leave,” and, “Throw him in the bathroom,” and all that.

So: Jets or Giants?
Oh, I love the Giants! I'm Giants, Yankees, Rangers, all of that — strictly a New York guy. And the Knicks too, of course.

Well, maybe in another year or two there.
[Laughs] Yeah, it's gonna take a couple more years.

So where do you come out on the Stephon Marbury dilemma, then?
Well, obviously, for whatever reason, they just can't make it work with him. It's baffling, a guy who's that great. But I hope he finds his peace.