HT Talks To: Danny Aiello
One of those great New York actors who just brings a smile to audiences' faces, the ever-affable Danny Aiello has been in front of the camera for more than 30 years with a string of memorable supporting and starring roles, and even an Oscar nomination for 1989's Do the Right Thing. He's also been in front of the microphone as an accomplished singer, and he's now behind the scenes with his own production company, Revolution Earth. Their first film, Shorty, shares the inspirational tale of a very special lifelong football fan at an impossibly friendly, small Southern college town. Shorty is now available as part of Mill Creek Entertainment's Reel Indies line, which showcases movies from smaller studios.
What in particular drew you to Shorty as the first movie you would produce?
The producer and director, Michael Furno, was always a kid I believed in. And when he pitched it to me, I thought to myself, "This is a great story." We thought it would make a nice little movie, a good calling-card piece to show what we were capable of as a new company. We didn't know how everything would turn out, though. But I don't think things could have been better.
Why a documentary, versus a dramatic film?
I always liked documentaries. It's an art form to be a good and true documentary filmmaker. And Michael Furno and his partners were very passionate about the story, so I think that had a lot to do with it. It's very easy to get caught up in his enthusiasm.
The scene of the mass—the reverend with the helmet and the football—is simply priceless.
That was definitely one of my favorite scenes in the movie, too. What a community they have down there! Hampden-Sydney College is one of those places you always hoped existed but, in today's world, never really believed it could. It's truly a wonderful place.
A scene from Aiello's recent film Shorty.
The DVD includes a lot of great footage that's unique to the behind-the-scenes segment. Are you a fan of special-edition DVDs?
I'm a member of the Academy, so I watch a lot of DVDs. I like them. I enjoy watching the behind-the-scenes to see how they did this or how they did that. I like the commentary, too. Sometimes, though, it can be a bit much. Sometimes I just want to watch the movie.
So many of the movies have been filmed in and around New York City. Are you based there?
I am. I was born in the Bronx and lived in this area all my life. I only go to Hollywood when they need me for a picture. L.A.'s not bad, but you can't beat it here. The food is better, the people are more grounded. I love this city. It gets in your blood. I could never even consider leaving here.
I'd be remiss if I didn't at least touch upon Moonstruck. That's sort of become the non-violent Italian-American movie we all embrace, hasn't it?
Who knew? The movie came out terrific. Everyone loved it. I get stopped a lot by people who want to talk about that movie, still. It's held up over the years.
You once said that Johnny Cammareri was a challenge because his personality was so different from your own. Kudos then, as it was a wonderful performance.
Thank you. I actually wanted the Nic Cage role because I thought Cammareri was a schlub. I didn't really connect with the character at first. But you got to do what you got to do. And eventually, I embraced the character and all his faults. I was very close with my mother, so I was able to use that to help out with some of the scenes.
Looking back, which character would you say then is closest to the real you?
Frank Pesce, Sr., from 29th Street. No question. One of my proudest moments as an actor, really. I love that movie. I love the story, the relationships. "29TH ST" is my license plate. The Hoboken Film Festival just ran a retrospective of my films, and that was one that they chose. It surprises me that you don't see it more often, especially around Christmas.
That's also a personal favorite of mine. Are there any of your lesser-known movies you'd like people to rediscover?
I think people will really enjoy Dinner Rush. Brooklyn Lobster is a wonderful little story. Ruby, too. I see Ruby on TV all the time.
I recently saw 1987's Man on Fire and noticed a lot of parallels to Leon: The Professional. You know, the tough guy and the young girl. As someone who appears in both films, any thoughts?
The Lolita theme is one that's been around for a while. Funny story about The Professional: The role for Tony was originally a very small one. He only had a few lines, so I wasn't really interested. It seemed like a lot of trouble to go through for something that would probably end up on the cutting-room floor. But Luc [Besson] really wanted me to play the role, so he rewrote the whole part.
Have you forgiven Woody Allen for cutting you out of Annie Hall?
No. [laughs] Truthfully, I was pretty pissed. Wouldn't you be? But Woody made it up to me by putting me in Purple Rose of Cairo.
Any truth to the rumor that you're the guy who pulls the trigger on Moe Green in The Godfather?
[laughs] No! Wow. I haven't heard that one. Who said that? I did choke a guy in Godfather 2, though. That was fun. [Mr. Aiello is referring to his role as Rosato brother Tony, interrupted while strangling mob boss Frankie Pentangeli.]
Am I too late to congratulate you on your Oscar nomination?
Thank you. My buddy Spike is a terrific filmmaker. He's a good collaborator. He and I spent a lot of time really crafting that character and the words he used. A powerful movie.
Didn't you worry when your son, Danny III, said, "Pop, I'm going to be a stunt man!"
Oh God, yes. My wife and I nearly had a heart attack. He started out with me on Fort Apache, The Bronx when [director] Daniel Petri asked him if he would double for me in a fight scene. And now he does stunts for everything. Directs, too. Only now he does the stunt coordination. He only does the actual stunts if it's something dangerous, which, you know, his mother loves.
What do you have coming up?
We just did a beautiful piece called The Shoemaker. Also, there's Stiff, which is a comedy about the funeral-home business. I've been focusing on singing lately, though. It's always been a dream of mine, and we recorded an album a couple of years ago that hit number four on the Billboard jazz charts. I have two singles, "Besame Mucho" and "Sweet Home America," that I do with this really talented hip-hop producer. It's a combination of modern and contemporary you've never heard before. I also have a live album coming out called Danny Aiello: Live at the Sands. It's an homage to Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
And what's next for Revolution Earth?
We have a lot in development right now. There's a zombie project that's very exciting. And I think a game show is in development.
Is it true you might be directing?
We'll see. It's always something I wanted to do, but it's important that you find the right project. It's a grind, so it's something I have to be very passionate about.