DANNY AIELLO TOOK the hard road to success,
never giving up on a career path that, from where he began, truly seemed
nothing less than an impossible journey to complete.
He was born in the railroad apartment tenements that
dominated the area where Lincoln Center stands today in New York City.
It was a hand-to-mouth, week-to-week existence where every nickel and
dime of table money was never wasted. His mother was the steady force
that kept Danny and his sisters fed and in clothes, working hardscrabble
jobs, doing all she could to keep her family afloat, even in the most
desperate of times. His father was only an occasional presence and even
less of a provider and Danny learned to hustle work at an age when most
boys would prefer to be playing games.
By the time he was nine, Danny was shining shoes in
Grand Central Station and from there ran numbers for local bookies and
learned how to play pool well enough to leave the hall with a few extra
dollars in his pockets.
Those last two jobs can often lead to trouble, the kind
that ends with handcuffs slapped on thin wrists and a judge waiting to
impose a sentence. Danny skipped that step and chose an Army uniform
instead and by the age of 17 was stationed in Germany and playing
baseball for a military team. Along the way, the family left Manhattan
tenements for ones in the Bronx and Danny caught his first bit of
luck—meeting and marrying the love of his life, Sandy. The marriage is
now over 60 years solid with no signs of a let-up.
Through a family connection, he landed a job with
Greyhound as a luggage handler and while he liked the physical part of
the job, the meager paycheck didn’t offer much hope for a promising
future. But Danny was born to work and bred to hustle and before long he
was elected President of the 1,200-member union Local 1202 of Greyhound,
the youngest member and the first non-driver to hold that position. It
lasted two-years, a called wildcat strike cost him the title and the job
and he was forced once again to turn to the streets for a living.
In his terrific memoir—I ONLY KNOW WHO I AM WHEN I AM
SOMEBODY ELSE (Gallery Books)—he recalls that low point: “Where was I in
my life? I can give it to you in one word: nowhere. I was flat broke
with no job, never knowing where my next nickel was coming from.”
He then turned down a dark path that, if his luck had
turned any darker, could have easily led to a prison stretch. He did
what needed to be done to feed a growing family of four kids and a wife.
Not anything to be proud of, but remember when you come from the streets
only one rule applies—take care of the ones that count on you the most.
He was a thief, small-time, cracking open cigarette machines for pocket
change and small safes for short-end money. To be blunt, he was good
enough not to get caught. His idea of cracking open a safe was by
throwing it out a window. “When you’re desperate, you just do, you don’t
even stop to think about it,” he says now.
He’s sitting in a Chelsea restaurant, enjoying a late
afternoon lunch, sitting across from his dear friend, Lou, and me. He
has a smile that can light up a room and the people at the tables around
him all nod and glance in his direction. You see Danny Aiello anywhere
and you just feel good. He’s not one of those celebrities who brush
aside autograph-seekers or those who want a photo. He doesn’t go looking
for it, but if someone stops him, he takes the time to thank him or her
and the encounter almost always ends with a hug.
He’s a lifetime away from those days as a second-story
man. It was a job as a bouncer at the comedy club the Improv that paved
the way for Danny Aiello to emerge from a life in the shadows to one in
the spotlight. Owner Budd Friedman gave Danny a free hand, seeing
something in him, the same way he was able to spot the talented ones
among the comics who worked his stage. He let Danny emcee a few nights a
week, sing a few songs, tell a few jokes. In between, he also knocked
some heads if it was called for. As a rule, few actors can fight in real
life. They can play tough on screen, but off-screen, one-on-one can’t
handle themselves if things turn to tough. Danny isn’t one of those
actors. He grew up a fighter and if pushed, even today, would be better
than even money to come out of the scrap with a knockout win. He’s a
fighter in all respects and like the best of them learned one lesson
very early on—never give up.
And Danny never did. Along the way, bad luck turned to
good fortune. He became friendly with writer Louis LaRusso while working
at the Improv and that led to acting jobs in many of his best-know
plays, including “Lamppost Reunion.” He played baseball in the Broadway
show league in Central Park and that led to a role in his first movie,
“Bang the Drum Slowly.” And, before anyone knew it, the shy kid from the
cold-water tenements who had never taken an acting class in his life was
working on Broadway and in the movies and on television.
He worked steady and each role led to bigger and better
roles: He improvised a line in “Godfather, Part II” (“Michael Corleone
says hello” and turned a non-speaking part into a speaking one), worked
with Paul Newman in “Fort Apache: the Bronx” (filming near his old
neighborhood); took down an Academy Award nomination in Spike Lee’s “Do
the Right Thing” and was part of a stellar cast of the Oscar-winning
“Moonstruck.” And thanks to his daughter Stacey’s positive reaction
appeared in Madonna’s now-famous “Papa Don’t Preach” MTV video.
On TV, he starred as “The Last Don” and in his own CBS
series, “Dellaventura.” Close to 100 feature films in all—from “The
Professional” to the beautiful “Once Around” to the classic “Once Upon a
Time in America” to Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo” to
co-starring with Richard Pryor in “Harlem Nights,” Bruce Willis in
“Hudson Hawk” and Al Pacino in “City Hall.” And now, added to the packed
TV and movie and Broadway resume, a string of CD’s that range from
Christmas songs to standards—each one hitting the Billboard charts.
There has been so much success. “I started acting at
such a late age, in my 30s,” he tells me. “I never dreamed I would end
up working with the actors and directors whose names I used to read
about in the papers. I never thought I’d be on a Broadway stage, let
alone be in hit shows like ‘Gemini’ and ‘The House of Blue Leaves.’ It’s
been an amazing time and I consider myself very fortunate to have been
able to work with all these terrific people.”
Along the road to success, there has been, as there
sadly so often is, tragedy. In 2010, Danny and Sandy lost one of their
sons, top-tier stunt coordinator Danny III to pancreatic cancer. It was
a hard blow, the effects of which will never wear off, no matter how
tough and resilient a man is. “He was much loved by everyone,” Danny
says, his voice low, his warm eyes not able to hide the sadness. “Ask
anyone who knew him, worked with him, he was a great kid. You keep the
memories alive and keep them close. You celebrate the good times and
never forget them.”
I have known Danny for so many years and have watched
him grow from a bit player to a major star to a singer working in front
of packed rooms (he’ll be at Stage 72 December 23 in New York City).
We’re related—cousins—and have watched each other’s career progress with
pride, some humor and the occasional tear across the decades. His voice
cracked when he spoke of my wife, Susan, who lost her own battle with
cancer last Christmas Eve. “That disease,” he says with a shake of his
head. “I’d love to kick the shit out of that disease.”
He never stops working—an off-Broadway run in
“The Shoemaker”; a strong string of independent movies (“Dinner Rush,”
“29th Street”—his favorite movie); hitting the road with his band and
recording songs, never afraid to take risks, always up for the challenge
(his album “Bridges,” features him singing with Hip-hop artist Hasan).
Danny Aiello is a big man with a big heart and a
deep well of talent. Loves his kids—Rick, Jaime, Stacey and Danny III;
his wife, Sandy; his grandchildren; and his Maltese, Sofie Belle, the
toughest and cutest Maltese in the Tri-State area.
He has walked down many hard and dark roads and could
have quit at so many points along the way, surrendered to the weight
life often tosses on the backs of those born without much of a break.
But he never did quit.
In the book, he quotes a line from Samuel Beckett that
has helped shape his philosophy of life. “You must go on,” Beckett
wrote. “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Danny Aiello will go on.
He will always go on.
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