Danny Aiello's reputation was arguably established by his performance on Broadway in the Albert Innaurato comedy Gemini. But he quit the long-running, late-'70s hit after only a year. "I remember leaving it prematurely," the actor recalls, "because I didn't want people to think I couldn't get another job."
That hasn't been a problem. Soon after departing Gemini, Aiello began landing film roles. Soon enough, he was one of the most sought-after character actors in Hollywood, appearing in films like "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Do the Right Thing" (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), "Moonstruck" and "City Hall." This summer he makes a rare return to the stage, starring as the title character in Susan Charlotte's play The Shoemaker at Theatre Row's Acorn Theatre.
There was much in the role that spoke to Aiello. Like the Hell's Kitchen-based shoemaker he portrays, he is Italian and from New York. "I spent a lot of time in Hell's Kitchen," recalls the actor, whose family lived on West 68th Street. "But I never went to a play. We were on home relief, which was tantamount to welfare today. We couldn't afford Broadway."
He did, however, have an uncle who was an usher at a movie palace, so free admission to matinees was part of his childhood. Aiello and Charlotte met at Food for Thought, the Players Club play-reading series run for many years by the playwright. More often than not, the lunchtime performances featured plays by Charlotte, who has written more than three dozen one-acts.
Aiello appeared in the 2010 reading of The Shoemaker, then a one-act. The drama was also made into a film, starring Aiello, Margaret Colin, Judith Light, Bob Dishy, Laila Robins and John Shea.
The drama takes place on 9/11. Aiello's character was born to a Jewish family in Rome. He survived the Nazi occupation during World War II when, at the age of nine, he was put on a boat headed to America by his father. The rest of his family was not as fortunate and perished at the hands of the Germans. Six decades later, the cobbler's thoughts are with a customer who has left a pair of high heels to be repaired before going off to her job in the World Trade Center.
"I never heard tissue time like that," Aiello says, recalling the audience's tearful reaction at the reading. Knowing that one-acts seldom make for commercial prospects, the actor suggested Charlotte expand the work. "I didn't realize when I said that that one-act plays usually fail when extended," he says. "But in this case I think it's succeeded tremendously."