By FELICIA R.LEE
Danny Aiello, a big guy with a big New Yawk accent, is best known for roles like Sal, the boisterous pizzeria owner in Spike Lee’s 1989 film, “Do the Right Thing,” which won him an Oscar nomination. In the play “The Shoemaker,” which is now in previews and opens on Sunday at the Acorn Theater, Mr. Aiello is a different kind of New Yorker. A wounded immigrant, he seethes with rage and sadness in the title role of an Italian Jewish shoemaker named Giuseppe, holed up in his shop in Hell’s Kitchen on 9/11, trying to shut out the chaos outside and the memories of loss it ignites.
Enlarge This Image
Librado Romero/The New York Times
At 78, the actor Danny Aiello remains busy. He is in “The Shoemaker,” about to open Off Broadway.
Enlarge This Image
Danny Aiello and Alma Cuervo in “The Shoemaker.”
A two-act drama by Susan Charlotte, directed by Antony Marsellis, “The Shoemaker” began life as a one-act play in 2001, and Mr. Aiello starred in it last summer, also at the Acorn. And it became a 2007 film, “A Broken Sole,” with the same three creative partners in place.
Mr. Aiello, 78, whose film career took off in 1973 with “Bang the Drum Slowly,” went on to make dozens of films, including “Moonstruck” in 1987. His long list of theater credits include Biggie the bartender in “Lamppost Reunion,” and others in “Hurlyburly” and “The House of Blue Leaves.” Mr. Aiello is also a singer, touring with an eight-piece jazz band. He is working on a one-man musical about the life of Al Capone.
In a recent interview in Manhattan he talked about “The Shoemaker,” coping with loss and his approach to his craft. The following are edited excerpts.
Q. As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, there are a lot of projects commemorating that day. What makes “The Shoemaker” distinctive?
A. We talk about all kinds of terrorism. We talk about terrorism existing far back, Nazism, Fascism. I’m an emotional person. I want to speak out for those who can’t articulate, who want to scream at the top of their lungs: “Look what they did to us. Look what happened.” And that’s what I’m doing on the stage.
Q. You said you came up with the idea of making Giuseppe, the shoemaker, Jewish. Why?
A. It made it somewhat unpredictable, not just a shoemaker, but a shoemaker with a lot of threads in his life. A man who recalls his father at the age of 9, a father who sent him to safety in the United States, who he detested but only realized later was sending him to safety.
Q. Your father left your family. The shoemaker also feels deserted by his father, who failed to leave Italy as Hitler advanced. Did you draw on your feelings about your father for the role?
A. Sure. My father never saw me play ball, and I was an outstanding ballplayer. I missed all that adoration. I used to make up stories about my father. I would go to the movies and look for a character who looked like my father. Wallace Beery. That was my father image on screen. That was the closest I had to a father. I never resented him. My father was a good man, but he was a con man. He was a wanderer, nomadic.
Q. Susan Charlotte said you not only learned to speak Italian and German for this part but also that there were a lot of late-night phone calls and emails.
A. Look, I just lost my son. [Danny Aiello III, a stunt coordinator, died of pancreatic cancer last year.] I need distractions. Good distractions, not bad ones. A good distraction for me is a great play. My poor wife is at home — we sleep in the same bed all the time — and she hears 18 different people, I’m doing words all night. I’m reading lines, I’m interpreting lines, I’m memorizing lines.
Q. You are a high school dropout without any formal acting training, someone who worked as a union organizer, then as a bouncer, among other jobs. What would you say to an aspiring young actor?
A. I was 40 when I did my first movie. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. My interpretation of acting at the time, because I didn’t know how to build a character, was pure energy. People call me an instinctive actor. I used to consider that an insult early on, only because I had never studied. Now, when people call me instinctive, I love it, because it’s what I am. It’s always new to me. I would suggest to every kid, go to school, go out and train as much as humanly possible. And you’ll arrive at a character probably a lot quicker than I do. Q. You describe yourself as a conservative Republican and a wallflower. What do you think of Hollywood?
A. They’re probably the people responsible for outsourcing work more than any other company I’ve seen, but they claim to be liberals, great liberals. And they’re not. But what I say to you is I’m hearing them saying things like “for the little man,” and “for the unions.” Then of course you see movies being sent from Hollywood and everywhere else to places like Canada and right-to-work states, like North Carolina, where there is no union intervention, and they can get a movie done for half the price. I did a few movies in Canada, and I consider myself a turncoat for doing it.
Q. After this you will do “Capone the Musical,” in which you play Capone?
A. It’s not the caricature we’re accustomed to seeing, with the big white hat. This is a man who could have been a Lee Iacocca, running a company. We don’t have all the details in place, but it’s a one-man musical, with 22 songs by [the composer and playwright] Robert Mitchell.