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.