No Longer Just a Tickler of Ivories, Nick Apollo Forte Is Woody Allen's Latest Discovery

updated 02/27/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/27/1984 01:00AM

It's Saturday night in Howard Johnson's bar in Greenfield, Mass.—not the kind of place where you'd expect to run across Woody Allen's latest discovery, a star in his hit comedy Broadway Danny Rose and the darling of the critics, Nick Apollo Forte.

"This is no regular HoJo's," Nick is quick to say. "This is toppa the line." Nick is playing the Serendipity Lounge, "The Dip" to the locals. It's quiet, save for Donkey Kong beeps, basketball on TV, the chatter of 20 patrons and a recording of Sinatra crooning New York, New York. "Sorry, Frank," says Nick. "I gotta better rendition." Relaxing between sets, he looks around. "It's like a morgue," he laughs. "It generally starts off slow...and tapers off."

Undaunted, Nick settles down at the piano. "How about a pretty song for the month of February?" he asks, striking up My Funny Valentine. He can handle all the lounge classics: Always on My Mind, On a Clear Day, Release Me. Nothing memorable, perhaps, but nothing to give a listener migraines either. Nick doesn't tell his audience about his movie or sing any of the songs from it. A woman at the bar is surprised when she learns of his stardom. "Funny," she says, "he doesn't have much of a following here."

Poor Nick, you might say. Save it. For there is self-confidence—and then there is Nick Apollo Forte. The lounge life can be tough, but Nick isn't complaining. "To be frank, it hasn't been easy at all," he says. "But it's a great life. I love it." It is this indomitable spirit that Woody wanted in Broadway Danny, his movie about a never-was talent agent (Woody) and his star attraction, Lou, a has-been whose one hit was "on the charts for 15 minutes." Lou's a louse; he two-times his wife and Danny Rose, too. Nick's a much nicer guy.

Nick was discovered on Broadway—on the corner of 49th, in a Manhattan record store where one of Woody's casting agents found an old copy of Nick's album, Images. Nick was on the cover, caressing a glass of red table vino, wearing a sparkling silver lamé shirt, extra large, and looking like a B-grade Tony Bennett. Perfect.

Woody's casting people called Nick at his Waterbury, Conn, home and asked for a résumé. "I said, 'What resume?' " Nick recalls. "I'm my own agent, I book my own jobs, I distribute my own records. I don't have a resume." So he put together a package: "I got one of my glossies—gaudy as hell. I had on a sparkle shirt, the whole bit. I sent a scrap of paper and on it I says, 'I'm a singer, a writer, an entertainer and a fisherman.' " He also offered one of his own compositions for the film, Agita, which is Italian slang for indigestion and probably the first love song ever to acid stomach. It became the movie's theme song.

Nick had never seen one of Woody's films. "What do I know about Woody Allen?" he asks. But there they were, getting together in a Manhattan hotel. "He looked at me from my head to my toes," Nick remembers, "and said, very softly, 'Nick, could you do a movie with me in September?'...So I said, 'No problem, Wood.' " Then Allen asked him to take a screen test. For that, they dyed the strawberry-blond hair on Nick's head and chest black. Three weeks later, Woody's people called and told Nick he was a contender. "I laughed," he says. "I've been a contenda all my life."

Nick loved making the movie. "All my life, I've been looking for a Woody Allen," he says. "Ya know what? He's an everyday guy." That's the pinnacle of praise from Nick. He tried to get Woody out fishing, but the queasy star refused. (As Woody says in the film: "I don't travel on water. It's against my religion.") Nick also liked Mia Farrow, Woody's girlfriend in real life, Nick's on the screen. "She's nothin' but a lady," Nick says. "I wondered if Mia Farrow was going to be a person who put on airs. Well, she's no such animal."

Nick hasn't seen his movie yet. But the critics have and they liked Nick a lot. "Awesome chutzpah," said Newsweek. "An absolute natural," raved the New York Times. But don't get the wrong idea. Sure, Nick was right for the role. But he isn't exactly like Lou. "I'm not as tacky," Nick says. "I don't wear rings. I don't wear big medallions. I do have open shirts." Truth be told, Nick is more Lacoste than lamé. And, as his daughter Robin points out, Nick "sure isn't a cheater."

Not only is Nick a good papa, he's a prolific one, with seven children, aged 17 to 25, all raised in the Waterbury home where 45 years ago Nick himself was born Nicola Antonio Forte. It was in this house that Nick's mom first sat him down at a piano. At 12 he won a local talent contest playing, natch, Lady of Spain. At 18, he got his first break playing second billing to Delia Reese at Harlem's Apollo Theatre. That's when he changed his name. A fortuneteller told him "Apollo" would make him a star, that being the name of the Greek god of music. Nick dropped out of high school, became the manager of a shoe store and, at 19, married his clerk, Rosalie Trapasso.

"On the side I was playing weddings and the Spanish Mass in the local Catholic church," Nick says, "and my wife said, 'Do what you love to do.' " So he started making his living on the road, performing lounge to lounge. Bending with the trends seems to be the secret to his success. He played rock 'n' roll in the '50s, the Beatles in the '60s. "If it was Brazil 66 that was hot in '66," he says, "you did Brazil 66. I think one of the toughest times I've ever had in my life was the disco era." For the 1980 Winter Olympics, he composed a number entitled Powdery Stuff. A Canadian magazine decided that was a druggy double entendre, which Nick denies. In any case, the song never flew.

"They told me I was too strong for lounges," Nick says. " 'You're strictly Big Room, Nick,' they said. Well, I've been doin' lounges all my life." But now he's doing more. The movie is helping Nick's career. "I'm getting calls, and on a bigger scale, naturally. You know, instead of $100 a night, maybe $150," Nick says, laughing. "Sure, I'm waitin' by the phone. But it wouldn't tear me apart if nothing great happens." Yet it seems things are happening. Nick is getting calls from high-powered agents, he's been booked on the Today and Tonight shows and even hopes to make a commercial someday—for an antacid, maybe.

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