Actor Helps Theater, Talks Music, Acting and Gandolfini

Danny Aiello is much more than a familiar Italian face that rose to fame during a gilded age of Hollywood whom you might recognize from any of the some 90 films he’s acted in. Last Friday he gave fans a glimpse of that at a meet-and-greet at The Greenhouse Café in Ship Bottom, preceding a performance at the OceanFirst Theater in Manahawkin on Saturday.

“It was sensational!” Aiello said of the gluten-free macaroni he indulged in before speaking with The SandPaper at The Greenhouse. “He also gave me a ricotta which was delicious. I’m a ricotta guy, babe!”

After that it was right to business. Aiello seemed fully aware he was in town for a performance that could be the start of turning the Stafford Township Arts Center on McKinley Avenue into a destination theater rather than a pedestrian theater where crowds may or may not show.

“The idea here is to allow the public to see this kind of show,” said Aiello. “I am somewhat of a name because of what I’ve done. This is their first show to allow the people the opportunity to know that these kinds of shows are coming – far better than I, musically. You’ve got the Bronx Wanderers coming, who are sensational.”

Aiello was referring to a joint effort between the Stafford Township Arts Center and CBC Stage 2 Productions, which lined up a performance that took place Saturday at the theater. It is the first of a series of events that will include the Silver Starlight Orchestra later this month, and comedian Mike Marino in August.

“We’re bringing in great entertainment at affordable prices,” said John Conte of CBC Stage 2 Productions. “We’re here for the duration, and Danny’s a great friend, and he’s helping us out.” Conte plans on keeping shows within a $15 to $30 price range, with part of the proceeds being donated to charities such as Restore the Shore, Wounded Warriors, or going toward instruments in schools. Follow “We’re have plans in January to bring in a couple of American Idols.”

On Saturday, a 15-minute introductory video of movie clips “that’s gonna knock you on your ass” began the show, recalling memorable roles from such movies as “The Godfather Part II,” “Moonstruck” and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” for which Aiello was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Then he crooned through a number of songs from the many albums he has recorded in the latter part of his career.

“It is such a beautiful theater,” he said. “The theater is gorgeous, and to be sitting there doing nothing is ridiculous. You want people to come from other places to this theater. It’s the first try but look how excited I am!”

Aiello reached the eighth decade of life in June; despite this, his energy and enthusiasm remain endless. He doesn’t look a day over 60 … at least that’s what he told me to say, and I’m listening. His secret? Nothing more than plenty of coffee, the actor said, claiming he never indulged in drugs in his life.

“I started at the age of 35 – look at me – and I made it pretty damn good. Academy Awards, 25 major goddamn movies; I never studied in my life. Are you kidding me?! If I made it, s***, anybody can make it!”

Aiello’s focus last weekend, however, was on his music – an avocation he picked up later in life after playing the lead in “Capone,” his first Broadway musical. And he is more than just a Sinatra standard crooner.

Aiello takes credit for being the first to fuse standards with rap on an album, having worked with EMI songwriter Hasan Johnson in 2011 on the album Bridges. Aiello admittedly put aside his disdain for gangsta rap to do so. “I met him at a studio and I said, ‘Holy crap, is that how you rap?!’ Because it wasn’t gangster, it wasn’t street, it wasn’t dirty. So we went into a studio. I gave him ‘Bessame Mucho’… 500,000 hits! No publicity, they just found the song.”

Currently, Aiello is working on a blues-based album inspired by J.J. Grey, whom he called “the blackest white man I’ve ever seen in my life,” and featuring tracks that will include Bruce Springsteen’s “Rendezvous.”

Aiello’s show mixed such contemporary songs as “Lady in Red” with classics like “This Magic Moment.” The latter he performs in tribute to the song’s late, legendary songwriter Doc Pomus; a chance meeting with Pomus once changed Aiello’s life.

As a bouncer in his early 30s, Aiello met Pomus, who was crippled by polio as a child, just before his acting began. “I would help him into his wheelchair, put him inside and get him in to watch his comedy. He was one of the first guys who said to me – and he had no reason to say it, but – ‘You’re bulb lights!’ I didn’t even know what that meant, and he used to say to me, ‘You’re gonna be a star,’ outta nowhere. He inspired the hell outta me and made me feel like I had something.”

The actor’s rise to movies and fame came in a way he described as unlike anyone else “that’s ever lived in this world,” beginning with performances in three small plays.

“I don’t know any actor who was asked without any experience at all to do a play in a churchyard playhouse seating 90 people on 53rd Street between Ninth and 10th avenues. … We went in there and we did off, off, off, off, off Broadway, 11 performances. I’m thrilled with this. I did ‘Wheelbarrow Closes,’ ‘Knockout’ and ‘Lamp Post Reunion,’ all of them in that theater. All of them went to Broadway with me starring in them. Never had heard of that ever happening.”

Following the recent death of James Gandolfini, a journalist showed Aiello a photo of a 12-year-old at that first play “Lamp Post Reunion” who would stay a fan for life. It was the late “Sopranos” star himself, who last spoke to Aiello on June 20, Aiello’s birthday. “He comes over to me and he does this (makes bowing gesture) to me at the table. And he said that word to me, ‘I honor you.’ That’s a nice guy. I don’t know what it meant, but that’s a nice guy.”

Aiello’s emotions were stirred when recalling a lone interview he did with the NBC network amid a barrage of media inquiries. “I said, ‘The reason I’m even doing this on NBC is because I just lost my son … (pause) and I want his parents to know how (pause) how I feel for them. How I know what they’re going through.’ That’s all I wanted to say. I didn’t know Jimmy, but I know he left something behind that they’re gonna be proud of. People are gonna know and talk about him forever, and they’re doing that now.”

Aiello’s son Danny Aiello III died in 2010 of pancreatic cancer.

Aiello announced that an upcoming book to be published by Simon & Schuster would detail his life, after he chooses from five New York Times writers a month from now.

A man who could easily walk off into the sunset, retaining endless respect and admiration, Aiello talked about why he refuses to stop entertaining.

“I’d die in five minutes. Nobody’s ever asked me this question. I wanna be loved, man. They don’t have to shout out to me. Just respect me and love me for what I do.”

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