Chazz Palminteri is a wise man.
The Oscar-nominated actor, 57, sat down with me one snowy day in NYC to talk about his movie Yonkers Joe, which is in theaters now. The gambling flick tells the story of a father and a disabled child, and demonstrates the lengths he will go to care for his son.
Chazz certainly knows about family. He has been married to wife Gianna since 1992, and the couple have two children, Dante, 13, and Gabriella, 7.
In this interview, he opens up about his family, his marriage, his famous costars Shia LeBeouf and Usher – and why his children must go to college.
In this movie, all you need is money to fix your problems. In real life, how does money change things?
Money changes a lot of things. There’s a misconception. Money can’t make you happy, but it definitely makes you comfortable. It brings independence.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve overcome, and how did you get over it?
Being lazy. There was a point in my career where I got lazy, and I got over it by realizing that if I got lazy, things are not going to happen for me. Finally one day I went forth and I said ‘I’ve gotta change my life around’ and I wrote A Bronx Tale. That’s what did it.
Until then, I would spin my wheels a lot. I would go to class, but I wasn’t working as hard as I could’ve worked. People can work a lot harder than they really work. The real sin in mankind is laziness because so many people can be so much than they are. That’s why I wrote A Bronx Tale. The saddest thing in life is wasted time.
You have two children, Dante, 13, and Gabriella, 7. What are they into these days?
My kids love sports, but they also love show business. My son likes to play guitar and piano. He’s like a rock star. He also loves acting. So does my daughter – she loves singing and acting. I have two kids here who want to be in the business. That’s OK – I’ll help them as much as I can, and then it’s up to them to decide whether they want to do it.
They have to go to college. Once they graduate college, they can do whatever they want, but they can never do drugs. If you fool around with drugs, sooner or later you will go down.
Why is college important to you?
That’s an absolute rule. You’ve gotta graduate from college. It will give them a well-roundedness that you need in dealing with people. Anytime you get an education – the discipline of an education, and what you have to do to get it – I think helps you as you get older.
How has fatherhood changed you?
Fatherhood has changed me. It’s made me more responsible. It’s not just me I have to worry about. It’s not just me and my wife – it’s these kids that walk around and look at you and go ‘daddy, what’s up? What’s going on dad? Are you going to pay for my college? Can I have a car? Can I have this? Can I have that?’ You can’t let them down.
In life – and people might disagree with me on this – but I feel if you’re a failure as a father, I think that’s hard to take. If you’re a success in all of your life but you’re a failure as a father, that’s a real big knock on you.
How do you keep your family close when you’re shooting in far-flung locations?
I take them on the weekends. They fly in, or recently there was a month where I didn’t see them. But I talked to them twice or three times a day.
You’ve been married for 16 years to Gianna. What is the secret to a happy marriage?
Not to get bored with each other. To really try to keep it fresh. It’s very easy to get complacent. And to remember the things you love about your wife. Those are the things that are easy to forget. You know the things that you hate about your wife. And I’m sure she knows the things that she hates about me because she lives with it every day. But try to remember the things that you love. That’s important.
What do you like to do together?
We go skiing. I don’t ski, but we go skiing and I watch them ski. I get nervous to go skiing because I can’t get hurt because of the movies and the plays I do. But I love that they love to ski and they love to swim. I do that. In the summer, we go to the beach house on Long Beach Island and go swimming and surfing. That’s fun.
Last romantic thing you did for her?
I think I made her dinner.
Are you a good cook?
I’m a good cook of certain things. Certain things I can cook really well like sauce, chicken. Like four or five things. After that, I’m not that great.
Your In The Mix costar Usher recently welcomed his second son. Any well-wishes?
I know Usher, and he’s a very talented man. A good person, and he’s very smart. I think the advice I can give to him is keep doing the right thing and keep doing what you’re doing because he’s a good guy. He follows the rules in life, and I think when you follow the rules, all bets are off. Only success will come.
You also worked with Shia LeBeouf in A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints. How is he doing?
I haven’t spoken to him lately, but I ran into him at a Yankee game. He came out and we were talking. He’s a wonderful guy – really terrific. Just a great actor. He’s a young actor with a lot of chops. He’s got a lot of weight for an actor at that age. I saw that right away when he did A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints. He was only 18, 19 at the time. He’s a terrific kid. He’s really good with his instrument. I wish him nothing but the best. He’s a wonderful boy.
What might surprise us about him?
That he’s such a good kid. He’s really a good kid. Sometimes at that age you can be a big star like he is and get full of yourself, but he’s a good kid.
Anything else you want to mention?
I really want people to see Yonkers Joe because it’s such a great film. It’s a great story. It’s a real father and son story. And it’s a heist movie, but it’s really about a father and son and about how these two people really redeem each other.
Again, with all the special needs kids out there, I think parents who have special needs kids – and parents who don’t know anything about special needs kids – should see this movie.
Yonkers Joe is in theaters now.