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Actor Danny Aiello has appeared in more than 85 films, including “Moonstruck” and “Godfather II.” He received an Academy Award nomination for his role as the embattled pizzeria owner Sal in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” But Aiello never had any formal acting training. In a new memoir, Aiello says he has always felt like an outsider in Hollywood. Born in the 1930s, Aiello grew up one of seven children in the tenements of New York City and worked as a shoeshine boy and pool hustler. Aiello fell into acting while working as a bouncer at “The Improv” comedy club. Join Diane for a conversation with actor Danny Aiello about his life and career.
- Danny Aiello actor. He has appeared in more than 85 films, including "Moonstruck" and "Do The Right Thing", a role which earned him an Academy Award nomination.
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MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. One of actor Danny Aiello's first memories is visiting his father in prison in New York City. Later, as a young man, Aiello found himself following a similar path, working for the local mob and then robbing businesses in the south Bronx. In a new memoir, he reflects on this childhood and how acting saved him from a life of crime. The title of this new book is "I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else."
MS. DIANE REHMDanny Aiello joins me in the studio. You can watch a live video stream of the program at our website, drshow.org. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Danny Aiello, what a pleasure to meet you.
MR. DANNY AIELLOIt's my pleasure being here with you.
AIELLOThank you, Diane.
REHMDanny, I was so struck by reading about your visits to your dad in prison. You were how old?
AIELLOMy mother took me to The Tombs in New York City, which is the place they generally take prisoners until such time they send them out to Rikers Island. My father, apparently, at the time, had did something, a hijacking of a truck and my mother -- I had no idea this had taken place. My mother said, come on. I went with her. And naturally, I couldn't go up to see him in the prison. I was left in the vestibule with a police officer until my mother completed her visit with my father.
AIELLOShe comes down and she takes my hand and we walk outside to the sidewalk and she said, look up. And I looked up and saw nothing and she said, step out into the street. She took my hand, took me out, I looked up and I saw a flash of light. It was a Zippo lighter. My father -- it was an indication of him being in the window and allowing me to know that he was there. She said, that's your father, and we went home and that was it. My father was like -- I think it's important, Diane, at the beginning to know that we loved our father.
AIELLOAnd I think that was primarily because my mom never bad-mouthed him. He was never home. He came home maybe one day a year, twice a year and so we really didn't know my father that much, but she never bad-mouthed him. And for that reason, I think our love continued to grow for a long period of time. We thought that absentee father was what it was. We thought everyone had the same thing.
REHMAt that age, you accept that.
AIELLOTrue. And then, as it went on, because I was six, seven, eight, nine...
AIELLO...so I went through all of those years without dad being home and, you know, I didn't know that I missed him. I thought it was a natural thing.
REHMDid you get to go see him again?
AIELLONo, that was it. He got out very shortly thereafter, but...
AIELLO...he was also a trucker. And he was not really a mobster. I don't know how to say that. He was what they call a knock-around guy. He had no connections with anyone. He was a kid, married very young to my mother at the age of 18. My mother was 15. So his parents, of course, didn't want him even to marry a woman that was, you know, a young girl that was 15 years old. My mother and father were born in the United States. My father's parents were very strict. And this was a chaperoned wedding, of course, when they finally did get married.
AIELLOThis was not what we have today, where they're seeing each other without the family even knowing it. So they were well aware and didn't want it because of how young she was, but my father loved her very much and they married and...
REHMHad a big family.
AIELLOYeah, a big family.
AIELLOWell, my father and mother had seven children and it was very exciting. As time went on, there's something that haunts me terribly and it was difficult for me to put it in my memoirs, but I had to. My brother Ralphie, he was the boy before me, he died and he was planted and buried, unfortunately, in Potter's Field, Brother's Island or Heart Island, excuse me, in New York City. So I always had this repeating dream or like a nightmare of where is he, where is he?
AIELLOHe's in Potter's Field. His grave wasn't marked. And it became a very difficult thing and I never was able to find out exactly where he was. It turned out that they said, St. Patrick's charities had put him, interred him, into Calvary Cemetery in Long Island, but as it turned out, I was never able to ascertain that. And the reason why I went to Calvary and they said they had a record of my brother Ralphie and they said, but indigenous people at that time who had problems with whooping cough, you know, they were quarantined.
AIELLOSo they said they put him in a grave which is unmarked and all those indigenous people who were buried in Potter's Field did not have -- well, even in Calvary, did not have a gravesite.
AIELLOSo I was never able to ascertain in my own mind whether he was really there.
AIELLOAnd I only had this, Diane, my mother was going to visit him after he passed away on Heart Island and she was supposed to meet my father at the ferry on 134th Street. My father didn't show up, as usual. My mother was waiting, decided not to get in the ferry. The name of the ferry was The Observation. The boat blows up on the East River, 72 people died. And my mother didn't get on it. And at the time, my mother was pregnant with me.
AIELLOI mean, when you think about things like this, these are amazing.
REHMWhat a story.
AIELLOBut I didn't know those things until recently when I began to investigate. I would not have been here had my mother went on that ferry.
REHMDid your brother die of whooping cough?
AIELLOWhooping cough. He had -- they called it pertussis in those days.
REHMYes, of course.
AIELLOAs you know. And the woman was Typhoid Mary living on the -- as my brother was passing away, Typhoid Mary was instrumental in killing about 40 people. We don't know if it was intentional or because she had typhoid fever and spread it amongst those she was feeding.
REHMSo out of that family, not knowing your father very well, but adoring him because your mother obviously did, you find yourself moving into something of the same kind of life. What did you get into and how?
AIELLOWell, before I get into it, I was a six-year-old boy with eczema and my eczema, in those days, required hospitalization.
REHMReally. It was that bad.
AIELLOI was a young child who was very small and very thin and was always given a seat in front of the class. But because of my scratching constantly and ripping myself apart -- I don't know if you know, in those days, eczema, forget about it, no one knew what the heck it was, you know. But I found out that it was something that can drive you absolutely out of your mind. So I was ripping myself apart and embarrassed by it, left back in school as a result, because I missed a lot because I was going to the hospital.
AIELLOMy mother had to put gloves on me or my socks on my hands at night.
REHMSo you wouldn't tear yourself apart.
AIELLOSo I wouldn't rip myself apart. What it did to me, Diane, it made me very shy, very shy where I had no friends in school, except when I went out and played ball. When I played ball, I was fine. I could talk with anyone. Or when they called me in school to read, I loved to read. I mean, this was the first time that I wanted to act, I suppose. You know, I was reading, but if they called on me without a book in my hand, I was devastated.
REHMYou couldn't speak.
AIELLOI couldn't speak. I couldn't say anything. But all of this came about as a result of that eczema. It made me an extremely shy person, a person who was unable to communicate with people as I would have liked to have done.
REHMBut, clearly, you were bright. You could read to others and yet, somehow, you got into funny stuff.
AIELLOI got into funny stuff later on as time went on. I became -- well, this was after I had gotten out of the army. And I got out of the army at the age of 20. And, well, prior to that, the age of 16, I was a pool shooter. I was a hustler in pool. I would go into a pool room and earn money, but I never had my own money. I would have a backer there. If you ever saw the movie, "The Hustler"...
AIELLO...with George C. Scott and Paul Newman, George C. Scott was a backer. I had a backer. I would walk up and want to shoot someone pool. The backer would put his money up to back me. Now, if all the money was lost, he loses it all. But if we win, I share 50 percent of it. And that's what I did as a kid. And then, of course, I was...
REHMAnd you were good.
AIELLOI was a very good pool shooter. That's how I earned my money and it was incredible. And then, of course, I was getting in a lot of trouble. And the difficulty that I got into required me to think, at one point, 'cause I left school prematurely, high school, I never finished. I went to the eighth grade. And I hit the age of 17 and thinking that I might be in jail if I don't go away, I went into the service and I joined the army and I was there for about three years.
AIELLOBut it was an awakening for me. I brought me out a man. And when I came out as a man, I met my wife and Sandy was the most beautiful Jewish girl from the Bronx you've ever seen in your life and we're still married today.
REHMI've seen photographs of her. She is still beautiful.
AIELLOShe is absolutely gorgeous. But trying to court her was a very difficult thing in those -- I'm a Catholic Italian who had cigarettes in his sleeve. The mother, of course, a devout Jewish person, and dad, didn't want the marriage to take place. In those days, it was a little more difficult. My wife's name is Sandy. And Sandy, for the weirdest reason, thinks that musical "Grease," was written and we were the main characters. Sandy and Danny.
REHMI love it.
AIELLOBut it was a troubling time, even the beginning of my marriage, because I didn't even have a job when I got married, but we got married. And we didn't have to get married, but she loved me and I, of course, loved her and it began very difficult, even -- what I'm trying to get to is that the stealing didn't end there. When I was unable to get job and afford to, and I had my first son and then my second son, then my third son, I began to get feelings of how am I going to do this.
AIELLOHow do you become a father, married man? How do you support your family? Are we going to be homeless? Am I going to be able to have a roof over their head? It began to trouble me so badly that I couldn't shake it. And what did I do? I went out and I would go into bakeries. I would break into -- with a friend, I would break into pool halls, bowling alleys. And we didn't get money from anywhere. They didn't have any money. They didn't leave it in the places in those days. They had it in their vending machines.
AIELLOI paid rent for about six months on quarters, nickels and dimes that we got from the vending machines.
REHMDanny Aiello. And if you'd like to watch this interview, you can go to drshow.org. We're talking about his new book, "My Life On The Street, On The Stage and In The Movies."
REHMAnd welcome back. Danny Aiello is with me. His new book is titled, "I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else." It is a memoir, a very frank memoir, talking about his life, his actions, how he got into acting, which is the great mystery. How did it happen?
AIELLOPurely by backed in. I had no idea I wanted to be an actor. And I didn't. I became a bouncer at the Improvisation, in New York City. Budd Friedman was the proprietor. He knew I was an outstanding ballplayer. He had a team in a Broadway Show League. So I don't know that he wanted to give me a job more than he wanted me to be on his softball team representing the Improv. So I played for a space and then, of course, I would come into the Improvisation and, as I said, I was a bouncer.
AIELLOHe recognized my talent and made me a bouncer. And at times, when he wasn't available -- he was the emcee. When he wasn't available he would expect me to get up and emcee.
AIELLOWhich was a -- was not something I wanted to do. I didn't think I was capable of doing it. However, someone had to do it so I did it. I would announce comedy people. They would get up -- and some of the most famous, David Frye and David Brenner, some of my great friends, Rodney Dangerfield would come in, Robert Klein. So it was really an awakening. However, I didn't want to be a monologist. I had no way of thinking I could ever be a comedian. You know, they do things off the top of their head, very difficult. I didn't want that.
AIELLOIt was very difficult to do. And I'm watching, but what it did for me was free me a little bit. I watched them perform and I said, "Well, maybe there's something here that I would want to do." I would get up occasionally at 3:00 o'clock in the morning when everyone had gone and all the chairs were up on top of the tables and people were cleaning up the place -- I would sing a song. Or I would read something from "The Godfather," and do monologues and so forth because I was trying to find my way, to see what it is I was going to do with my life.
AIELLOA fellow by the name of Louis LaRusso II, walked in. Louis was a neophyte writer. I mean, Louis was a, you know, turned out to be a great friend of mine. He said, "I'd like you to be in my play." I said, "What are you asking me for? I'm not an actor." He said, "You --" "I can't act." He said, "You just don't know it yet. You can act." So he had written a play called "Lamppost Reunion." And he said, "Would you land it, Danny? Please think about it." So he talked me into it. Before you know it, I'm in a place called The Churchyard Playhouse on 54th Street.
REHMAnd you memorized the part.
AIELLOI memorized the 15 minute monologue, which I said I could never -- so acting to me, as dumb as I was at the time about acting, was all you had to do was remember. Well, that's not all that's to it. Trust me. But part of it is that, but on the stage you have to do that, plus so many other things. I did it and we were promised to be on Broadway with that play, however the money didn't come through. So we did it off-Broadway for a while. It was like a hit off-Broadway. People came into see it, but it laid for about two years with nothing happening.
AIELLOIn the meanwhile, I'm sitting at the Improvisation and this Elliot Cuker, a friend actor of mine comes over -- he never thought I was an actor. He thought I was just this big guy who hit a long ball. You know, I would hit a ball forever. I was a good outstanding. He said, "They're auditioning people in New York City for a movie called -- in Central Park, a movie called 'Bang the Drums Slowly.'" I said, "Really?" He said, "Yes." I went up -- John Hancock's the director -- he saw me hitting the ball and catching the ball and he said, "You've got the part."
AIELLOI mean, I got the part? I didn't have to act or anything. So an interesting thing occurred. I got the part. We went to Ft. Lauderdale and St. Petersburg, Fla., to start spring training, to get ready for the movie. And I was very nervous when we began because I didn't know what I was doing. I had no idea. I'm sitting there like a jerk, not that -- certainly not informed as to how to be an actor. Now, I'm an actor. I have lines.
REHMNow, you're an actor.
AIELLOSo I'm in the corner. I'm in the uniform, in the makeshift Yankee uniform. Vincent Gardenia, the wonderful actor, may he rest in peace.
AIELLOAnd I love him. He was my good friend, my mentor, so to speak.
REHMYeah, lovely man.
AIELLOHe's watching me in the corner, mumbling to myself. The three or four lines I have in the movie I'm trying to memorize. I'm trying to say how am I going to say this? What do you say? What am I going to do? And Vincent walks over and he says, "What's the matter, kid?" I said, "Well, Mr. Gardenia, I'll tell you. I'm a little apprehensive about the--" "What do you mean?"
AIELLO"Well, you know, I have these lines. And I know, you know, I want to say them right. I'm not sure how to say them, you know, because if I do it and I see the movie 50 times and I'm terrible doing it, I'm going to suck 50 times." He said, "Don't worry, kid. You're probably never going to work again anyway."
REHMThank you, Vincent Gardenia.
AIELLOThat's the way he turned out to be my dear friend. And we did "Moonstruck" together and so many things. But my career…
REHMI met him.
AIELLO…my career then began. And what happened soon after that movie, the off-Broadway thing that I did, the showcase production I did of that movie, went right to Broadway and I was in it. And I'll tell you, the things that I learned, Diane, I had no idea that being an actor, early on, was like being in the roughest football game you've ever been in. Jealousies running rampant.
AIELLOCrazy things. A person comes over to me. And the director, the first time says to me, "We're going to block today." I thought he was talking about offensive linemen, like the New York Giants. I had no idea the terminology was about people being blocked and told where to…
AIELLO…walk at a certain line.
AIELLOSo that's how much of a neophyte I was. I truly had no idea what acting was. But then it started to happen.
REHMAnd then -- I want to move here to "The Godfather," because there is a line in "The Godfather," that you uttered and it wasn't in the script.
MR. CARMINE CARIDIWe're all real happy about your decision, Frankie. You're not going to regret it.
MR. MICHAEL V. GAZZOI don't like this C-note, Rosato. I take that as an insult.
AIELLOMichael Corleone says hello.
REHMNow, that was your own line, wasn't it?
AIELLOYes. And it was the only -- there were other scenes we shot, but Francis cut a couple of them. This remained. But the interesting thing is we were auditioning -- not auditioning. We were rehearsing the scene. There were no lines. I had no line whatsoever. All I had to do was walk in, he was in a harness, and I had to appear to be strangling him and dragging him back into a phone booth. For some reason my big mouth opened and I said during rehearsal, I said, "Michael Corleone says hello."
AIELLONow, Francis Coppola says, "Excuse me, what'd you say?" He said cut first. Now I'm intimidated. I'm so, oh, what did I do, what did I do? I said something I shouldn't. He said, "What did you say?" I said, "Well, I think I said, "Francis, well, Michael Corleone says hello." And he said, "Good. Keep it in." It was a line that wasn't written in the script. And now it becomes a wonder on the internet because people are always asking was that line written or did he just say it?
AIELLONow, remember, Diane, I have no idea why I said it. It made no sense to me.
REHMIt just came out.
AIELLOBut it made no sense. I wasn't connecting it to anything that was real or was important in the script. If it turns out to be people understanding what I said, well, it's great. If there are those who don't understand what it meant, I have no answer for them.
REHMIt may be that that's why you were a born actor.
AIELLOThat might be.
REHMThat it simply came out. Here's an email from Stephanie, in St. Louis. She said, "I loved you as Johnny Cammareri in 'Moonstruck.' Can you tell me if your eczema had anything to do with the curious head-scratching scene in the restaurant with Loretta?"
AIELLOSo help me in every good way, yes. It absolutely did because I remember the way I used to scratch myself. And that was one of the things I did. I would do that. And it -- I just recalled. It wasn't a special move that I made. It just -- I recalled scratching myself, and that was the reason why. But "Moonstruck," to be honest with you, I couldn't stand the character I played.
REHMI want to hear more about that, but first I want to hear a little clip from that movie.
AIELLOHave some dessert.
CHERNo, I shouldn't.
AIELLOWill you marry me?
AIELLOWill you marry me?
CHERBobo, take the cart away.
MR. ROBERT WEILVery good.
CHERAre you proposing marriage to me?
CHERAll right. You know I was married and that my husband died, but what you don't know is I think he and I had bad luck.
AIELLOWhat do you mean?
CHERWell, we got married down at the City Hall and I think it gave bad luck to the whole marriage.
AIELLOI don't understand.
CHERRight from the start we didn't do it right. Okay? Could you kneel down?
AIELLOOn the floor?
CHERYeah, on the floor.
AIELLOThis is a good suit.
CHERI know that. I helped you pick it out. It came with two pairs of pants. You know, Johnny, it's for luck. I mean a man proposes marriage to a woman, he should kneel down.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1She's got him on his knees. He's ruining his suit.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2Is that man praying?
CHERWhere's the ring?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3A ring, that's right.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4I would have sprung for the ring if it was me. Capisce?
CHERYou can use your pinky ring.
AIELLOI like this ring.
CHERYou propose marriage to a woman, you should offer her a ring of engagement.
AIELLOLoretta, Loretta Castorini Clark, on my knees, in front of all of these people, will you marry me?
REHMAnd you hated that movie?
AIELLOI can't stand it. Norman Jewison, the director, when I told him, he said, "Are you crazy? You're wonderful." But in my neighborhood, Diane, you can't play a wimp on the screen. You know, people didn't even know me as an actor, but to see me as they didn't know me, was troubling in the area where I live. So it did adversely affect me at first. I was embarrassed by it because I didn't know. You know, I had no -- like, oh, what, he's an actor. People are going to see him that way. All I know is that I was stupid looking on the screen.
REHMBut it was fabulous.
AIELLOWell, thank you.
REHMIt was fabulous.
AIELLOThank you. I loved working with Norman and Cher.
REHMAnd how about working with Cher?
AIELLOAnd Nicky Cage, but I tell people in the street -- I said, "Do you think Nicky Cage is going to get a woman what I have?" I said, "That's not going to happen." I said, "Cher would be with me from the beginning." Let me tell you, I don't know what your feeling is about Cher. A lot of people…
REHMI'm crazy about her.
AIELLOShe is the sweetest human being.
REHMYeah, I'm crazy about her.
AIELLOYou know, I was shocked because Sandi and I were invited to -- right after doing the movie, Sandy and I were invited to see Cher in Vegas. She comes out on the stage and the whole derriere is out. I mean, I could not believe what I was seeing. Now, remember, when I was working with her, she was like the next-door girl. Not onscreen, not when she was acting, off screen.
AIELLOMy wife Sandy, who loves no one, adored her. And she, of course, adored my wife Sandy. Cher was wonderful. I loved her -- to this day -- I don't see her frequently. Not at all, as a matter of fact, but my experience with her was just wonderful.
REHMWell, whenever I have an opportunity to see that movie I take it. I've seen it at least five times.
AIELLOAnd it helped me. It -- let me say that -- for a number of years I would say that Hollywood didn't think that I was capable of humor. So it did elevate money and it elevated a lot of other parts for me in comedic situations and so forth.
REHMTell me what you mean when you say you were an outcast, as far as Hollywood was concerned.
AIELLOI came from the street. And…
AIELLO…you see, it was apparent to everyone that I did. I was a -- remember, I grew up being a kid who wasn't totally capable of speaking. You know, arguing with words. It got to the point where I was so embarrassed by it that I would try to learn about four words a day from the dictionary for a year, just so I could retain some sense of something. Because when I was a kid, if someone had the ability to speak and insult you with words, I didn't have the ammunition to come back and insult them with words.
AIELLOSo what I did was I stopped and I hit. I was a street guy. You might call it violent, you know. And I was at that time. I would fight at the drop of a hat. So naturally I didn't want to go through, you know, life like that. But that's how I was adversely affected.
REHMBut when you were nominated for an Academy Award…
REHM…did that make the difference?
AIELLONo. When I got the nomination the first thing I said was, "If I got a nomination, how good could it be?" Because I never put myself in the category of being an expert. I was not learned person. They used to say Danny Aiello is a natural. You see, natural is a wonderful thing to hear, that you're a natural on the screen, you're a natural on stage, but the point is I would look more deeply into that word. And to me it meant I was unlearned. I was not -- I did not go through what other actors had gone through, being taught.
REHMDanny Aiello. His new book is titled, "I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else." Talk about that title.
AIELLOWell, Simon and Schuster and the wonderful Jennifer Bergstrom, from Simon and Schuster, and Ed Schlesinger, who was one of the editors -- at the beginning when I submitted the name they said it was too long. I had no idea what a title should be, how long it should be or how short it should be. It made sense to me because one day I'm playing a record called "I Only Know Who I Am." "I don't know who I am, when I am that somebody else." It was written by J. J. Grey, a wonderful singer, G-R-E-Y.
AIELLOHe wrote the song. My wife heard it. I wanted to record it, which I did. And Sandy looked at me and she said, "That's you." I said, "What are you talking about?" "That's you. You don't know who the hell you are." And when she said that -- it's true. Because the only time I'm certain of who I am began when I began acting. Because when I'm in the -- in character I know the words I'm going to speak. I know what I've developed.
AIELLOI know the past I've developed. I know exactly who that person is. But as I'm sitting here with you, Diane, I'm not quite sure which Danny Aiello I am. I don't know if I'm performing with you or if I'm being natural, like they say. You know, I don't know. I just don't know. I don't know if other people go through this. I have no idea. But it's troubled me for many, many years. I'm just not certain. And when I went -- did TV interviews and was asked who I was, what I did and so forth, I would tell them that I hated drugs. I hated this. I hated that.
AIELLOMy friend died of an overdose at the age of 15. I swear off drugs. Anyone who takes drugs is an idiot. They have to be completely crazy. So I lost a lot of jobs as an actor, as a result of drugs, because I didn't take them. And then I would speak in this violent way, you know, about the words that I mentioned to you before, that when ran out of words I fought.
AIELLOSo I think that people found it difficult -- or at least didn't take the chance of working with me. So I lost a lot of movies I might of otherwise had. I don't know this to be a fact. I can't enumerate, you know, I missed this movie, I didn't get that movie.
AIELLOI just imagine if I heard someone talking like I was speaking I would say I'm a little reluctant to work with this guy. And I think that's what happened to me. I did over 85 movies. I've been fortunate enough, you know, but still there are a lot of movies I should have done, could have done, if someone would have accepted me.
REHMDanny, will you do me a favor?
REHMWill you sing for me?
AIELLO(Singing) Some of these days, you're gonna miss me, baby. Some of these days, you're gonna feel so lonely. You're gonna miss my hugging, you're gonna miss my kissing, you're gonna miss me, baby. When you're long gone away, well, I hope you feel lonely and you want me only, 'cause you know you know, baby, you've always had your way. Say, baby, when you leave me, you know, you're gonna grieve me, you're gonna miss your tall, thin, Danny, some of these days. A little taste.
REHMI'm so glad. I'm so glad. You must feel happy when you're singing.
AIELLOYeah, oh, I love it. It's my avocation, of course. But I love it.
REHMIt just comes out of you, easily.
REHMDo you feel yourself when you sing?
AIELLOThat's the closest to myself I feel, when I'm singing, yeah.
REHMAnd you've recorded now.
AIELLOIt's -- oh, yeah, I have -- I just put out my fifth -- the fifth is a mini album. It's called, "Blues Times Two." It was just submitted two weeks ago. So you'll be hearing quite a bit about it. I gave you -- here it is. That's it.
REHMI have it right here.
AIELLOAnd also my Christmas album. I want you have it.
REHMOh, I'm delighted. I'm delighted.
REHMChristmas is my favorite time of year.
AIELLOYeah, I love it as well.
REHMSo I'll look forward to hearing this.
REHMDanny Aiello. His new book is titled, "I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else." Short break. Your calls when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Danny Aiello is here with me. His brand new book, he's got new albums. Danny Aiello Blues Times Two is the latest album. He also has a Christmas album "My Christmas Song for You." But his memoir "I Only Know Who I am When I am Somebody Else." Let's go first to, let's see, Mark in Orlando, Fla. Hi, you're on the air.
MARKGood morning and thank you. Mr. Aiello, I must tell you, sir, that you were an inspiration to me many years ago when I was in my late 30's. I'm an ex-New Yorker but I'll always be a New Yorker despite the fact that I live in Florida. And I read somewhere that you decided to go into acting in your late 30's. You had three sons. I have one son and the similarities are there, both New Yorkers. And you decided to go into acting when you had three children at a later age than most people, I would imagine, go into acting.
REHMRight. Right. Right.
AIELLOYeah, I started at the age of 36. My first stage production was when I was 36 years old. My first movie "Band the Drums Slowly" I was 40. And just to give you some inspiration I hope, I did over 85 movies and I began at the age of 40 so...
REHMOkay. So Mark...
REHM...what's your question?
MARKWell, what I wanted to ask, after listening to this terrific interview while on hold, I wanted to ask, which is totally different than what I told the screener, I wanted to -- I now would like to ask whether or not your acting style is a result of some of your street experiences as I suspect would be the case with Robert DeNiro, possibly Joe Pesci and possibly Paul Sorvino, three of my other favorite actors.
AIELLOYeah, mine comes directly from the street, there's no question. I had no formal education in acting however Robert did, I believe Joe did and I know Paul Sorvino did. They are trained actors. They like to call me a natural, which I always considered, when critics said that, as some sort of an insult, as I've indicated before. But yes, a lot of me -- my -- I am in each of my characters. And I would say about 70 percent of me is in those characters. And it all comes from just remembering the things I did in life and trying to recreate that on stage and on the screen.
REHMWe're going to hear a little clip from "Do the Right Thing." It's where Sal, the Italian American owner of a pizzeria that you play, he has a confrontation...
AIELLOI love the way you talk.
REHMLet's do it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5Hey, Sal, how can I get my brothers on the wall here?
AIELLOYou want brothers on the wall, get your own place. You can do what you wanna do. You can put your brothers and uncles and nieces and nephews, your stepfather, stepmother, whoever you want, see. But this is my pizzeria. American Italians have a wall only. Take it easy. Hey, you, hey, don't start with me today.
#5Yeah, that might be fine, Sal, but you own this. Rarely do I see any American Italians eating in here. All I see is black folks. So since we spend much money here, we do have some say.
AIELLOYou looking for trouble? Are you a troublemaker? Is that what you are?
AIELLOI picked up the bat.
REHMYou picked up the bat?
AIELLOYeah, yeah, these are things that I've experienced in life so this wasn't new to me. The only thing about that particular scene is saying the word that I said, the N word so often. And I sort of resented it, and not that I was afraid to say it because I think Spike gave me the part to begin with because I knew I wasn't -- he knew I wasn't afraid because I lived in that kind of a neighborhood.
AIELLOI was in gang fights and things of that nature. But I said to Spike, I said, Spike you continually want me to say the world Niger, Niger. I said, you know, I don't mind saying it but you're overdoing it. But the point is he wanted it to be said so much that it would lose its devastating value, if you want to call it that. But that's why he wanted to use it. But I resented that. It's the only problem that Spike and I had, you know, on the film itself, how many times he wanted me to say that word. But that was a nominated part. And for that I'm shocked. To tell you the truth I never thought that would happen.
REHMYou were shocked.
AIELLOYeah, because the movie was a fable. It wasn't a true life existence of what's happening in Bed-Stuy. There were no drugs in the film and that neighborhood is loaded with drugs. I mean, you walk on vials, you know. But then I found out I didn't like it for that reason because I thought it lacked reality. But then after realizing that Spike wasn't trying to create a reality where drugs are involved. He wanted it to be about racial issues with people being in their own heads without the influence of drugs. Do you follow what I mean?
AIELLOSo there it's a fable to me like "Godfather" was a fable. It's not the way people really speak or act, but he made his point.
REHMHere's an email from Paul in Buckingham, Va. He said, "Could you touch on your experience working with the great director Sergio Leone in "Once Upon a Time in America? Not many actors have had that experience."
AIELLOI love Sergio. He gave me a part. He called and he asked me what he wanted -- what name he wanted my character to have. So I didn't know. I was new at the time so I said, Aiello. I figured no one knew me anyway. So he said, all right. He called me Chief Aiello, Deputy Chief Aiello. I love Sergio. Sergio, I called him the Italian Santa Clause. He had this great gray beard.
AIELLOAnd I used to say to him, my part was so insignificant. He invited me to Cannes to be there along with Bobby, Jimmy Woods -- Bobby DeNiro, Jimmy Woods and others. I said I didn't want to go. He said, why, I said, because my part's so small. I'm playing this policeman with children. I felt that I didn't belong. He said, what, are you kidding? It was one of his favorite roles, Sergio's favorite roles. And I kept complaining, I'm only -- you know, I'm not a star here. And you know what he said to me? Danny, my next picture, my next film, you and Bobby 900 days in Stalingrad or Leningrad. The movie is finished. You are going to be one of my stars, Danny. He died right after the film.
AIELLOThat never came to be and I had the opportunity, not because I was going to star in one of his movies but because he was wonderful. We all know him as the spaghetti western guy with Clint Eastwood. He made him a star over there. They were great films. They were, you know, crazily done but they were wonderful. But he is so much more than a spaghetti western director. He was a great director and a great man.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Ted in San Antonio, Texas. Hi there.
TEDHi, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
TEDMr. Aiello, one of my favorite movies of you in it is "Hudson Hawk." And I wanted to know how did that come about? How did your involvement in that movie come about?
AIELLOWell, Bruce Willis and I knew each other from the Café Central in New York City. He was a bartender and I was a beginning actor. And he was studying acting at the time. And I guess he admired my acting a bit. He hadn't done very much. He said, you know, some day, Danny, I'd love to work with you. Well, low and behold it was an interesting thing because I was doing a movie -- I just signed to do a movie called "29th Street." And Joel Silver who was the director and -- excuse me, the producer of "Hudson Hawk" called my agent and said to my agent, we want Danny Aiello for Hudson Hawk. He said, well he can't. It's -- we're doing "29th Street."
AIELLOSo Joel, being the great producer that he is, screamed at my -- you're fired, you jerk. He said, we -- do you understand he has the opportunity to work with Bruce Willis as a star. And my agent Jimmy Coda (sp?) said, I'm sorry, we can't. He's stuck. He said, look -- he hangs up the phone and he calls up 20th Century Fox, Joe Roth and he says, Joe, I want Danny Aiello. He's doing your movie "29th Street." I want him for mine. He said, I can't do that, Joel. We're -- I mean, we're in pre-production. It's cost us a lot of money. Joel said, how much does it cost you? He said 450,000 we've laid out for the beginning of the shoot. He gave him $450,000.
AIELLOBut here's the wonderful part of this, okay. The wonderful part of it -- forgive me for mentioning the numbers...
REHMNo, it's okay.
AIELLO...but I was getting a big number of money for "29th Street." I was getting $750,000, whatever. That's crazy to say but I have to say for this reason, because when Joel knocked off "29th Street" we held that in advance until I did "Hudson Hawk" which I got another so I made all that money because of Joel. And we did the movie for that reason. And he always wanted -- Bruce said to me, let's do a movie and that's what we did. Everyone thought it was a bomb but it turned out to be a cult movie on the internet and everywhere else, television as well now.
REHMI want to hear a little clip from "29th Street."
AIELLOOne of my favorites.
AIELLOThey laughed at Christopher Columbus, they laughed at the Wright Brothers, they laughed at Einstein, now they even laughed at me, but nobody's gonna laugh at me after Christmas Eve because I'm a finalist in a New York State lottery and I'm gonna win that $6.2 million and I'm gonna spend it. And honey, honey, I'm gonna buy you a beautiful home with a big lawn for me and Frankie. Don't worry about a career, not that you're ever gonna get one anyway. Read it, kid. Celebration, wine. And how about you, Detective Fish? What can I buy for you?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6Can I talk to you for a minute?
AIELLONot now, Smith, I'm busy spending my money over here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMANHoney, just listen to Frankie, huh?
AIELLOOh, yes, my baby boy who bears my name.
#6That's exactly the point.
AIELLOYeah, so, so, we both got the same name. Nobody got the same name as my name, I think. What are you trying to tell me, Frankie?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7Pop, it's my ticket.
AIELLOCome on. What do you mean your ticket? Oh, I know, I know. You don't think I'm gonna share with you, right? Is that it?
AIELLOThat was "29th Street" not the one that you mentioned. This is one of my favorite movies.
AIELLOAnd what you've seen is what I had written -- did I say -- yeah, that was "29th Street."
REHMYeah, "29th Street."
AIELLOAnd it's on my license plate, "29th Street." It meant so much to me because I am so close to who that character is.
REHMBecause it's the father who thinks he's won the lottery and it's actually the son.
AIELLOThat's right. He won the lottery but there's a scene in which my son calls me a loser. Ten minutes before that scene was -- I was sick. It was 3:00 in the morning and there was no reason for me to have this scene with my kid. We had the scene but the way it was written didn't explain anything. So I began to write it. George Gallo the director allowed me to write it and that's the scene where I said I'm not a loser. And he said, what did you ever do for us? I stayed, that's what I did. I stayed for 35 years and I did whatever the hell I had to do to keep a roof over your head. That's what I did.
AIELLOAnd that came about as a result of me thinking as a father, what would I do if one of my sons would come over and say to me, what did you ever do for us? Now at the time I was doing it I was married for 35 years. I said, that's the way I would've reacted to my son. So I love that movie so much. And I -- and I got a call from Robert Evans the great producer in Hollywood and Jack Nicholson. Both of them were watching the movie and I had no idea. And Robert Evans said, Jack and I were just watching your movie "29th Street" in our home and we love it. And Danny, let me say this, had there been no curse words, it would've been every bit as good as "Wonderful Life."
AIELLONow "Wonderful Life" is one of the...
REHMOf course. Of course.
AIELLOI was a kid when that came out and I loved it then and I love it since. So that was a great compliment. I love that movie so much.
REHMTell me whether behind or even within this ongoing self deprecation that you express and you obviously feel, whether there is not a certain amount of anger that still resides within you.
AIELLOYou know, Diane, it's a very good question. No one's ever really -- yes, it still does. And why -- why, I don't know. I thought the years would've softened me considerably, but sometimes it comes to the surface and I get angry as a result. And I still hold it. I still retain it. Why, I don't know. I'm still -- I should be -- for all the world I should be certain about what I've accomplished. I should be very happy about it. I should be considered very lucky because I was lucky. I backed into the job merely by accident. I wasn't looking to be an actor. I didn't know what the hell an actor was.
AIELLOI lived in New York City, in the slums of New York City and to me actors were Cary Grant, they were Wallace Beery, they were Broderick Crawford, they were Fredric March. How do you become an actor when you live on W. 68th Street? So, I mean, sure, there's a lot of anger in me still remains. I'm trying to temper it somewhat and hopeful I will before my life ends.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's see if we can get one more caller in. Let's go to Abel in South Carolina. Hi there, Abel.
ABELThank you, Diane, for taking my call.
ABELMr. Aiello, I have one quick question. You seem to have worked in quite a few of Spike Lee's movies and I just...
AIELLOI'm the Jackie Robinson move, the (word?) . That's what Spike and I talk about all the time. I'm sorry.
ABELYeah, I was wondering how you got hooked up with Spike Lee and how do you -- the roles you play in so many African American movies. Is it something that you wanted to be characteristic of your career or is it just something that happened?
AIELLOWell, you know, Spike was -- there was -- Madonna was having a party in New York City and I happened to be there. And I was walking out because it was too loud and I decided I was going home. While I was walking out, in the vestibule of this place was this little fellow sitting with glasses on. And he confronts me and he says, you know, I'd love you to do my movie. I didn't know who the hell he was. He -- you know, I didn't know that he did "She's Got a Habit" at that point and he was a neophyte, he was just beginning.
AIELLOSo he said, I have this script that, you know, I'd love -- I said, well, listen. I gave him my agent's name. I was in a rush. I was on my way to Canada to do "The Last Dawn." So I said, talk to my agent and let's see what happens. Well, low and behold, he speaks to my agent and he sends me a script to Toronto to read. Now in Toronto, I'm busy doing "The Last Dawn." I never get the script. He calls me up and he said, did you get my script? I said -- then at that time I found out that he didn't have enough postage on it. So it stopped at the border and they had to call me up and eventually I got it.
AIELLOI opened up the script and the first page said, pizza, tossing pizzas. I called Spike up and I said, this is tantamount to watermelon man. If I ask you to play watermelon man, how would you accept it? That was my only way of explaining to him why I didn't like it. I saw myself as a guy flipping pizzas in the air and I was embarrassed by it. You know, I'm very proud to be an Italian American but I don't like the idea of a baker's cap on my head with pizzas flying all around.
AIELLOSo low and behold, I said no. He kept pursuing me. He took me to a Yankee game, took me to a Knicks game. Now remember, politically in so many other ways we are opposites. He loves, you know, Michael Jordan, I love Larry Byrd for the obvious reason, Larry's white and here was Michael, because they're both great. So we used to go through that all the time.
AIELLOOne day at Yankee Stadium I decided -- he did some work on the script and I thought it was beginning to look good, you know. So I said to him, Spike, look, you've made some moves, it's not quite there yet. If you will allow me input on the script, because I know who this character is, maybe even better than you do. So I didn't know at the time but Spike allows all of his actors to make a contribution, something that they lived in life. And for that there's a reality in that. So he said, of course.
AIELLOSo I agreed to do the thing and there's one line that I -- I had written many. I wrote the whole speech about I built this place on my -- with my bare hands, every light socket. And then there's one line, they grew up on my food. That became one of the great lines of all time that they kept quoting in the newspapers. I love Spike. Spike and I are good friends.
REHMDanny Aiello, take us out with a song.
AIELLOShould I do the same one, darling?
AIELLOSome of these days you're gonna miss me, baby. Some of these days you're gonna feel so lonely. You're gonna miss my hugging, you're gonna miss my kissing, you're gonna miss me baby.
REHMDanny Aiello, "I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else."
AIELLOWhen you're long gone away, well, I hope you feel lonely and you want me only 'cause you know, pretty baby, you've always had your way.
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