STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Danny Aiello has a 320-page memoir out with an epic title: “I Only Know Who I am When I am Somebody Else: My Life on the Street, On the Stage, and in the Movies” (Gallery Books).
Lotta words for a lotta life.
Thought you already knew this Oscar-nominated actor? Well, turns out he just “backed” into a four-decade career in Hollywood and on Broadway.
“It must be something I was more or less destined to do,” the 81-year-old first-time author told me recently. “The reason being, I didn’t voluntarily leave one life for another; it just so happened to be that way.”
Oh, and don’t expect a tawdry tell-all: “My book is not ‘Daddy Dearest.’ I didn’t know him well enough to dislike him, and my mother never once talked badly about him. I’ve seen so many people killing their relatives in books, but I love most everybody. There’s a little bit of stuff in there about Scorsese and Lauren Bacall in there (chuckles), but not too much.”
The main takeaway from his compelling tale: This veteran entertainer is, well, a lot of people. A family man — and tough guy. An elected official — and a pool hustler. An every man — and a unique talent.
“It was out of necessity — I wasn’t Walter Mitty or Zelig,” Aiello said, in his smoky, soft-spoken voice. “I was just a guy that something happened to, so I couldn’t do one thing anymore and I had to find something else to do.”
The proud Italian-American recently shared a few stories about who he was — and who he is now:
HE WAS A NERD-JOCK: I was a skinny little kid with eczema. I was gouging myself and saw other kids staring at me with a disgusted look. I felt less than human and was hospitalized often so I lost two years of school. I was older than a lot of kids, which made me even more inward. My only salvation was playing ball: Stickball, baseball. It was a wonderful distraction and it stuck with me throughout my life.
HE WAS A REAL-LIFE NEWSIE: As a child in New York City, I was like a mini-corporation unto myself. At age 9,I was shining shoes, then later — from 13 to 15 — I was selling newspapers, as well. I was a real newsie for a time. Mind you, I didn’t keep the money; it was going into a pot. I didn’t have a dad at home: I loved him but he was nomadic. Whatever I made was my contribution to the family.
HE WAS A NUMBERS RUNNER: I was so young, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. The people were very poor in our neighborhood. If they hit a number, there was a 25-to-1 payoff. This was their dream — to hit a number. So we justified it as this heroic thing, which is bull****.
HE’S AN ARMY VETERAN: I couldn’t stay in the Bronx. I was in trouble badly with police, so at 17 I enlisted for three years. Again, I didn’t plan it, it just happened. I ended up playing baseball in Germany. American teams played each other to entertain the troops. It made my life a lot easier. It didn’t hit me then, but when I was older I did think, ‘My dad never saw me play.’ I wish he could’ve seen me.
HE’S A POOL HUSTLER: When I was discharged, I became a pool hustler to make money: $50, $75, maybe a $100. I had a backer who had money and knew I could play: If I lost I didn’t owe anything, if I won I got 50 percent. I never lost: You know why? You never lose when you play with someone else’s money. There’s no pressure! If I were playing with my own money I probably would have been terrified and wouldn’t win.
HE’S A FAMILY MAN: When I met my wife, Sandy, I had no job whatsoever. I was earning what I could. We would go on dates in the Bronx; out for pizza and to the RKO Theater
(At this point Sandy calls to make sure he picked something up at the store.) Alright honey, yes I got your medicine. Oh, no, I forgot that. I’ll get it in a little bit.
Anyway, where was I? She was Jewish and I was Catholic — that was rare in those days. We knew her mom wouldn’t approve: She tried talking us out of it by saying, ‘You have no idea how much it’s gonna cost you. She needs hay fever shots’ (chuckles).
Sandy said, ‘Can’t we just go steady?’ I told her, ‘I’m a man; I don’t go steady. Let’s get married.’ … We’ve been married 60 years and had difficulties many, many times. She joked [on “CBS Sunday Morning”] that we’ve lasted because we don’t talk to each other. That was a joke!
But I realize sometimes people can’t cut it together. The main reason I love my father is he taught me what not to do. I would never, ever leave my kids or wife. Because I saw what my mom did. She was my hero. I always used to say, “If she were a man should could’ve been the Pope.” Now this great religious man comes along and calls himself Pope Francis. He’s Francis with an I, my mom’s Frances with an E. That’s crazy to me.
HE WAS A UNION BOSS: After failing at factory work (“I was so embarrassed by my idiocy I fired myself’), Aiello settled down: “My wife’s Uncle George got me the job at Greyhound. I spent 10 years there; started out as a baggage man, then was a shop steward and eventually became president of the union. I was very successful but got fired after a wildcat strike. I was floundering around trying to find employment. It was difficult for me to an agency — I was an ex-union president. They don’t give out those jobs, you have to get elected. They had nothing for me.”
HE WAS A PART-TIME THIEF: I’ve been so many damn things. I hate to admit it but I became a part-time thief. Never from people; it was always going into places with vending machines, cigarette machines. We were supporting ourselves with nickels and dimes and quarters. Unfortunately, that’s how I paid my rent at the time. I was married with a family to feed.
HE WAS A BOUNCER: There was this legendary place called the Improvisation in New York. The greatest came through there: Rodney Dangerfield, David Brenner, Richard Pryor. One day I walked by there — I knew the owner, Budd Friedman, with two Ds — and he knew I had three with another one coming. He made me a bouncer and a part-time emcee when he wasn’t available.
That was the beginning of acting, but I sort of backed into it. Acting is just another thing I had to do to do something. I never studied — and for me, actors came from another world. But I always loved movies. I had an absentee father, so I would develop fathers on screen.
HE’S NOT HIS ONSCREEN PERSONA: Yes, people are shocked when they meet me. They expect me to start throwing punches. I can be an imposing guy. I’m 228 lbs., I’m 6’3,” I can throw a punch.
In “Moonstruck” I was such a wimp. In “Do The Right Thing” I was a cantankerous bastard. “Purple Rose of Cairo,” I was a lousy husband. I guess in “Jacob’s Ladder” I was the only possibly palatable character — because every one else was a demon.
But in every movie, I try to inject an ounce of vulnerability so even if people say, ‘I hate this bastard,’ something still slips through and they can see a human being.
HE’S NOT A SOCIAL MEDIA WHORE: I don’t do Twitter or Facebook. I am social but not that social. I’m social in private with people I adore, not out there for the world to see. But my publicist tweeted after I was on the [“CBS Sunday Morning”] show talking about the book, and there were about 200 tweets. I was shocked how much love they showed me. I’m putting myself out there and they are really reacting. I couldn’t believe it.
HE IS AN HONORARY STATEN ISLANDER: Aiello has appeared several times at Lorenzo’s Cabaret in Bloomfield, but his S.I. roots are tied to his friendship with film producer Jules Nasso.
Oh, and the movie studio he tried to get built in Stapleton: “I only did it because Mayor Giuliani asked me. He came to me and said ‘Danny, I’m thinking of putting a studio on Staten Island. Could you be my liason?’
I’m no expert but I could this space was magnificent: 39 acres on the water, so sets could be delivered by sea, cutting costs. It would have meant 10,000 skilled labor jobs for people from the Staten Island area. It would have benefitted tax payers and the local people of Stapleton.
The reason it didn’t work: Giuliani set our meeting for September; it was to be his last meeting before leaving office. I’d spent six months in Stapleton when 9/11 happened and we lost our meeting with the mayor.
We inherited a new mayor who point-blankly refused to work with us and vilified us in every way. The ‘New York Times’ wrote about us like we were criminals. We asked to meet Mayor Bloomberg and the Economic Development Corporation several times, only to have those meetings postponed. The night of the final postponed meeting he had dinner with (the cast) of ‘The Sopranos’ — when I’m talking about something that’s going to benefit all of these people on Staten Island?
We ended up being thrown off the property after building the studio and a lot of people had invested a lot of money. I took no salary for three years.
Reluctantly, very reluctantly, I sued the city. It was written that we lost the case — we did not. We were awarded $2 million, which in no way could pay back our investors.
So, I resent him and in my book you will see a chapter about this.