Danny Aiello is the kind of beloved actor who slips into roles as if they were a worn pair of shoes --- comfortably, with grace and no discernible effort. This chameleon-like quality resonates in his real life, a theme he explores in his recent memoir, I ONLY KNOW WHO I AM WHEN I AM SOMEBODY ELSE. In it, he reveals what is obvious to those who know him: his heart, his passion and his guts. Here, Lorenzo Carcaterra, bestselling author and Danny's cousin, shares a close account of Danny's amazing life. From living hand-to-mouth on the rough streets of New York City to his illustrious on- and off-screen career, Danny certainly has overcome some amazing odds. Lorenzo reveals the surprisingly sensitive man behind the legend, a true fighter whose path lies along a Samuel Beckett quote.
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 him 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; by the age of 17, he 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, Danny 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, 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 when you come from the streets, only one rule applies: Take care of the ones who 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.
Danny is 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 fans 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 and 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, they 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, which led to acting jobs in many of his best-known plays, including “Lamppost Reunion.” He played baseball in the Broadway show league in Central Park, which 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, 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 the stellar cast of the Oscar-winning Moonstruck. And, thanks to his daughter Stacey’s positive reaction, he 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.” He has appeared in close to 100 feature films in all --- including The Professional, the beautiful Once Around, the classic Once Upon a Time in America, Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo --- and co-starred with Richard Pryor in Harlem Nights, Bruce Willis in Hudson Hawk and Al Pacino in City Hall. And now, added to the packed TV, movie and Broadway résumé, is a string of CDs that ranges 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 on December 23rd in New York City). We are 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. He loves his kids (Rick, Jaime, Stacey and Danny III); his wife, Sandy; his grandchildren; and 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.