It is winter, 2011. I am sitting in a metal folding chair in a studio on the 10th floor of 244 West 54th Street, in Manhattan. In the last few hours, I have learned all the songs to the one-man musical, “Capone”, written by Robert Mitchell, for which I will act as a back up singer / player to our lead, Danny Aiello, in an upcoming reading. I am looking through the sheet music and trying to commit it all to memory before this amazing actor enters the room. This is Danny Aiello, after all. This is Sal in Do the Right Thing. This is Mia Farrow’s angry and sad husband in Purple Rose of Cairo, which I can remember watching when I was 15 and thinking, “man, that guy is a heck of a lovable jerk”. I was about to meet this larger than life man. Suddenly, the studio door opens and I watch as an artist, idol, champion, teacher and friend walk into the room and, fortunately for me, into my life.
An Artist, Idol, Champion, Teacher
We did the reading of “Capone” together several times over a five year period. Danny, who was 78 when I met him, was essentially solely responsible for a two hour monologue, broken up by numerous beautiful songs. My job, along with several other excellent actor/singers, was to sing the intricate and melodic back up vocal parts and to play several small, mostly non-speaking characters who interacted with Danny as he embodied Al Capone in a beautiful three-dimensional portrayal. Each rehearsal and reading brought new life to the character from Danny. Never was a line read the same way twice. Every moment was its own and Danny’s infectious energy was enough to make looking away an impossible task. On breaks, Danny would occasionally talk about past roles and what it was like to work with certain directors. Woody is a “genius and a nice guy”. Spike is a “a friend and a real collaborator”. In speaking about the character he played in “Purple Rose of Cairo”, he said “man, I was a helluva bastard in that picture”.
As well as being consistently diligent and ridiculously talented, Danny was an extremely humble person. He told me several times that he doubted his own legitimacy as an actor because, as he said, he didn’t “go to school for this”. It was impossible to convince Danny that he simply had a gift that made him uniquely real and honest on stage and screen and that he had naturally what we all strive and work for. I asked Danny if he would ever wanna come see my show, Broadway’s Next Hit Musical. Amazingly, he said yes and showed up later that same week. He loved the show, coming back several times and even bringing his family. Danny gave me a compliment that to this day continues to make me feel both thrilled and uncomfortable in it’s grandiosity. Danny even went out of his way to help me by calling Lorne Michaels to say “you gotta see this kid”. I have never felt championed and supported as an actor the way I did with Danny.
Danny was a complete professional. He never did anything at less than 110%. He always came in prepared and was both clear in his opinions and open to those of others. He spent much energy making it clear to everyone in the room that we were all equals in the confines of art. He thanked us all constantly for our participation and was generous of spirit in any and all ways. His smile shined so brightly that even when we wanted to stop after hours of singing and go home, we would unflinchingly stay just to support him and to share a few more moments in his sweet and warm presence.
It is December, 2013. I am at The Triad Theater in New York City, having just seen Danny perform with his band at their annual holiday concert. Danny has just sung his heart out and warmed up the room with his joyful spirit. We are all on line waiting to greet him. One by one, folks walk in and an exhausted Danny, with the help of his amazing handler, assistant and friend, Louie Baldonieri, greets his fans and makes them feel that THEY are the focus of the night and that HE is the lucky one in getting to see them. They all go on their way, making room for the next excited greeter. When my turn comes, Danny tells me to sit next to him. I do and he continues to greet people one by one as I sit and watch. Not sure why he wants me to be there with him, I wait until the last fan leaves. When they do, Danny sits down next to me. He wipes his brow, turns to me and smiles his humble and radiant smile. He says “Robert, how was I?”
You were amazing, Danny. Truly amazing.
Danny Aiello died on December 12, 2019, at age 86 at a hospital in New Jersey, following a brief illness. He is survived by his wife, Sandy Cohen and his children, Rick, Jaime, and Stacey Aiello.