TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to my interview with actor Danny Aiello. He died last Thursday at the age of 86. His breakthrough performances were in "The Purple Rose Of Cairo" as Mia Farrow's husband, "Moonstruck" as Cher's fiance and Spike Lee's 1989 film "Do The Right Thing," in which he played the longtime owner of a pizzeria in an African American neighborhood in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. His character Sal had a wall of fame in the pizza place featuring photos of famous Italian Americans. One of his customers, played by Giancarlo Esposito, confronted him about why the wall only had Italian Americans.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DO THE RIGHT THING")
GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: (As Buggin' Out) Hey, Sal. How come you got no brothers on the wall here?
DANNY AIELLO: (As Sal) You want brothers on the wall? Get your own place. You can do what you want to do. You can put your brothers and uncles and nieces and nephews, your stepfather, stepmother - whoever you want. You see? But this is my pizzeria. American Italians on the wall only.
RICHARD EDSON: (As Vito) Take it easy, Pop.
AIELLO: (As Sal) You, don't start with me.
ESPOSITO: (As Buggin' Out) What? Yeah, that might be fine, Sal. But you own this. Rarely do I see any American Italians eating in here. All I see is black folks. So since we spend much money here, we do have some say.
AIELLO: (As Sal) You looking for trouble? Are you a troublemaker, is that what you are? You making trouble?
ESPOSITO: (As Buggin' Out) Yeah, I'm a troublemaker. I'm making trouble.
AIELLO: (As Sal) You know, you're a ball-breaker. You're always coming in here looking for trouble, aren't you? Suppose I busted your head, how would you - Mookie. Mookie, you want to get your friend out of here?
GROSS: The racial tensions between Aiello and his customers grew as the movie progressed. Aiello was nominated for an Oscar for that performance. I spoke with Danny Aiello in 1992 after he starred in the film "Ruby" as Jack Ruby, the man who shocked America by shooting and killing President Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Danny Aiello told me that, like many Americans, he saw Ruby's murder of Oswald live on network TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
AIELLO: I went, yip, yip, hooray. I believed at that time, Terry, in street justice - an eye for an eye. He killed our president, and this guy killed him - good. That's how I felt. And this, of course, was the germ of the idea where I began to formulate the character of Ruby. I made him, in my own mind, a hero. And as we know, the way Ruby ends up, we find out that he's really not a hero, and he's realizing it toward the end of his life. But that was my reaction.
GROSS: You portray Ruby as a small-time guy who's gotten in over his head...
GROSS: ...And who often has to bluff his way out of tight situations. And you do wonderful line readings in the movie. I mean, I think you just convey a lot with your voice and with where you put the accents in certain readings of lines. I wonder how you rehearse these things even at home. And I don't even necessarily mean on a set. But when you got this script and you were trying to figure out how you would do the character, how you would do specific lines, what's your process like for testing out your line reading?
AIELLO: (Laughter) I wish I had a process. I do it until I learn it. I don't memorize it to the extent where it's like rote. I never - It's always got to be fresh and new to me. I like to go before the cameras knowing the lines, but I'm not totally sure of them. Do you follow what I mean? So that when they do come out of my mouth, they appear to be coming out of my mouth for the first time. I don't know what the system is.
People at the American Academy ask me to come over and teach. I said, what am I going to teach? They said, the Aiello system. I said, what is that? All I know is I sit by myself with myself, I work on a script, and it's a matter of repetition, constantly going over the entire script, interrelating with other characters, what other characters mean to me. And then I find after making all the plans that I can, when I'm finally going before the cameras opposite the other actor, things change, and they all start all over again, and it's probably nothing that I've been rehearsing. But I like to go in there with that feeling that I'm not quite sure what all the lines are so that it comes out not like rote, as I said before.
GROSS: You started acting when you were in your mid-30s.
GROSS: Did you have any idea before that that you were even interested in acting?
AIELLO: No, I gravitated toward acting, Terry, because I thought it might be - it's a communication media, and I was a fairly good talker, and I was fairly good with people, that maybe this would be the way to go. I was uneducated. I never - I was in high school for about a half hour. I went in one door and out the other. I went to James Monroe. So I really had no education, no trade. So I felt that the obvious place to go after losing the union job would be into acting, never realizing how difficult that profession is. But I did it anyway. But I never thought I would be a failure. I always thought to some level I would be a success if I dedicated myself, and look what happened, you know.
GROSS: I'm interested in your early life. Your father was a Teamster and was on the road a lot.
AIELLO: Yeah, my father was not home. We had what could be perceived as a fatherless home.
AIELLO: A man that would come home once a year and impregnate my mother by mistake, while we all are macaroni and beans. And - but Mama managed to find a steak for him somehow, and he ate it. He ate it very proudly at the table while we ate macaroni and beans. And - but it was my mother who was solely responsible for the bringing up of seven children.
GROSS: I know you went to work when you were very young, but I think you also got involved in robberies when you were pretty young, too.
AIELLO: Yeah, I did some crazy things. I had a fear, Terry, of being homeless. And I was - early on, I don't know when that was put on my mind. I guess maybe if Mama decided to run off like Dad, then the seven kids would have been homeless. So I guess that was the germ of the idea in my mind. And as I grew up and I lost my union presidency job, and there was very little for me - you know, I was making a hundred, 90 (ph) a year, then I was making nothing. I got frightened, and I thought I wasn't going to be able to keep a roof over the heads of my four children and my wife and myself, and I did things to compensate for that.
And they were not armed robberies. They were not hitting people over the head. There were some maybe deserted buildings where there might be a safe. I did some silly, stupid things that I feel ashamed I did. You know, I was desperate. I thought we were going to be homeless, and that was the only way I can turn because, at that point in my life, it was pretty hard for me to have no money coming in and supporting a family of six - four children, my wife and I.
GROSS: Did you make sure the statute of limitations was up before mentioning it publicly? (Laughter).
AIELLO: Yeah, as a matter of fact, I did. What a wise son of a gun I am. But I did. And, you know, I don't want you to think that it was - like this was an ongoing thing forever; it was a thing that happened until the fear became so great in me that I said, I just can't do this because what I would be doing is losing my family anyway if I did have to go in. And things, just as God wants, started to work out. See I had the problem I never wanted to borrow money from anyone. I wouldn't take money. I wouldn't ask. I wouldn't accept help from anyone.
And the only help that I did accept was something that really set me off for stealing, and that was welfare. I didn't have the guts to go into the welfare office; my wife did, twice, on welfare for two months. My wife stood in line, humiliated. And she came from a family that had money. She was humiliated, and she stood there. And I swore I would never do that again. So when we started to get destitute again, I refused to go back there. So the next thing that I did was decide to make money in another way. And I'd break into cigarette machines, jukeboxes. I used to pay rent with quarters and nickels.
AIELLO: It's crazy. And I'm ashamed to tell you this, Terry. Now, I don't want you to think any less of me for it, but I'll tell you - people do that, and we can be critical and should be critical because no one should have to do that.
GROSS: You know, one of your really big breakthrough roles was as Sal in "Do The Right Thing." And I really loved you in that film, and I always felt watching that movie that Spike Lee probably saw the character as a blatant racist, but that you gave the character a depth and integrity. And I know you actually even wrote lines for the character to flesh the character out.
AIELLO: Yeah. If you pick up his original script, the original, you'll see that he was a one-note character. To me, he was what I would have called, in the old days, a token black in an all-white film. In this case, he could have been a token white in an all-black film. When I looked at it, I told Spike - I said, Spike - I said, this guy's a plantation owner. This guy's a boring character. Why is he there? Why is he in Bed-Stuy? Why does he got a pizzeria in a totally black neighborhood? I said, he can be anywhere.
So I defined in my own mind that he's there because that's where he wants to be. He likes the people. He enjoys the people he's working with. He saw them get older. He enjoys the fact that they love his food. He's that kind of a simple guy. And it was because of that, I think, that made the character a more sympathetic character and there a multidimensional character, as opposed to a simple out-and-out racists.
Now, you may define in your own mind or come to the conclusion that Sal is a racist, but it's not obvious. See - there was one part of the film at the end where it bothered me that Spike's character Mookie said to Sal, my character, what are you arguing about? - after the place was burned down - you're going to get your money back on insurance. I was infuriated by that remark because you cannot, as a store owner, as a business owner, in Bed-Stuy get insurance. So I said, this is a joke. Why are you saying that? And I said, I want to come back with - what? - are you kidding? I couldn't get earthquake insurance in this neighborhood. He didn't want that line in.
So I had to write this other line - this isn't about money; this is about I built this place with my bare hands. You remember that line? So he compromised somewhat. He didn't want me to say I couldn't get earthquake insurance in this neighborhood, but he did permit me to say, this isn't about money; this is about I built this place with my bare hands. Spike, I have to give him this - before I agreed to do this, I said I wanted to make some changes. He said, anything you want to do to make it better. That's what Spike said. And he went with the program as we were going.
GROSS: Danny Aiello, recorded in 1992. He died last Thursday at age 86. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about our longest war, the 18-year Afghanistan War - the mistakes, flawed strategy, expense, loss of life and how U.S. administration officials and military commanders early on questioned what we were doing there but misled the public. We talk with journalist Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post, who got internal documents about the war through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. I hope you can join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.