Interview: Danny Aiello of Stiffs

In the Mob comedy Stiffs (Monterey Media; DVD $26.95; released on Sept. 14, 2010), actor Danny Aiello plays a hearse driver, Frank Tramontana, servicing a Mob-related funeral home. Frank gets drawn into a scheme revolving around a series of unfortunate “accidents” that are designed to clean up the neighborhood and fill the funeral parlor with much needed customers. Things get a bit complicated, of course, when such Mob movie-friendly co-stars as Jon Polito (American Gangster) and Frank Vincent (Casino) get everyone in over their heads, and Frank’s ex-wife (Lesley Ann Warren, Victor/Victoria) reappears to give Frank a dose of reality. Aiello spoke to Disc Dish about about this role, shooting in Boston and his career overall, including one of our favorite films, Once Upon a Time in America.

Disc Dish: We really enjoyed Stiffs, mostly because it looked like you were having such a good time.

Danny Aiello: It was a lot of fun, but I’ve got to tell you that I don’t remember as much about it now. It’s been over four years since we shot it. I think there was a deal in place, but it didn’t work out, and it was difficult getting the film released.

DD: There are a lot of films out there for distributors to choose from these days.

DA: It bugs me that it’s going straight to DVD, but I’m happy it’ll be seen.

DD: Stiffs is set in Boston. Did you, as a quintessential New York actor, enjoy shooting in Red Sox turf?

DA: Boston was outstanding. The Italian neighborhood in the northern part was just wonderful. We were there when there was snow on the ground, the buildings were so small … it looked like a Christmas postcard to me. But the town, the restaurants, the people — I love them all. I also did the movie Once Around up there many years ago, which was my only other Boston experience. And I love that, too.

DD: You’ve worked with so many great filmmakers over the years — Francis Coppola, Woody Allen, Spike Lee and so on — tell us what it’s like to work with the young ones who are just starting out.

DA: I love them. Working with a young filmmaker gives you a feeling of newness. They give you ideas that you haven’t tried before, and it gives you a sense of feeling brand new. [Stiffs director] Frank Ciota called me and came to New York City and we met and we liked each other. He was an Italian kid from Boston, and he shocked me with that thick Boston accent. And he’s a Harvard graduate! I said to him, ‘Frank, are you bullshitting me?’ But he impressed the hell out of me. I never thought for a moment that the script was Gone With the Wind — it was Stiffs. But it was funny, a little farcical at times, and at other times serious. It was the serious section at the end that I really liked the most.

DD: Okay, now I’ve got to get serious and ask you about one my favorite films in which you appeared — Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.

DA: Oh, Sergio Leone. Yeah, well, he loved me and I loved him. I used to call him my Italian Santa Clause. He had everyone bullshitted because he had everyone believing that he couldn’t understand English. He understood everything.  He made people think he didn’t quite understand what they were saying, he just wouldn’t let you know that. He was a very wise man. When we went to Cannes, he was treated like a king. He had a convoy of cars wherever he went. They would stop traffic to get him around, sirens would go off … unbelievable. It was an experience that I had never witnessed before and probably won’t see again, either. It’s so sad — he was planning on doing 90 Days at Stalingrad with Robert De Niro, and he told me that I would have a big part in it. It never happened.

About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.