Hell's real-life angel
On Feb. 6, 1998, Chuck Zito answered a question asked
by everyone who's ever watched an action flick: Are tough guys in
the movies as tough as tough guys in real life? On Feb. 6, 1998,
Chuck Zito beat the tar out of Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Zito is the real-life ex-con Hell's Angel, stuntman
and celebrity bodyguard who plays Chuckie Pancamo on HBO's prison
drama, Oz. Actually, he doesn't so much play Chuckie;
he mostly acts like he lives -- honest, loyal, and ferociously devoted
to a code of honor that knows no gray areas. In life and in Oz,
you're either with Chuck or against him.
Back to that February night at Scores, a swanky strip
club on Manhattan's East Side beloved by both John Gotti Jr. and
Howard Stern. Van Damme was hanging out with Mickey Rourke and Zito,
who'd guarded both actors in the past. Rourke left the table and
Van Damme started running his mouth about Zito not having any "heart."
There remains some dispute about whether one or two punches were
thrown. There is no dispute about who threw the punches and who
hit the floor like a sack of potatoes. Muscles from Brussels couldn't
match Muscles from New Rochelle, just outside the Bronx.
These days, if you go to the Chelsea Market on 9th
Avenue, you might be startled to discover an entire prison within
-- the soundstage to Oz. This interview took place as he
took a lunch break during the show's fourth season.
Q: How'd you make the transition from stunts to acting?
My first movie was Dead Ringer (1991) with
18 other motorcycle guys. Meat Loaf was the gang leader. We all
wore tuxedos with "Meat Loaf" patches on the back.
What'd you get paid?
Whatever scale was that day. Got my S.A.G. card in
1979, for stunts. I'm 47, as of March 1.
What do you invest in?
Cars mostly. I have a '57 Chevy, had it for 25 years.
For the last three years, it's been in Brewster, N.Y., getting a
ground-up restoration. Took the 283 motor out, put a 454 in. I'll
put it in movies, commercials. I have a Mustang GT. My everyday
car is a Mercury Grand Marquis. I also have 4 motorcycles, all Harleys.
Two of 'em are mine, two are Mickey Rourke's, including the original
bike from Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. Did you see
Bullet? Mickey looked like Arnold in Bullet. Right
now he's doing a movie with Sean Penn and Jack Nicholson, and he
just finished a movie with Stallone. He should have been a De Niro
Every time I hear you on Howard Stern, some joker
calls in to tell you he could kick your butt. Is it awful to have
to prove yourself again and again?
It gets played out. It comes with the territory of
beating up Jean-Claude and my character on Oz. I play the
head of the Italians and run the prison. In real life, I'm the nicest
guy I know. I'm just getting out of a relationship -- 28 years of
marriage. To Kathy. My daughter Lisa is a lawyer at Conde Nast.
So are you rich?
I should have a lot more money than I do. I invest
in stocks sometimes, whatever I get a tip on. I use a broker. Once
in a blue moon, I invest in stocks. If I win, great. If I lose,
I'm a sore loser.
I put most of my money in my home. I just finished;
it took me nine years. Transformed wood frame shingles to stone
and brick. I did a lot of the work myself, with a lot of friends.
We remodeled, gutted every room. Put marble, mirrors everywhere.
I have a $6,000 mural of the birth of Venus painted in my bathroom.
When you're sitting in the Jacuzzi, you look up and it's all you
see. I built a scaffold, and this girl was up there for 2 months
Don't you paint, too?
I used to paint cars and motorcycles. Built 'em all
myself. With what little time I have, I still do. That's how I first
met the Hell's Angels, at the gym on Gramercy Street. I'd paint
How do the Hell's Angels work? How'd you get to be
president of the New York Nomads charter?
Every charter has its own offices. They vote on you.
You don't make money for the club, and they don't make money for
you. Some guys are mechanics, some guys are painters, I happen to
be an actor.
What are the dues?
Dues depend. $15-25 per week. It pays for runs and
beer and food. You rent a hall. Every year, every Hell's Angel in
the United States meets. To meet new members.
Do you have representation?
I've done over 60 movies and never had an agent. I
do it all by word-of-mouth, they call me. This year I'm going to
get an agent; it's getting too crazy.
What are you working on now?
In June, we're filming a pilot. It's called Street
Court and I'm the judge. Instead of robes, I'll administer street
justice. I'll wear my long leather duster. I'll have bikes around
me. Say some guy's abusing his kid. I'll be like, "you're my size,
abuse me." Or some idiots have an argument and they're going back
and forth for 20 minutes, I'll say, "OK, get in the ring." It'll
be Jerry Springer, Judge Mills Lane and Sex Court in one.
We're filming the pilot in June.
That's the best pitch I've ever heard.
Here's where the guy, Howard Cohen, came up with the
concept. Me and A.J. Benza and the guy from Perfect 10 magazine
are on Howard Stern. You know how girls come on and strip and get
evaluated whether they could be in Playboy or Penthouse
or Hustler? So we're tearing this girl apart evaluating
her, and it turns out she didn't even want to be there, but her
boyfriend made her do it to publicize HIS Web site. I saw the guy
in the hall and I said, "I ought to smack you around for that."
Howard Cohen saw that and said, that should be a show. He called
HBO and the Screen Actors Guild to find me, and said I wrote this
show around you.
I'm struck by the sense of justice you bring to your
whole persona, on the show and just talking to you now.
I never tried to pick a fight with anyone. It was
always for a reason.
Obviously, you're a weightlifter and willing to fight.
But how come you're as tough as you are?
I've trained in six styles of martial arts.
Have you ever fought for money? I'd think with Ultimate
Fighting and these Toughman things, you'd clean up.
My father was a professional boxer in the '30s and
'40s. He had 228 fights, only 12 losses. My father fought for 12
years and was never knocked out. He'd fight for $10 a fight. Those
guys were tough in them days, the Jews, the Italians, the Irish.
They'd fight for $10 a fight, 2-3 times a week, twice a night sometimes.
Now they fight once a year for $10 million a year. My father retired
from fighting at 28.
I fought 4 times in Golden Gloves in New York City,
but never trained enough to turn pro. I got married when I was 17.
So what'd you do for money before bodyguarding and
I used to be a refrigeration mechanic. Went to school
for that and got hired by Finest Supermarket. Then I worked for
Five Towns refrigeration; we'd repair all the Gristede's and A&P
coolers, and I had my own route and my own truck. Then I happened
to start the stunt work, met the Hell's Angels and it changed my
life. I started my own bodyguard business, was Liza Minelli's bodyguard
for 10 years. Charlie Sheen, Michael Jackson, Sylvester Stallone,
Mickey Rourke, many more.
What does a bodyguard make?
All bodyguards have their own rates. If you go away
with the client on a film, you make anywhere from $100 an hour to
$5,000 a week.
Is it dangerous? What do you do?
If Liza's at a show 10 or 15 nights in a row, she's
there every night at the same time, so you worry about stalkers.
I'd go in ahead of time and check things out. Most of the time it's
crowd control, making sure the fans don't hurt them or grab them
for a souvenir.
Now that you're acting, do you miss bodyguarding?
I still keep in touch. If Sean Penn calls me, I'll
go to work. He's a real nice guy, known him for years. Charlie Sheen,
one of the most generous guys I've ever met. I call him "E" for
Elvis because he buys things and gives them away.
Given your reputation, I wonder if you've been asked
to do jobs for actual organized crime outfits.
I have friends in ALL walks of life, but no one's
ever approached me to be the enforcer. I play that on TV. Funny
story: My character is Chuckie Pancamo. When I came in, his name
was Sam Pancamo -- they changed it to Chuckie. I guess they were
afraid for my acting ability, that I wouldn't answer to Sam.
What are the economics of the new show, since it's
written specifically for you?
I'll own a piece of the show, and I'll be one of the
producers. They're having meetings with people now, and people are
so interested they might make it directly without even a pilot.
And you have other business interests, right?
In July, I'm coming out with my own exercise video.
I'll produce it and direct it. I'll show you how I eat, train, diet.
Like Volume 1, boxing, 2 wrestling, 3 martial arts. One for housewives,
'you don't need all this expensive equipment. I'll come out and
do my stuff, then go right to the subway and show a guy attacking
you with a knife. 'I'm Chuck Zito, some of you know me from Oz
or Howard Stern. A belt only holds up your pants. Welcome to Chuck
Zito's street survival.'
I'll be an owner of the company. And have creative
input. They'll come out with Chuck Zito Street Wear. Also, I was
just approached by a company that wants to do my life story as a
Tell me about prison.
Six years incarcerated; the charge was that I made
a telephone call to somebody who was selling a ton of methamphetamine.
They wanted me to become a rat and an informer, when I didn't they
locked me up. I was in Japan working for Jon Bon Jovi, doing bodyguard.
I was in prison from 1985-1990.
Chuck, I'm kind of a wimpy, cowardly guy, and I've
always wondered what would happen to me if I went to prison. Is
it possible to just sort of keep to oneself and quietly read in
a corner somewhere without being bothered?
Jail's jail and people know who to pick on. If you
don't stand up for yourself, you get abused. If you keep to yourself
and mind your business, you can be by yourself. But the second anyone
messes with you, you have to go crazy and show them you'll fight
if you have to. A lot of guys get abused because they're weak. Different
cliques run the whole place -- the phone, the TVs.
It happens. Not every day. It's there. Oz is
based on real life. It's very organized in prison. You have all
your cliques, just like in Oz, certain people run certain
With me, they broke my balls -- 19 different prisons
in 5 years. I had never made a phone call, they never had me on
tape. They denied me bail three times, calling me a risk of flight.
I said, "How can I be a flight risk when I surrendered 10,000 miles
away?" And I'd already spent four months in a Japanese prison, under
lockdown 23 hours a day, not knowing the language, waiting to be
I came back to the U.S. and after I surrendered, three
different judges denied me bail. They said, "Where are all the celebrities
getting drugs? I said, "I don't smoke, drink, I never did a drug
in my life. I go home to my family every night. It's not my business
where they get stuff." They offered me new identities, cars, money.
And I said, in a nice way, no way.
They said, "You're not going to go to trial for two
years. Take the plea and we'll sentence you to time served." They
raided my home when I was in Japan -- took my wife and daughter
out of bed with shotguns.
I took the plea and had bail the next day. Proof that
they didn't really think I was a flight risk. I went two months
later to get my time-served sentence. I had 30 people in the court
-- my mom, family, Paul Herman (Goodfellas, Mighty Aphrodite,
Beansy on The Sopranos), Danny Aiello -- I had 30 reservations
in a restaurant because I was supposed to walk out of there. The
judge gave me 10 years. I said, "You got the wrong guy, I was supposed
to get time served." He said, "You got that in writing?"
So jail for the next five years. Got my hand broken
by two Colombians over a phone call. I beat them both up eventually.
And they put you in 19 different prisons? To make
it hard to see your family?
That's not why. It's because every time you go to
a new prison you're the new kid on the block, and you have to fight.
I got out in 1990, and Sean Penn gave me a job the next day. I went
back and did my bodyguard biz, did stunt work and in 1995, I started
acting. These guys act like I do every day.
So how did you get the Oz gig?
I went to see "Only in America," the Don King story.
Fifteen minutes into it, the projector breaks. My friend introduced
me to Tom Fontana (the producer of Oz). The next day I went
to read, and two weeks later I got the part.
I've avoided asking you about Scores, but I know from
my few little fights how fun it is to rehash them blow by blow.
Last words on that one?
It's amazing how many people ask at Scores if I'm
there. People from Moscow came just to meet me. They had their own
interpreter. They said Jean-Claude had been the biggest thing in
Moscow. Now they wanted to meet me.
Chuck wants people to know readers to know that he
doesn't own a computer but still has a great Web site: chuckzito.com.
-- Posted: July 13, 2000