Born-and-bred in New York, Danny Aiello is a rare breed in show business. He’s a down-to-earth family man who works diligently to inspire others. And at 78, he shows no signs of slowing down.
He works so passionately, in part, because he started his acting career late, at the age of 36. Yet, the Academy Award nominated Aiello (Do the Right Thing) has gone on to star in almost eighty films.
He’s taken the stage in Broadway and Off-Broadway productions such as The Lamppost Reunion and Hurlyburly, produced four albums and lent his talent and time to organizations close to his heart.
In his latest role, as the title character in Off-Broadway’s, The Shoemaker, Aiello combines his talent, compassion and humor in what he describes as “the most emotional play that I’ve ever been involved in.”
Set in Hell’s Kitchen on Sept. 11th, 2001, The Shoemaker revolves around an Italian Jew who must confront a past filled with abandonment and war and a present that brings its own challenges.
Aiello spoke with The Improper about the gripping play, and the path he traveled to create the character.
The Improper: In 2010 you starred in a one-act stage version of The Shoemaker which was so well-received that it sold out throughout its Off-Broadway run. How has the play changed now that it is a full-length production?
Aiello: Susan Charlotte had written the one-act play, and it was so good that I had suggested to her that she take it beyond that point. You can play one-acts all over the place, but it doesn’t mean anything. It needs a second act. There’s a danger in doing that because when you ask a person to do a second act when the first act is already substantial, it can be difficult to make it better, or at least equal. I can only go by what I feel, but this has made the play so much greater. People don’t always know how to elongate a one-act play. But in this one, Susan has killed!
IM: Despite the play’s serious nature, you have said there are humorous elements to it. You’re a funny guy- how much of the humor comes from you, and how much is in the writing?
Aiello: The wonderful thing with Susan and I is that we sort of work with each other. I’m like her muse (laughs). We run things by each other. It’s all her baby, but we talk, and out of that comes the writing. She doesn’t write jokes, but she writes stuff where the situation, if it is acted properly, will get the laughs that she wants.
IM: Your character is an Italian Jew. How much of a stretch was that for you to play, being that you are an Italian married to a Jew?
Aiello: I’ve played Jewish people before. The shoemaker is not profoundly Jewish. I don’t like caricatures. By that I mean some Italian doing a caricature of a Jewish person, like I’ve experienced actors doing caricatures of Italian monsters. I always said I was going to get even with them someday (laughs)!
He’s a man who has been affected by New York; he’s seventy something years old and has been there since the age of nine, so he has picked up dialect from the city. I speak Yiddish, Italian and German in the play. In reality, I have lived with a Jewish girl all my life, so it’s not very difficult. But let me tell you, my refrigerator constantly smells like chopped liver, which I hate (laughs)!
IM: From where did you pull inspiration for the massive variety of roles you’ve undertaken in the past?
Aiello: I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. I was born on West 68th Street in Manhattan, but I grew up in the Bronx. Most of the white guys I was with were Jewish, sprinkled with a couple of Italians, but many Blacks and Puerto Ricans lived very much near me. I grew up with all kinds. I never studied as an actor, my experience in life has helped me as an actor. I began so late in my life as an actor that I was sort of a man in a hurry. I had to begin earning money immediately because I had three kids, and then four at the time I was trying to learn to act. I simply didn’t have enough time to go to acting school, and I was fortunate enough to get paid while I was acting. People at the time were dumb enough to give me money!
IM: You’re also working on a musical called Capone. How will it be different from other projects based on the infamous criminal?
Aiello: It is not the Capone everyone is accustomed to seeing. Think a man who’s on the last days of his life because he’s dying of syphilis. He speaks to thirty different people that are not there. He’s funny, he’s vicious, he’s political, and he may make you drop a tear, but we’re not trying to glorify the killer. You’ll find out things about him that you never knew. Robert Mitchell wrote it. It is the most exhilarating thing I have ever done on the stage. To talk to someone who’s not there, respond to him, it’s crazy.
IM: What’s the secret to being able to do so much at your age?
Aiello: People ask me what I’m taking! If I took drugs, I’d be on top of the moon. I have natural highs. But it gets to me. It’s been getting to me a little more recently. I never paid attention to pressure before, and then I lost my son one year ago to pancreatic cancer. I’m thinking about these things that have come upon my wife and me, together, with the preparing for two plays and the music, and it’s sort of allowing me not to get as much sleep as I should.
Visit www.telecharge.com for more information on how to purchase tickets to The Shoemaker, now playing at Theatre Row- The Acorn Theatre.