Picks and Pans Review: Spotlight

updated 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST


IN GET SHORTY, JOHN TRAVOLTA IS getting glowing reviews as Chili Palmer, a Miami thug—and aspiring Hollywood producer—with a knack for winning through intimidation. "Look at me," says Chili, fixing his targets with an unnerving stare.

"Basically, it works," says the real Ernest "Chili" Palmer, 58, a Brooklyn-born former loan shark—and the inspiration for Travolta's character. Palmer, who went legit 20 years ago as a private eye, now lives in Miami, where he works as a hotel security officer at the Colonnade and lives quietly with his wife, Grace, 54, and daughters Joanna, 20, and Jackie, 15.

So how did a onetime wiseguy wind up in the movies? In 1979, Shorty's creator, crime novelist Elmore Leonard, met Palmer through a mutual friend and began drawing on Chili's underworld expertise for his books. "He's a little rough around the edges," says Leonard, "but he's cool." In 1990 he based Shorty's antihero on Chili. "He loved it," says Leonard. Palmer likes the movie, too—and he's getting used to people asking about his nickname. "Somebody pegged it on me as an infant," he says. "If you said 'Chili' in my neighborhood, you knew it was me. Not like Tony. We had 80 Tonys."

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