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.
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 or something.
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 like Michelangelo.
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 their bikes.
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 stunt work?
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 film.
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 things.
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 extradited.
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.