Beyond the Bronx With Danny Aiello : The gifted--and busy--actor’s street smarts give him an edge on Broadway and in films

Danny Aiello is one of the few actors who has won an Emmy and an Obie, worked with Spike Lee and Sergio Leone and can teach you how to build a zip gun.

Relaxing in his trailer between scenes on his latest movie, the ebullient, delightfully profane actor took a page from his visitor’s note pad and sketched a scale model of his favorite Bronx boyhood weapon.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 1, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 1, 1989 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Danny Aiello--A picture in the Sept. 24 Calendar identified Aiello as in a scene from “The Preppie Murder.” The picture was actually from the upcoming feature, “Harlem Nights.”

“We used to make them in shop class,” he explained, drawing the outline of a snub-nosed zip gun. “This is where you’d put a piece of pipe . . . and here’s where the bullet would go. Then you’d put a nail behind it and hook it up to a rubber band. . . .”

Aiello beamed as he completed the drawing. “When you were ready to shoot, you’d pull back the rubber band and . . . Wham!

Without any prompting, Aiello pulled down his trousers and revealed an ugly scar on his upper thigh. “When I was 13, I got shot with one of those guns in a street gang fight,” he said proudly. “It bled like crazy.”

Is it any wonder that when film makers want an actor with street smarts, they come looking for Danny Aiello? At 50, he’s a big man with tattoos on his forearms and the athletic build of an aging boxer. As a child, he was so poor he put oil-cloth in his shoes to fill the holes. As an adult, he spent 15 years toiling for a bus company, running a union local and working as a bouncer before turning to acting in his mid-30s.


Since then, he’s played opposite everyone from Robert De Niro (in “Once Upon a Time in America”) to Cher (in “Moonstruck”), worked extensively with Woody Allen (in “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and the play “The Floating Light Bulb”) and won a Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle award for his role as a coked-up TV actor in last year’s L.A. production of “Hurlyburly.”

But the reason women are now shouting encouragement to Aiello from passing cars is his part in Spike Lee’s much-debated film, “Do the Right Thing.” The role as the embattled pizzeria owner trapped in the midst of a racial conflagration, was initially written for De Niro, Aiello modestly suggests. (“When he couldn’t do it, I believe he recommended me.”) The part has won him critical garlands and a serious shot at an Oscar nomination.

“It’s been really gratifying to get so many great reviews, and I must admit I’ve been reading ‘em all,” Aiello said. “But the best thing is to have a chance to play a character who’s in a movie that really has something to say.”

No doubt Aiello would love an Oscar nomination, but for an Italian kid from the Bronx, some honors carry more weight. “I can’t tell you how excited I am,” he confided on a recent afternoon. “I’ve been chosen to be the grand marshal in (New York’s) Columbus Day Parade.”

Nothing captures the media imagination more than a brutal murder case, especially when it involves sex, drugs, strangulation and a crowd of rich, fast-living Manhattan teen-agers. So it was inevitable that barely a year after Robert Chambers was convicted of manslaughter in the death of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin during a late-night tryst in Central Park, ABC-TV is recounting the horror in “The Preppie Murder,” a TV movie airing tonight at 9 on ABC.

With downtown Los Angeles standing in for New York’s Upper East Side, Aiello was on the set playing Mike Sheehan, the homicide detective who helped crack the case. Wearing a crisp blue suit with a shoulder holster and NYPD badge, Aiello spent most of the day shooting a scene set at the Levin apartment after they’ve received news of their daughter’s death. Standing in front of an elevator at the top of a stairwell, Aiello’s character found himself trapped between a braying pack of TV news wolves and Levin’s grieving father, who lunged at reporters with a baseball bat.

Take after take, the reporters shouted: “What was your daughter doing in Central Park?!” while Levin menacingly waved his bat, bellowing: “Stop annoying my family! I’ll kill you!”

Playing the pragmatic homicide cop, Aiello tried to soothe the father’s frazzled nerves while fending off the media horde. Finally, the reporters’ hysterical shouting triggered his own emotions. “Hey!” he exploded. “He just lost his daughter!”

“Danny has very strong feelings about this case, so he’s been very involved,” writer-director John Herzfeld said between takes. “But he’s had to keep it all in, because as a policeman, his character has to put a lid on his feelings. So he’s like a rubber band. We keep stretching him and stretching him, but we never let him break.”

The critics will have their say about the film’s authenticity, but it has at least one key supporter--Mike Sheehan himself. Before he began filming, Herzfeld got Sheehan and Aiello together at a saloon, where they stayed till 3 a.m., swapping stories.

Still, Herzfeld was worried: “I asked Mike, ‘Is it a problem, that Danny’s not Irish and he’s older than you?’ And Mike said: ‘Are you kidding? He’s perfect. He’s got the strength, the compassion. And he’s definitely got the street smarts.’ ”

(Herzfeld in turn liked Sheehan so much he cast him in the film as one of Aiello’s police superiors).

Preparing for one last take, Aiello surveyed the media mob below him, then gestured to the baseball bat-wielding actor above him. “This is a very precarious position. I’ve got these people pushing and yelling over here, and I got this guy waving a baseball bat at me.”

He laughed. “I feel like I’m in ‘Do the Right Thing’ again.”

Sitting at a sidewalk cafe on the Sunset Strip, listening to Aiello chart his unlikely odyssey from Bronx street brawler to hot Hollywood property, is a little like eavesdropping on a David Mamet seminar on American slang.

Reminiscing about playing stickball with Woody Allen on his movie sets (“we’d use broomsticks”), Aiello speaks in a colorful, obscenity-studded street patois.

Ask him about his wife--they’ve been married 35 years and wear necklaces with matching half-moon ornaments--and he’ll say with unabashed adoration: “She’s a feisty little bitch--whatever I am today is because of her.”

Ask about his mother, who used to take him to stand in potato lines during the rationing days of World War II, and he’ll say: “If she’d been a man in another life, she would’ve been the . . . Pope.”

At 6, Aiello was on the street, selling newspapers and shining GIs’ shoes at Grand Central Station. His father, a truck driver, was largely absent. “He took a hike early on,” Aiello recalled. “He had a lot of wind in him--he was very nomadic. We had seven kids in the family and we lived on pasta. You could feed the whole family on 13 cents a day. But when my father would come back, we’d have a steak. And he never had any problem eating it.”

His mother supported the family. “She ruined her eyes sewing,” he explained. “She was legally blind the last 10 years of her life. But she’d come see my Broadway plays, at least the ones where I didn’t say too many nasty words. She’d sit in the audience, up close, and you could hear her say: ‘That’s not my son. He’s just acting.’

“At intermission, the actors would say, ‘Who was that woman in the audience talking so loud?’ And I’d say, ‘That’s my mother.’ ”

In recent years New York has been wracked by racial violence, from Howard Beach to Central Park to Bensonhurst. Aiello admits having ferocious debates with Spike Lee about his character in “Do the Right Thing.” Was Sal a racist? Harking back to his childhood escapades, Aiello insists not.

“In the Bronx, we didn’t know about prejudice. We had black guys--the Sabers were an all-black gang from Prospect Ave. We had a Puerto Rican gang called the Comanches. But no one said I had to hate black people. If I called someone a nigger it was probably because someone called me a guinea.

“I had friends--my pals Mousy and Tommy Watson--who were black as the ace of spades. I went to their homes all the time. I was the kid who’d go around to the Jewish people’s homes on High Holy Days and light their ovens. They’d give me milk bottles in return, for the deposit.

“People say stupid things, but that’s not necessarily racism. When the guys at Howard Beach called someone a ‘black bastard,’ is that racism? When the kids who raped the woman in Central Park shouted, ‘Let’s get that white bitch,’ is that racism? You judge people by deeds, not by the words that come out of their mouths.”

In the National Guard at 13, married at 16, then off to the Army for three years, Aiello wound up as a public address announcer for Greyhound. He can still, effortlessly, rattle off dozens of stops along the bus route from Queens to Albany.

After running the company’s 50th Street terminal, he won a series of elective union jobs, eventually becoming head of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1202. “The union president, who I worshiped like a father, turned on me--he tried to . . . me over good.” Aiello recalled. “I got so mad I ran against him and I kicked his ass. Beat him 5 to 1.”

However, Aiello resigned after a dispute over a wildcat strike and found himself “out in the streets,” often working as a bouncer in illegal after-hours clubs. He got his show-biz break playing softball--"as a ringer"--in the Broadway Show League. Budd Friedman, the owner of the Improv and a pal from his union days, gave him a $190-a-week job as a bouncer at his club.

When Friedman wasn’t around, Aiello would emcee or do a monologue from that year’s best-seller, “The Godfather.” “I was half hoping nobody would see me and really hoping someone would come in and give me a job,” he admitted. “I didn’t know what I was doing. If one of our singers wasn’t there, I’d sing some stupid song from the ‘30s. And if someone started talking in the audience, I’d tell ‘em to shut up or I’d beat the . . . out of ‘em.”

Aiello shrugged. “I just wanted to belong. I wanted to find my niche in life. I just didn’t know where it was.”

He made his theater debut in “Lamppost Reunion,” which earned him rave reviews, and landed his first film job in “Bang the Drum Slowly,” where he tutored the film’s young star, De Niro, in the art of playing baseball. Since, he’s worked steadily, either in theater (“That Championship Season” and “The House of Blue Leaves”) and film (“The Front” and “Once Upon a Time in America”), always winning the respect of his peers.

“I think it makes a big difference that Danny has lived a real life,” said Spike Lee. “With most actors, they’ve been to acting school, they’ve been to Juilliard. That’s all they know. But Danny’s been out there. He’s lived a little.”

Aiello insists he became a good actor by observing people. “I wish I could tell you about methodology, but I don’t know anything about it,” he said, sipping an iced tea. “I never took a drama course in my life. I once went to this famous acting school and saw all these actors lying on the . . . floor, in pain before they went on stage. I just can’t see that. Acting is a . . . joy, not pain.

“I just take my personality and put it into my character. Look, I don’t drink or smoke or do drugs. But I played a drugged-out guy in ‘Hurlyburly’ and there wasn’t a person who came out of the theater who didn’t believe I was a drug addict. But I could do it because I’ve watched people like that--friends of mine who’ve had drug problems--and I studied their behavior.

“A lot of actors coming up today think they have to be dark, depressed people to get a good performance. That’s bull. You don’t have to be a sick . . . to play these people.”

Aiello laughed. “I had this theater ask me to teach an acting class. I said I could never teach--I wouldn’t know where to start. And they said, ‘Just teach the Aiello method.’ ”

Aiello shook his head in amazement. “I told ‘em, ‘What . . . method is that?’ ”

Before he started “The Preppie Murder,” Aiello worked on “Harlem Nights,” a ‘30s drama directed by Eddie Murphy which co-stars Murphy, Richard Pryor and Arsenio Hall. Aiello plays a corrupt cop working for the white mob in Harlem--or as he bluntly puts it: “I play the most despicable . . . you’ve ever seen.”

Even though Murphy was a rookie director, Aiello was impressed. “He was totally prepared, and very collaborative with his actors. Here’s a kid doing a $35- or $40-million movie and you never saw a bubble of sweat on him. There wasn’t an actor who didn’t feel safe with him.”

Aiello offered similar praise for Spike Lee: “What made it work with us was that we were fully honest and open. I told him right away that I was 300-degrees to the right of Ronald Reagan and that I love Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics. I’ll go to my death saying that Howard Beach (an incident in which a black man was killed by a group of white teens) was a turf thing, not a racial thing. Spike feels differently. He has great black pride. And I have great white pride. But we got along great.”

Aiello also has found lots of common ground with a younger generation of actors, especially the volatile Sean Penn, whom he worked with in “Hurlyburly.”

“I love him like a son,” Aiello said. “He’s a great kid. And a nice kid. If I was in combat, I’d want him in the foxhole with me.”

Aiello patted his stomach. “You know, when I was 14 I was this little skinny kid. In fact, I looked just like Sean Penn. And I tell him, ‘Sean, you’re gonna look like me when you’re my age.’ And he always groans and goes, ‘Oh, God!’ ”

Aiello attracts attention wherever he goes. While he’s munching on a salad at the Sunset Strip sidewalk cafe, he’s greeted--and praised--by least a half-dozen total strangers. When a pair of young actor chums stopped by for a chat, Aiello good-naturedly boasted: “Just ask them. It takes me three hours just to walk down one block of Columbus Avenue in New York.”

His old pal, the Improv’s Friedman, confirms this account. “He gets surrounded everywhere he goes. But he’s exactly the same guy he was when I first met him. He’s always had a big ego, but he’s got a sense of humor about it. He worked hard to be a success--and it’s really nice to see someone who knows how to enjoy it.”

Why is it so easy for Aiello to appreciate his new celebrity status?

“I think having fame come to me late in life has kept me more open,” he said. “Also I was lucky to have such a great upbringing and a great wife. Listen, I had to do some terrible things--I had to steal, I had to cut corners--just to keep a roof over my family’s head.

“So I appreciate the success I’ve had all the more. I’m happy when I get a good review. But I was also the happiest guy in the world when I was struggling and I’d come into a score that would help me pay five month’s rent.”

Schmoozing with his actor buddies, Aiello told them about a script he’d just read. The story involves an obscure hot dog vendor who achieves fame and fortune when he strikes it rich winning the lottery.

“I’d love to play that part,” Aiello said wistfully.

One of his pals, fondly eyeing him with a healthy mix of envy and admiration, told him: “But Danny, you already have.”