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Beyond the Bronx With Danny Aiello : The gifted--and busy--actor's street smarts give him an edge on Broadway and in films

September 24, 1989|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Danny Aiello is one of the few actors who has won an Emmy and an Obie, worked with Spike Lee and Sergio Leone and can teach you how to build a zip gun.

Relaxing in his trailer between scenes on his latest movie, the ebullient, delightfully profane actor took a page from his visitor's note pad and sketched a scale model of his favorite Bronx boyhood weapon.

"We used to make them in shop class," he explained, drawing the outline of a snub-nosed zip gun. "This is where you'd put a piece of pipe . . . and here's where the bullet would go. Then you'd put a nail behind it and hook it up to a rubber band. . . ."

Aiello beamed as he completed the drawing. "When you were ready to shoot, you'd pull back the rubber band and . . . Wham! "

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 1, 1989 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Danny Aiello--A picture in the Sept. 24 Calendar identified Aiello as in a scene from "The Preppie Murder." The picture was actually from the upcoming feature, "Harlem Nights."

Without any prompting, Aiello pulled down his trousers and revealed an ugly scar on his upper thigh. "When I was 13, I got shot with one of those guns in a street gang fight," he said proudly. "It bled like crazy."

Is it any wonder that when film makers want an actor with street smarts, they come looking for Danny Aiello? At 50, he's a big man with tattoos on his forearms and the athletic build of an aging boxer. As a child, he was so poor he put oil-cloth in his shoes to fill the holes. As an adult, he spent 15 years toiling for a bus company, running a union local and working as a bouncer before turning to acting in his mid-30s.

Since then, he's played opposite everyone from Robert De Niro (in "Once Upon a Time in America") to Cher (in "Moonstruck"), worked extensively with Woody Allen (in "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and the play "The Floating Light Bulb") and won a Los Angeles Drama Critics' Circle award for his role as a coked-up TV actor in last year's L.A. production of "Hurlyburly."

But the reason women are now shouting encouragement to Aiello from passing cars is his part in Spike Lee's much-debated film, "Do the Right Thing." The role as the embattled pizzeria owner trapped in the midst of a racial conflagration, was initially written for De Niro, Aiello modestly suggests. ("When he couldn't do it, I believe he recommended me.") The part has won him critical garlands and a serious shot at an Oscar nomination.

"It's been really gratifying to get so many great reviews, and I must admit I've been reading 'em all," Aiello said. "But the best thing is to have a chance to play a character who's in a movie that really has something to say."

No doubt Aiello would love an Oscar nomination, but for an Italian kid from the Bronx, some honors carry more weight. "I can't tell you how excited I am," he confided on a recent afternoon. "I've been chosen to be the grand marshal in (New York's) Columbus Day Parade."

Nothing captures the media imagination more than a brutal murder case, especially when it involves sex, drugs, strangulation and a crowd of rich, fast-living Manhattan teen-agers. So it was inevitable that barely a year after Robert Chambers was convicted of manslaughter in the death of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin during a late-night tryst in Central Park, ABC-TV is recounting the horror in "The Preppie Murder," a TV movie airing tonight at 9 on ABC.

With downtown Los Angeles standing in for New York's Upper East Side, Aiello was on the set playing Mike Sheehan, the homicide detective who helped crack the case. Wearing a crisp blue suit with a shoulder holster and NYPD badge, Aiello spent most of the day shooting a scene set at the Levin apartment after they've received news of their daughter's death. Standing in front of an elevator at the top of a stairwell, Aiello's character found himself trapped between a braying pack of TV news wolves and Levin's grieving father, who lunged at reporters with a baseball bat.

Take after take, the reporters shouted: "What was your daughter doing in Central Park?!" while Levin menacingly waved his bat, bellowing: "Stop annoying my family! I'll kill you!"

Playing the pragmatic homicide cop, Aiello tried to soothe the father's frazzled nerves while fending off the media horde. Finally, the reporters' hysterical shouting triggered his own emotions. "Hey!" he exploded. "He just lost his daughter!"

"Danny has very strong feelings about this case, so he's been very involved," writer-director John Herzfeld said between takes. "But he's had to keep it all in, because as a policeman, his character has to put a lid on his feelings. So he's like a rubber band. We keep stretching him and stretching him, but we never let him break."

The critics will have their say about the film's authenticity, but it has at least one key supporter--Mike Sheehan himself. Before he began filming, Herzfeld got Sheehan and Aiello together at a saloon, where they stayed till 3 a.m., swapping stories.

Still, Herzfeld was worried: "I asked Mike, 'Is it a problem, that Danny's not Irish and he's older than you?' And Mike said: 'Are you kidding? He's perfect. He's got the strength, the compassion. And he's definitely got the street smarts.' "

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