Remembering Danny Aiello
Like everyone else of a certain age, I was deeply saddened to hear the news about Danny Aiello’s passing this morning. For me personally, it was often hard to reconcile that this legendary actor that I grew up watching on the big screen had not only become a close family friend, but was such a huge influence in my life and my career.
Danny and I formed an instant bond when we first met in 1997. CBS had just signed him to star in a new CBS drama called “Dellaventura”. One of Danny’s stipulations was that it had to be shot in NY. I was overseeing Late Show with David Letterman at the time and my colleague at CBS, Mitch Semel, was assigned to oversee Danny’s new show. Mitch would often include me in his production meetings with Danny and before long, from that moment on, I was beautifully swept up into the vortex of Danny’s amazing life and career.
Clock wise; "Bang The Drum Slowly", "Godfather II", "Do The Right Thing" and "Moonstruck
And what a career it was. In the early 70's, while making some extra money unloading trucks for his uncle near Columbus Circle, Danny (an excellent athlete) was recruited as a ringer for a friend’s softball team in the Broadway League. It was there that he met Budd Friedman, owner of the Improv where he soon became their resident bouncer/emcee. Danny’s baseball skills would come into play again when he heard there were open audios for a baseball movie. It was a small part but Danny made the most of it and “Bang The Drum Slowly” was not only his launching pad as an actor but Robert De Niro’s as well. Not many film actors get their start at the age of forty and go on to build a forty six year career. But Danny was the one in a million. He had another small but memorable part in “Godfather II” and went went on to co-star with Paul Newman in “Fort Apache The Bronx”, Sergio Leone’s classic gangster epic; “One Upon A Time In America” (his third film with with De Niro) and we haven’t even gotten to the Oscar nominated roles yet.
Danny was Woody Allen’s go to actor in the 80’s for two of his biggest films; “Radio Days” and the “Purple Rose Of Cairo” as well as Allen's Broadway play “The Floating Lightbulb”. This already amazing body of work would take a giant leap with two seminal films; “Moonstruck” and Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” for which he was nominated for best supporting actor. While he wasn’t awarded the Oscar for his indelible portrayal of pizzeria owner Sal, most people don’t know that Danny’s role of Joe Leiberman in Christine Lahti’s “Leiberman In Love” won the Oscar for 1995’s best film short.
Danny was a fixture (on MTV of all places) in 1986 as Madonna’s father in the music video for “Papa Don’t Preach”. While Danny had conquered all of the arts I think the thing he was proudest of was his music career. America got a first taste of Danny’s singing when he hosted Saturday Night Live in 1996 and brought the house down with a swing time version of “Clementime”. Danny had an beautiful voice and a great talent for arrangements and song selections. He released several albums; “Bridges”, “I Want To Hear The Words” and “My Christmas Song For You” that covered a wide range of musical styles. I think the happiest I saw him was when he was performing live. Danny would hand pick New York’s top session players and would throw himself into the music so deeply that you forgot he was this iconic actor.
Given this tremendous body of work, you can imagine my surprise (and deep appreciation) when Danny agreed to star in the movie version of “Hereafter” that I co-wrote with Frankie Keane (whom he adored). It was a game changer for Frankie and I. Here we were, two novice writers and Danny was going to play the lead in our little movie. Danny implicitly trusted us as writers, me as a director (with Patrick Kendall) and Frankie as his co-star. Given the limitation of our budget (you wouldn’t know it from the footage) we shot all of Danny’s scenes over a five day period of sixteen hour days. Danny was the first on the set and the last to leave, always offering a ride back into NY for the fellow actors and crew that going in his direction.
Danny was always so good to me and my family. He loved my son Jonathan so much. I brought Jonathan to the Hereafter set one day. I was so overprotective of Danny’s privacy that I kept asking Jonathan to not distract Danny with questions or conversation. Danny called everyone’s attention and announced that Jonathan was his guy and was welcome to be by his side the entire time of the shoot…and he meant it. He lent his time and talent to emcee our “Hereafter” showcase at the Friar’s club in 2011. He performed two of our songs (“Talk To Me” and “The Heart And Soul") on the soundtrack and he recorded a third song “It’s Christmas Time” that was featured in his Broadway show “Home For The Holidays”.
Danny was the most giving and loyal friend anyone could ever asked for. When I was going through a rough patch earlier this year, he was one of the first people to call me to offer his support. A few weeks went by and he called again to DEMAND that I come out of my self imposed exile and meet him for lunch at Patsy’s in New York. When the same guy that improvised the classic line "Michael Corleone says hello!" during a hit on rival gangster Frank Pentangeli in Godfather II is “asks” you to join him for lunch you really have no choice. Danny and his trusted and loyal best friend Lou Baldonieri proceeded to treat Frankie and I to an incredible three hour dinning experience. When you have lunch with Danny in a NY staple like Pasty’s (Frank Sinatra’s favorite restaurant), there’s no such thing as a menu or a check. Just a steady flow of food and wine [overseen personally by the restaurant’s owner Sal Scognamillo]. The meal was interrupted by many times by fans seeking photographs and autographs which he always obliged. And in between courses, Danny would sing us his signature songs like “All Of Me” and giving us the warmest hugs you could ever ask for. The party continued as the four of us piled into Dannys car to accompany him to his favorite hair salon! With one hand on the wheel, he would use his other hand to rifle through his CDs to find his latest recording. This was classic Danny as he had a captured audience to hear his music, often singing along with himself. He would offer a running commentary as the song played, such as who wrote it, who played on it and often shouting out to his best friend Lou for verification (“aint that right Lou”). Lou was a constant in Danny’s life for decades. Always there for Danny right up until the end. Always at Danny’s side for whatever he needed (including a constant flow of love and support). Danny would tell a great story and yell out to “Ain’t that right Lou” so many times that we came to call Lou “the verifier”. Danny had an amazing voice which made it even more joyful. Sitting in the hair salon with Lou and Frankie while Danny was getting his har wash, rinsed and styled seemed like the most natural think in the world. Sadly, that turned out to be the last time I saw him.
My one big regret is that Danny won’t be here to witness what I know will be an avalanche of accolades for his heart breaking performance in “Hereafter Musical" which sadly will now be his last movie released. Danny’s performance of “Talk To Me” in the film is the perfect fusion of his passion and talent for music and film.
We miss and love you Danny from Vinnie, Frankie, and the entire Hereafter family. You are a one of a kind and will live on through your work and more importantly through the people you touched…”ain’t that right Lou?"
Danny in the recording studio singing "Talk To Me" from the "Hereafter Musical" soundtrack.
Frankie and Danny in a scene from "Hereafter Musical"
Here's a small sampling of some of our most treasured memories with Danny. Special thanks to Matt Heckerling, the DP from Hereafter for the beautiful stills from the movie.