Strong, Smile, Star ~ My Nick Apollo Forte Tribute
Nick Apollo Forte only starred in one film but oh what a classic it was. Forte, who died Wednesday at 81 is best remembered for his portrayal of Lou Canova in Woody Allen’s 1984 classic “Broadway Danny Rose”. And Danny Rose's constant reminder to Lou Canova of the "three S's" he needs to say before going on stage; Strong, Smile, Star were fitting because Forte personified all three throughout his life and career.
For movie lovers, Forte’s story begins at the legendary record store Colony Records (since closed) which was located in the storied Brill Building on the corner of 49th street and Broadway.
Colony Records’ extensive collection of sheet music, vinyl and knowledgeable staff attracted a wide range of customers from music aficionados, celebrities and people who worked in the entertainment field. It was here that Woody Allen’s longtime casting director Juliet Taylor discovered Forte.
Allen was having great difficulty in casting the main character for “Broadway Danny Rose”. The story revolved around a performer whom Danny Rose [Allen] represented, Lou Canova, a saloon singer who’d once had fifteen minutes of fame but was now just another lounge act.
Allen had considered a lot of actors including Sylvester Stallone, Robert Goulet, Robert DeNiro, Steve Rossi, Jerry Vale and Danny Aiello.
Aiello; “I had been singing all my life. Not professionally, but whenever I felt the spirit move me. In Broadway Danny Rose, the role of Lou Canova called for a singer, someone who was professional but not too professional. ‘Danny, you’re my ace in the hole,’ Woody Allen said to me when we entered into casting discussions for the film. I took that comment as a positive.”
Aiello was disappointed when he didn’t get the part (which he would have been perfect for) but Allen made it up to him by casting him as Mia Farrow’s abusive husband in “Purple Rose Of Cairo” and a memorable part as a hit man in “Radio Days”.
So, it was at Colony Records that Allen would eventually find his Lou Canova.
Allen; “Juliet was browsing in the Colony Record Shop on 42nd Street and saw an album cover with Nick's picture on it.”
The album was “Can I Depend On You” and included a song called “Agita” a novelty song about indigestion.
Forte; “I put maybe five or ten albums in there, right, and they were looking for music for the movie”
Taylor; "So we started tracking him down and found him singing in Waterbury. It's as though he had been waiting for this big break. The funny thing about Nick Apollo Forte was that it was as if he knew this was going to happen to him. He was like, ‘This is my big break and I knew it was going to come.’ He had so much confidence, which is what enabled him to do the part.”
When Taylor’s office first called Forte, they asked for a resume.
Forte; “I said, ‘What resume?’ I’m my own agent, I book my own jobs, I distribute my own records. I don’t have a resume “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.’
Allen; “He was a guy from Connecticut who worked these little clubs, and he did a nice audition”
Forte; “I went in and I met with Woody and he looked at me up and down. I'm talking about ten minutes. He says, "Could you do a movie with me?" I says, "Yeah. No problem." But let me tell you something, I never saw one of his movies. As a matter of fact, I don't really go nuts on a lot his movies, especially the first one I really saw was a thing called Zelig. I went to the screening of it and I sat back and I said, "Oh, my god, this is like a joke." This thing was just a terrible movie.
In spite of his brutal honesty (which I have a feeling Woody likely got a kick out of) Forte got the part and even contributed two songs that were featured prominently in the film; “Agita” and “My Bambina”
Forte; “When I handed Woody the two songs that are in the movie, I says, "Woody, here's two songs you might want to consider for the movie." Well, he came back to me a day later and he says, "Nick, I'm not going to use one of those songs, I'm going to use both of them. You know why? Because they fit right into the movie."
While Forte got great reviews and made a memorable appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, he didn’t actively pursue a film career. He was content playing cabarets, nightclubs and headliner on cruise ships that took him all over the world.
Nicola Antonio Forte began his career at age 15 under the stage name Nicky Redman and opened for Della Reese at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1957. He later adopted the stage name Nick Apollo.
Forte; I want to put on a good show for people. I keep myself in good shape. I don't want sleep on the stage. I want to go out there and I want people to say, "Jesus Christ, he's got some electricity going here," you know?
Some might say that Forte was lucky to have landed such a memorable role in a major motion picture but Woody Allen manger's long time manager put it best when he told Nick; “It’s a great day when you meet Woody but it was a better day when he met you.”
His family issued the following statement after he passed; “His family takes comfort and pride in the fact that throughout his career, Nick only sang what he fondly referred to as ‘happy songs.”
Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Rosalie; daughters Robin, Carmel, Lynn and Shelly; sons Nicholas, Mark and Jeffery; siblings Aurelia and Frank; 21 grandchildren; and two great- grandchildren.
Here’s a great piece on Forte by Jeff Jarvis from People Magazine back in 1984.
Broadway Danny Rose Clip
Nick performing "Agita" and "My Bambina" from "Broadway Danny Rose"