Danny Aiello

updated 02/19/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/19/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

For Danny Aiello, these are the best of times, and they just keep getting better. Just listen. Here, amid the lunchtime din of his favorite restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the rugged actor is taking the phone from a smiling waitress. He listens for several moments, then hangs up, his fists double-pumping the air. "I got a Golden Globe nomination!" he says. "For Best Supporting Actor. Spike got one too, and we got a Best Picture!" Heading back to his waiting burger, he squeezes his 6'4", 220-lb. frame into the window seat of his corner table. "It's been one helluva year," he says softly, his face still aglow. "Yes, sir, one helluva year."

But don't wake him yet. Before the Golden Globe nomination (Denzel Washington ultimately took the honors), he had already received a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for a leading performance—in the stage production of Hurlyburly—and the L.A. Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Sal, the pizza man in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Now he's hoping for an Oscar nomination this week. "You know, I've only been in this business 17 years," says Aiello, 56. "For actors, that's no time at all. Everything is happening so damn fast. It's like a beautiful dream that never seems to end."

Twenty years ago, Danny Aiello's dreams were more fragile. He worked as a bouncer in a string of tough after-hours clubs in Queens and Manhattan, his day beginning at sundown and ending with the last roll of the dice and the last angry fist against flesh. "I fought all the time," he says. "I could always punch like a son of a gun. Still can. If I can't knock a guy out cold with four punches, something is wrong. But those joints were brutal places—guys looking for fights just to tell their buddies they beat your butt. I never lost, couldn't afford it. Got busted four times, though. Each time, I was bailed out by this lesbian who ran a couple of the clubs. She paid the tab and took the fall."

To support his wife and four children, Aiello hustled odd jobs and stole when he had to—cracking safes and breaking into homes. "I was hungry, didn't have two nickels to rub together," he says. "Had no idea what road my life would take me down, but it didn't look too good. I did everything I had to do to feed my family. I never killed anybody or sold drugs, but that's about all I didn't do."

For Aiello, the theater was a last desperate refuge, a what-have-I-got-to-lose shot in the dark. His friends thought he was crazy, but eventually directors began to respond to the seen-it-all intensity that Aiello was able to transfer from the streets to the screen. When Robert De Niro turned down the role of Sal in Lee's film, he recommended Aiello. Danny worried at first about playing to type. "When I first read the script, I came to my character and stopped," he says. "I didn't want to be some salami tossing dough in the air. But Spike allowed me to do what I wanted with Sal, to give him dimension and reasons for staying in an all-black neighborhood. Besides, Spike needed a guy with balls—someone who could work in that neighborhood and not be intimidated and never betray his character simply out of fear."

Lee seems to agree. "Danny's lived a real life," he says. "Most actors, they've been to acting school, they've been to Juilliard. But that's all they know. Danny's been out there."

One of seven children of a determined mother who worked as a seamstress and a wayward father who drifted from job to job, Aiello learned the arts of survival early. "My father was never around," he says. "It was almost as if he didn't exist. I would tell my friends he was in Cleveland, on business. Sometimes, every six months or so, he would come by for dinner. The family survived on lentils, beans and pasta, but whenever my father came to eat, my mother would find the money for steak and serve it to him. And he would eat it as if he deserved it."

"Danny had it tough, but he never moaned about it," says Anthony Conforti, Aiello's longtime friend. "He was an enterprising kid. Shined shoes in Grand Central Terminal. Sold newspapers. Anything to help out his mother. He was never the kind of guy who waited for things to happen. He always made his own luck."

In 1944 the family moved from the tenements of Manhattan's West Side to the Fort Apache section of the Bronx. There, at 16, during a game of nine-ball in an upstairs pool parlor, Aiello looked out the window and spotted Sandy Cohen, 15. "That minute I was hooked," he says. "I fell in love with the most beautiful girl in the Bronx." Within a year, Aiello had enlisted in the Army and was a married man. The couple soon began a family that grew eventually to include three sons and a daughter—Rick, now 34, Danny III, 33, Jaime, 28, and Stacey, 20. "He was very macho," says Sandy of her husband of 35 years. "He was the kind of guy most mothers would not want their daughters to be seen with. But he was so cute and so sweet. He still is."

With limited education ("I went to high school for two weeks") and fewer skills, Aiello jumped when his wife's uncle found him a job as a baggage clerk for Greyhound. Within a year, he worked his way up to dispatching buses from the depot and then to announcing departures and destinations. "I can still do thousands of towns all over the country in their proper order," he says. "Greyhound offered me some management jobs, but they were looking for a disciplinarian, and that's just not me."

Instead, he ran for union shop steward and was elected to a two-year term. In 1962, at the age of 29, he was chosen president of Local 1202 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, becoming the youngest person in company history to hold such a job. "I was the first nondriver elected to the post," he says proudly. "I won by a 5-to-1 margin. I felt on top of the world."

But a year later, after supporting a three-day wildcat strike, Aiello was removed as president by union higher-ups, then, he says, sued for $500,000 by Greyhound. "The bus company wanted to change a work cycle, which I felt would be damaging to the drivers," he says. "I told the company they needed to go to a vote for ratification." When the company made the change anyway and the drivers walked out, international union officials blamed Aiello. "To this day, I believe I could have taken my case to federal court and won," he says. "But by then I had more than I could stomach. I walked away from the union business for good. In return they dropped the suit."

That was when Bud Friedman, owner of a Manhattan comedy club called the Improvisation, took Aiello on as a bouncer. "He had a kind face and a good heart," says Friedman. "He also needed the work." Between comics, Aiello would sing or try out his own routines. "No one heckled me," Aiello says with laugh. "I think they were too afraid. I was just getting my feet wet. It was my first taste of show business."

Six years later, after dozens of back-alley punch-ups and a low-rent criminal career that promised only the bleakest of futures, Aiello deck ed to try acting. He was 35 years old. "When he told me, I laughed," says Sandy. "We were in such a financial hole that it couldn't get much worse. I honestly thought he would try it for a year or two and then settle down with a job."

Danny was more optimistic. "I was a man in a hurry," he says. "I needed to find a job where I could make a lot of money in a short amount of time. I thought acting was the way to go. I never studied, didn't have time. I looked for work right from the get-go."

He talked his way into an understudy role in a road production of The Great White Hope, then turned it down when he learned he would have to spend 40 weeks away from his wife and children. "I never felt intimidated," he says. "Hell, I've been shot at, nearly had my ear cut off in a fight. I've broken into other people's houses. You learn to throw yourself out there. The worst they can do to you is say no. I can live with that."

In 1972 author Louis La Russo cast the not-so-young actor in a film he had written called The Godmother. "It was about a gay mobster," says Aiello. "What a way to break in." The movie was never released, but the role led to small parts in Bang the Drum Slowly, with Robert De Niro, The Godfather, Part II and Woody Allen's The Front. Aiello moved to the New York City stage in 1975 with a leading role in the off-Broadway Lamppost Reunion, then co-starred in Chicago with Broderick Crawford in That Championship Season and came to Broadway for a short run in La Russo's Wheelbarrow Closers. Then came Gemini, a domestic comedy that enjoyed long runs both off and on Broadway and earned Aiello an Obie Award for best off-Broadway actor. "At first I felt sorry for him," says Elliot Kouver, a former actor who knew Aiello from the Broadway softball league. "I thought he was throwing himself to the wolves. Then a year after he became an actor, I spotted his name on a Broadway marquee. Above the title."

Aiello wasn't shy about fighting for work, and his aggressiveness sometimes made enemies. "They don't call him Danny I-Ego for nothing," says another performer. "He'll push and push until he gets the part."

Aiello sees no need to apologize. "Hey, I had to sell myself," he says. "Who the hell else was going to?"

The roles continued to come his way. He had bit parts in feature films, bigger spots on television—he won an Emmy in 1980 for A Family of Strangers. But the big money still eluded him, and he could never seem to climb out of debt. In desperation, he and his wife sold their house. "We were in that five-day grace period when you can still change your mind," he recalls. "We sat here in the kitchen and talked it out. I owed $60,000. The profits from the house totaled $40,000. It didn't make sense. If we went through with the sale, I would still owe $20,000 but without a place to live. We canceled the deal. Later that week, Woody Allen called and offered me a role in Purple Rose of Cairo. After that, Madonna asked me to play her father in the video Papa Don't Preach, and I was on my way."

By 1988, he really hit his stride, going straight from being Cher's hesitant fiancé in Moonstruck to a crucial stage success as a coked-out TV actor in Hurlyburly. The critics raved, and the script and money offers poured in. "It's interesting, you know," Aiello says. "I played a drugged-up guy, and there wasn't a person who came out of the theater who didn't believe I was an addict. In truth, I've never done drugs in my life. In fact, if anyone even offers me any of that s—-, I'll rip their face off. It's just the way I feel."

After Do the Right Thing, Aiello worked in the TV movie The Preppie Murder, then took some time for his family. "My sons like to hang out with me," he says. "Can you believe that? I was always with them and my daughter. I guess in my own way I made up for my own father never being there for me. I never missed a Little League game, a meeting, a school-sponsored event. I would always think back to all those games where I was the only kid whose father didn't show."

"He's really a neat guy," says Danny III, a stuntman with 75 films to his credit. "I wouldn't mind being like him when I get older. How many sons you know who feel that way about their fathers?"

Aiello's mother, Frances, died in 1988, while his retired father divides his time between Florida and New Jersey. "My mother was everything to me," Aiello says. "She literally worked herself blind to raise her children. The last 10 years of her life, she couldn't see—sewing all those clothes for money took its toll. When she came to see me on Broadway, she thought the stage was like television—you could talk back to it. During a performance, I would hear her voice, 'That's not my Danny. He doesn't talk like that.' At intermission, the other actors would say, 'Did you hear that woman in the front row.' I would laugh. 'That's my mom,' I'd tell them. 'That's Frances Aiello.' "

By contrast, Danny's relationship with his father is guarded. "I still have harsh feelings towards him," Aiello says. "I told him he is welcome in my house anytime he wants, and I call every once in a while to see how he's doing. But no more than that. You know, he had five children with other women. They have tried to contact me through the years. But I let it be known I wasn't interested. I couldn't do that to my mother. It just wouldn't be right."

Such consistency—some would call it character—may be one of the explanations for Aiello's appeal. "For some reason, people expect you to change when you start making real money," says photographer Brian Hamill. "I guess some do. But not Danny. He is what he is—a guy who believes in family and friends. Try walking down a city street with him. Everybody stops to talk to him. He's one of them, from the streets. They know it and he knows it."

Yet he is also, now, one of the highest paid character actors in Hollywood, commanding at least $750,000 a film. He is already committed to three movies in 1990—including Once Around with Holly Hunter and Hawk with Bruce Willis—and to a Broadway appearance with Harvey Keitel in David Rabe's new play, Those the River Keeps. All four television networks have offered him a weekly series and deals to develop his own shows, and he has turned them all down. He also reportedly rejected nearly $2 million to star in a syndicated miniseries. "It's my time now," he says. "I want to make the most of it. I want to continue to do important work in features—make each role I take count. You just can't do that on television, no matter how good the initial intentions."

Most evenings when he's in town, Aiello turns up at his favorite restaurant, Columbus, less than a mile from the site of the crumbling tenements where he was born. There, surrounded by friends, Aiello holds court, talking and laughing the night away, drinking nothing stronger than tea and eating anything but fish ("If it's from the sea, it's not for me"). No one is excluded from the conversation, movie stars easily mingling with boxers, writers and bus drivers. "It's the way it should be," he says, a wide smile creasing his face. "Drinking and eating with friends. I love it. I really do. I come here as often as I can, and I will until they give me a free meal. Since that won't ever happen, I guess I'll be coming here till the day I die."

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