BRONX AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY PROJECT
INTERVIEWER: Mark Naison, Oneka LaBennett
INTERVIEWEE: Dominic Chianese
SUMMARY BY: Patrick O’Donnell
Keywords: Bronx native, Bronx Science High School, Arthur Ave, Italian immigrants, SUNY Champlain, singing, acting,
Dominic Chianese is a Bronx native and a well-known actor and singer. He was born 2/24/1931 in the Bronx. His paternal grandfather was from Naples, Italy, and his mother’s side was from near Sorrento. He was raised in the Arthur Avenue neighborhood, and attended public school. Most of his classmates were Italian, although there were some Jewish and Hispanic children as well. Despite the fact that Chianese had German, Irish, Italian, and French-Canadian friends while growing up, the Italian and African-American communities were quite separate: he didn’t know any African-Americans until he went to college. Music, sports, and school were a large part of Chianese’s childhood. He played the violin, sang in groups with his friends, played a number of sports, and he was an excellent student. He was admitted to the selective Bronx Science high school, where about 80% of his classmates were Jewish. After graduating, he worked off and on for his father, who was a stonemason, and began to think about pursuing singing as a serious career. Two years later he went to SUNY Champlain (now SUNY Plattsburgh) for college. Although he had always been encouraged to sing while growing up and had already had a number of gigs, he fully developed the intention to sing as a career in college. He was part of an all-male a cappella group. Unfortunately, SUNY Champlain was closed down to serve as soldier’s barracks during the Korean War, and Chianese never earned his bachelor’s degree. Later on, Chianese learned about African-American and rock music, and he began to play the guitar. He worked on Broadway for a while, where he met his first wife. He joined a Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire company and toured the US singing G and S operettas. However, he did not get his big break until he was 68 years old, when he played Junior on The Sopranos. In the past, he supported himself via a number of odd jobs and sporadic performances. In the 60’s, he attended night school at Brooklyn College, met his second wife, and gradually got turned on to acting. His first role was in Thurber’s “The Male Animal,” and he toured the United States and Canada as part of the company. Combining his love of singing and acting, he held down a job as the emcee of Folk City in the Village from 1964-1971. He had earned a BA in Speech and Theater from Brooklyn College, and he taught elementary school in Bed Stuy for a few years. However, he felt handcuffed by the curriculum, since innovation was discouraged, including his attempts to get the children involved in drama and music. Today, Chianese looks upon his part in The Sopranos as his finest role, and is very proud of it. He has a great deal to say about the way in which the arts and bring communities together, and he is committed to using this unifying power of art in all aspects of his life.