From the July-August 1991 issue of Film Comment, here’s a portion of Gavin Smith’s interview with Danny Aiello. They talk Spike, Woody and Fort Apache, the Bronx.
Danny Aiello: Me and Spike—we’re an unlikely duo, you know: liberal, conservative, midget. We’re great friends. I think Spike wanted me because he knew of my political beliefs…
Q: What was your basic idea for Sal? Something to do with him being a father to the people in the neighborhood?
DA: Yeah. I wrote that stuff. When I first saw the script, I said to Spike, “Why is this guy in the fuckin’ neighborhood? Why is he there? I mean, this is stupid. If you want to, you could go to Vietnam and make money too.”I had to resolve in my own mind, he was there because he wanted to be there. Because he liked the people there. Because he can’t be there to make money—in an area where you cannot get insurance, okay? I told Spike, we needed something in the picture saying that you can’t get insurance. Spike didn’t want to put that in. So at the end of the picture I also wrote the last monologue where I look at [Mookie] and he says, “What are you worried about? You’re going to get the fuckin’ money back from insurance.” And that’s not true. You don’t get insurance there. The premiums are just too high.
So I came back, and I said, “This ain’t about money. This is about, I built this fuckin’ place with my bare hands—every fuckin’ screw . . .”—this is what I wrote. I wanted to say “I don’t get insurance,” but I had to say something else.
Five minutes before we shot the scene between me and [John] Turturro, I wrote it. And he agreed with it. “Where am I going? I’ve been here for 25 years. You see these people, you see the kids? These people grew up on my pizza—yeah, you laugh, but I’m proud of that.” Now, I said this is too fuckin’ corny, no one’s going to believe it. But they did and it made him a full-bodied, complex fuckin’ character.
Q: Do you feel more drawn towards trying to find the vulnerability in the characters that you play now? You’ve played a lot of strong, violent guys.
DA: I have that in my life, it’s prevalent. I think it shows. But in the violent guys I play, always I’ve let an ounce of vulnerability come through. It may be very subliminal. I’ve often had black people come over to me and say, “Man, Fort Apache, The Bronx, yeah!” Now, remember what I did in that picture.
Q: You threw a black kid off a roof.
DA: I was an evil fuckin’ guy. But for some reason people loved the character. Now, I’m a little pissed off about that, because two big scenes were cut out of the movie showing that he was a sick guy. A scene with me and Paul Newman, where we almost had a fight early on, I throw a punch at him, I’m drunk, I miss him, I fall down the floor, and he goes to pick me up. I say, “Get your fuckin’ hands off me.” He says, “Come on, I’ll take you to the car.” He said, “You’re gonna crack up the car.” I said, “Who gives a fuck? Nobody gives a fuck.” And I walk out staggering.
Then the scene in which we see where he lived, in a dump all by himself, he lost his family, he had no children. The guy was suicidal. Instead, they knocked out these scenes, and what did you see? Me arbitrarily go up to the roof and throw a kid off. Never showed the sickness beforehand.
Directors, they look at the composite, and they’re not concerned with the explanation of the individual character. The actor goes from A to Z, only to have the middle of the alphabet cut out. I mean, that’s a terrible fuckin’ thing to go through.
Q: What’s it like working with Woody Allen? Youve done it three times, a play and two movies.
DA: Woody’s great. I love Woody. My big disappointment with Woody is that he didn’t give meBroadway Danny Rose. I was supposed to be the singer, the guy he represented. [Woody] said, “You’re my ace in the hole, Danny. If no one gets it, you got it.”My heart was broke when I didn’t get it. He screen tested every conceivable singer, and I was told everyone wanted me to do it—Bobby Greenhut, Gordon Willis. But you don’t tell Woody anything. He chose this guy [Nick Apollo Forte], and Woody later told me that he chose him because he was the guy. The guy was never an actor—he came with his own material, he had an album of Italian songs. And the guy was terrific. Everybody thinks I played that character.
Q: What do you notice about Allen as a director?
DA: I think when he casts you, he’s directed you. He knows who he’s got. And his directing is very minimal. He is an intellectual, but he speaks in the smallest, most understood verbal tones: Be a little less angry, be a little more angry; be a little less happy, be a little more happy; take the edge off the anger.
Q: And you’re fine with that.
DA: Yeah, I’m fine with that. I don’t think I did my best work with Woody. I think if there’s self-intimidation, with me it probably happened with Woody more than anyone else.
Q: What do you mean?
DA: I expected so much of myself working with Woody, I never felt totally free. I put too much on myself. If you were to ask Woody, Woody used to look at me and say, “When you shoot a 70 it’s a hundred for most people.” But I never understood that. I always wanted to give Woody more. And whenever I left the set there with Woody, I always thought, I have a lot more to give that I didn’t give.
Q: How about with Spike Lee? I’ve heard that actors have a lot of trouble communicating with him. Somebody who worked with him said he heard that the only actor who wasn’t intimidated by Lee was you.
DA: I must tell you no man has ever been more open to me than Spike. Totally free. Spike is a technical director, I think, more than a head-to-head director. Spike lets you go.
One disagreement Spike and I had, and it took place in front of a lot of people, with about three-quarters of the movie complete: the scene in which I break the radio. They wanted Radio Raheem to grab me by the neck and slide me down the counter with bottles bouncing off my head, and how did I know this was going to happen? They had a storyboard in front of me. And when I saw it, I grabbed it and I said, “Come here. I won’t do that.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I don’t do that shit.” He said, “What are you talking about, Danny?” I said, “My fuckin’ character has integrity. You’re going to do a scene that’s been done a million times in cowboy pictures with someone being dragged down the bar with bottles. That’s wrong, it don’t work, it’s comedy time in the Rockies at a time that we don’t need comedy. This is a devastating moment in the picture. I won’t do that.”
The A.D., a great fuckin’ guy, saw what was happening and got everyone out of there and just left me and Spike there. So I said, “Spike, before I do that, I’ll walk off this picture. That’s how I feel about how you’re making a fool out of the character by doing that. I just won’t let it happen. First of all, if that was in the script at the beginning, that would have been a deal-breaker. I would have said, “I don’t do that.” So we talked and we talked, and then it turned out to be exactly what I wanted it to be, and ultimately what Spike wanted it to be. Drag me over the counter onto the floor—which was my son Danny, he’s the stunt man who did that. It worked better. It kept the tenseness of the moment.
Q: Was the action of smashing the ghetto blaster hard to justify?
DA: Yeah, the work happened to justify the act—I’ve always wanted to smash one. Very few people that I know in the city of New York have not at some time or other wanted to smash one of those fuckin’ things. So it didn’t take too much to raise my dander.
But right in the scene itself I had all that I needed. First of all, there were words used that were not scripted. Giancarlo Esposito called me a guinea bastard. When he called me that, I looked at him, I said, “What did you say, you nigger motherfucker?” That wasn’t scripted either. What we did was we got into street shit. I called him a black motherfucker; he said, “You guinea fuck.” And all of that was real. I’m saying real. We were shouting at the top of our lungs—and we didn’t shout in control. On the stage, if you shout, you’re totally in control. We were shouting out of control. I was losing my voice at times, which to me was great. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to let it go.
Spike was in the corner jerkin’ off, he knew that I’m an actor and I wouldn’t back up. He knew when he hired me that I could be in Bed Stuy and it ain’t gonna make a bit of fuckin’ difference, if someone calls me a guinea I’m gonna call him a nigger. That’s how I am. And he knew this. He’s smart. Well, what happened is, we’re in Bed Stuy—it’s an Uzi neighborhood, it’s fuckin’ drugs all over the street. This is bad. All the bodegas have bars. Patrons are not allowed in. That’s why you can’t get insurance there. Anyway, there’s about 400 people rimming the area while I’m yelling “You black mother”—they’re all outside. “You nigger cocksucker”—and they’re going, “Yeaahhh!” They’re screaming. Because the thing about these people is, individually or collectively, they admire strength. They admire fuckin’ balls. And they know that you’re the outnumbered one, and for you to rise above that fear, they admire that. This is who they are. They say, “Holy shit, this is the fuckin’ movies.” There was a lot of reaction. But right after the scene, we all hugged.
Q: They probably loved you for telling the truth.
DA: That’s right. If I became white bread and began to use softer words, it don’t mean shit. If I just said “black bastard” what would that have been? When I said “you nigger motherfucker” I was reducing myself to the language of those street people, which is what they do. It’s right for [Sal] to use that language. I thought he was a fair man. Even if he was unfair, he was unfair to everybody. He was unfair to his sons, and he treated Mookie probably better than he treated his own sons.
And another thing—about the pictures on the wall: I believe that as Danny Aiello. You don’t tell me who the fuck to put on my wall. That’s my house. To put the blacks on the wall would have made the character a bullshit character, it wouldn’t have made the character complex, it would have made him a placating phony fuckin’ ginzo. As a black person going there and seeing this man with his heroes, I would sit there and say, “This fucking guy is an honest man.” It was about a sense of freedom to put up in your place who you want.
there's a scene in the Making of Do The Right Thing documentary (it's on the Criterion DVD) where Spike and Danny are arguing over Sal is a racist, apparently to this day they still disagree over it.
Personally I think Sal probably was racist, but not in some cartoonish Bull Connor way. More like "I'm good to these people...as long as they know their place."
The bit about the insurance is a great detail and it would have made the entire scene more complex had Spike left it in.
 Agreed. Respect is more important than anything out in the streets; for what it's worth, Aiello seems to have never lost sight of that. For better or for worse.
 true, but I bet a good portion of the audience still wouldn't understand the impact; it certainly would have brought a lot more questions about his character alone and perhaps Spike didn't want that, only they know. The line he did use was great, I certainly understood what it meant to him.
3) I think it also speaks to Spike not making a realistic movie like the 1970s movies. His version of Bed Stuy was stylized in every way.
(3,4) but isn't that whole argument over the insurance line, Spike's entire career in a nutshell? All it would've taken was that one little wrinkle to give the entire final act of that movie a whole different level of resonance. But that would've meant a) letting reality intrude on Spike's stylized BedStuy and b) making Mookie just THAT MUCH less of a sympathetic character. It would've meant Mookie/Spike not having the last word, and there's no way Spike could've allowed that to happen. It's ego.
I love Spike, I do, but I feel like his entire career he's within the 10 yard line of greatness and he just can't get into the endzone.
5) Agreed. And Aiello alludes to some of the limitations.
I think Pete Dexter hit the nail on the head in a 1992 column:
"To me, the movies are competent but not especially memorable; all of them reaching for something that is beyond the famous filmmaker and tennis-shoe salesman's grasp.
Giving him what's due, he knows it's there.
Cutting through all the social posturing, he can't find it."
Some of them at least are memorable. DTRT is because we're still talking about it. "The 25th Hour" and "Clockers" I remember. I would say Lee has been a raw talent all his career. The 10 yard line sums it up well.
(6) that's a great quote. I think of Tarantino, who to me is so similar to Spike in a lot of ways but just seems more able to "close the deal" with each movie. I feel like Spike's career is made up of "two thirds of a great movie" over and over again.
Think about Jungle Fever. There's a movie that is good, great at times. And then there's the last ten minutes...the last shot. And it turns itself into a punchline. For no discernible reason. He does it over, and over, and over again. It's like if Scorsese never found Thelma Schoonmaker. Someone willing to say "no."
I'd like to see "The 25th Hour."
(9) it's real good. Of his recent stuff I enjoyed that, Inside Man, and Red Hook Summer the most.
I'll still see anything he does, I just feel like he never quite lived up to his potential. And I think this Kickstarter thing is ridiculous.
The Inside Man reached the end zone and beyond. There's nothing wrong with that movie. To me it has good as it gets. Not a blockbuster, but a great little movie.