I'm sitting at Tecce's restaurant on the North End
of Boston. It's cold outside and I'm dressed in
somber, dark colors sitting among other mourners now
at the post funeral gathering. The trays of cold cuts,
salads, and pasta are set up, warm and inviting. But
the camera crews scurry around them, setting up
lights, the Assistant Director directs extras where to
stand as a young make-up woman darts from face to face
making shine dull. This is not a funeral, but a shoot
of the film, STIFFS by the Ciota brothers, director,
Frank and writer, Joe starring Danny Aiello with Roger
Marino as the Executive Producer. And there he is,
sitting next to me. He plops down on the bench. He
looks tired. He's sniffing.
"I've got this damn cold," he says.
STIFFS, is a black comedy about the funeral
business in the North End of Boston. The synopsis is
simple: the death business is getting bad for the
Ragucci Funeral Parlor thanks to the decrease in the
older population in the neighborhood and the influx of
younger, healthier, less likely- to- croak-soon
professionals. Frankie Tramontana (Danny Aiello)
drives a hearse for the Ragucci family. He falls in
love with a much younger woman and undergoes personal
and social challenges thanks to the instigation of two
wiseguys, John (Jon Polito) and Nino (Louis Vanaria)
who move to help the flagging Raguccis find new
business - and corpses.
|Actors Danny Aiello and Jon Polito on a North End Street at the start of the STIFFS shoot.
Photo by Claire Folger.
One of the extras playing a waiter comes over to
me. He tells me he's in the funeral business and
explains to me that the ideas giving inspiration to
this black comedy came from the owners of a real
funeral parlor, those guys sitting over there at that
table with actor, Jon Polito.
"I can't seem to shake this cold," Danny
I introduce myself. He leans over and shakes my
"Please, do me a favor," I say.
"This is supposed to be a restaurant. Please
don't get down on your knees and propose in front of
me in front of everybody like you did in
He gives me that look, of Don't Bust my XXXX and
says without missing a beat,
"Oh, no. I won't do that. That guy was a wimp.
And the guy I'm playing in this movie is no
He sits back. More makeup. More instructions from
Minutes go by. Now I hear Danny talking to somebody
about food. I jump in.
"I make an incredible tomato sauce," I
|from top down  Danny Aiello and Frank Bongiorno in a scene at the financially ailing Ragucci’s Funeral Home.  Danny Aiello embraces Heather Tom who plays Danny’s character’s mistress “Lauren.”  Danny Aiello seen here after a fight scene in the movie STIFFS, written by Joe Ciota and directed by Frank Ciota.  Executive Producer of STIFFS, Roger Marino plays his role in a funeral scene. Photos by Claire Folger
I learned it in a small Italian town where I used to
live. You take these fresh tomatoes..."
"Oh! Stop right there," he says. "I
hate tomatoes in the sauce. I can't stand anything
chunky. And no onions! My mother made me a sauce, the
best, it was smooth. It had the consistency of
"My uncle's the same way," I say.
"He doesn't like seeds. Do you?"
"No. I hate anything that looks solid in the
sauce. No chunks."
"How would you like to give me an interview
for IMAGINE?" I ask. "You can tell me how to
make a sauce."
"No, not me," he says. "I'm no
But he does grant me an interview. I'm on my way to
see Danny Aiello right now and I'm in the taxi
thinking about this red sauce thing. I can see it: a
vat of red liquid, a cauldron bubbling with red life.
My uncle Anthony hated seeds or skins in his sauce. My
aunt Anna dutifully took the seeds from the tomatoes
for him. What is this, I think, with these guys?Is it
just Italian guys who get that way with food.
Is it a fear of the unknown? Of nature? Of the
liquid of the unconscious, of water and seed? Or is it
just an ineluctable male complex, the fear of the
feminine? I will find out soon enough because there he
is, Danny Aiello, sitting in a café with fellow
actors Jon Polito and Frank Bongiorno.
He spots me. He greets me with a big smile of an
old friend and the first thing he says is...
"Sit down, have something to eat!"
Jon Polito turns around to shake my hand. "Oh,
you're doing an interview," he says.
"Let me get out of here."
"No, stick around," I say.
"Hey, it's my interview," Danny jokes,
"and you're telling him to stick around? I'm just
kidding. Sit down."
We sit and talk a bit, as guys would around a
morning cup of coffee. Suddenly, Danny modulates. He
clears the air with a swipe of his long arms.
"Okay, we should get started," he says.
"Do you have a tape recorder?"
"No, just my big yellow legal pad and this
souvenir pen from Fort Lauderdale."
Danny leans forward.
"Okay. This is a terrific, fulsome
movie!" he says. "I have never been so
enamored of a film and I've done so many, many movies.
This one is a black comedy, dark on so many levels,
but showing the gamut between stupidity and
intelligence. Now, I'm talking specifically about my
character, Frank. He's so full, so complicated. As an
actor, you dream of playing guys like this.
The title, though, STIFFS belies the story. It's
not just about corpses. It's also about...you
"Mookaloons," I say. (note: "guys
who aren't too smart")
"Yes," he says. "Exactly. It runs
the gamut," he says. "When I first read the
script, I loved it. The boys, Frank and Joe Ciota (the
director and writer) and Roger Marino (the executive
producer), flew to New York where we met for an hour
and a half. After speaking with them, I just had to do
it. I just had to work with these guys. You know,
there are some scripts that you'd love to do, but then
find out the people aren't the ones you want to work
"I do," I say. "Now, I have to ask
you. All of us, as single human beings are tanks of
the collective consciousness and experience. I think
that within us, we contain the whole stew of human
experience, the good and the bad. For instance, one
reads about some hideous murderer and is shocked, but,
the rule is, that in each and every one of us, there
is a part of that person in us. An actor somehow
pinpoints that connection within himself. In saying
that, which part of this character did you find a part
of yourself, did you identify with?"
He looks me straight in the eye.
"I'll tell you," he says. "The part
of him that gets to the lowest point of his life. And
there, he finds joy. This guy was a successful
administrator, a master of PR, an Emcee, a
Vice-President...a real gadabout. And with all of this
success, there comes this complexity. It's
problematic. As a result of an accident (he becomes
deaf), he resorts to doing menial jobs. Yet he finds
that some of his happiest moments are when he enjoys
doing the everyday, simple things. A man able to go
back to a time long ago. When he was sufficient. With
less complexity. That's what I love about the
"Now, what is it about tomato sauce?" I
ask. "Why don't you like anything solid in
"I don't know," he says. "When I was
growing up, I used to skeeve (note - "be
disgusted by") anything I didn't like the looks
of. And I didn't eat it. Maybe because I had
allergies. I had eczema and I wasn't permitted to eat
certain food. I outgrew the allergy, but the dislike
stayed with me."
"You told me you hate chunks," I say.
"I can't stand anything with chunks in
"Chunks?" asks Frank. Now Frank's drawn
into this curiosity. He sits up.
Danny turns to Frank. "Yes," Danny says.
"No chunks. And no lumps. My mother used to make
me a sauce. I don't know how she did it, but she would
fold in the meat into the sauce, no lumps, no onions,
no nothing. If I saw anything that looked like a plum
tomato I'd throw up."
Now Frank looks concerned. He has the look as if
his old friend of thirty years has just confessed to
being a soviet spy.
"You don't eat tomatoes?" Franks says.
"Yes, I do," says Danny. "But I have to see tomatoes that look like tomatoes.
Then I can eat them. Even with meatballs. I like them
with pignoli, or stale bread a day old in the sauce.
My mother used to fry them first...no onions!"
"Speaking about sauces," I say, "do
you know where your family came from in Italy?"
"Sorrento, I'm told. But I have no connections
there, though. And I've done five films in Italy. At
Cinecitta. Maybe in another life I did live there.
But, it's strange, whenever I go to Piazza Navona in
Rome, I feel as if I've been there before. One time, a
palm reader came up to me there. She said that in
another life I was royalty. A bishop, or a pope. I
don't know if it's true, but it made me feel good for
a half an hour."
I'm jotting down rows of scribble. I eye
my bagel with two clumps of cream cheese. I'm
"Do you mind?" I say.
"No Go ahead. Eat!"
A chew and a gulp of coffee and I'm ready.
"Tell me about growing up," I say.
"We grew up, all seven of us, in a single
household. My father left us when I was a baby (I'm
named after him, Daniel). Well, I guess you can say he
was nomadic. I really never saw him. We were on Home
Relief, which was Welfare of that time. My father
would come home once a year, have a steak (where my
mother got it, I don't know) and then leave again. We
had no relationship with him. It was sad, but, no, I'm
not sad about it. Hey, it is what it is.... Yes, there
were seven of us. My brother, Ralphie, died when he
was two. I had four sisters. Imagine, I grew up in a
house with five woman. How I turned out straight I
don't know, but it certainly has given me
a sensitivity towards women and made
me a better person, I think."
"How long have you been married?"
"I've been with one woman all of my life. We
will be married fifty, no, fifty-one years. We have
four kids and nine grandchildren."
"What was your mother's name?"
"My mom's name was Frances. She was legally
blind. She was the hero of the world, she was. She
always used to tell me, "You're a star." She
always wanted me to sing and I'm singing now. I've
been singing professionally for a year and a half.
I've done an album, live, at the Sands Hotel in
Atlantic City. I started about eight years ago. Jazz,
mostly. I'm sedate when I do. Subdued..."
"Another beginning, at this stage. That's
amazing," I say.
"Yes. I didn't start acting until I was
thirty-six, and I did my first movie when I was going
on forty. I looked younger than I was."
"You still do."
"Thanks. So do you..."
I put down my yellow legal pad. My souvenir pen,
thick and toylike, rests on the yellow pad. Now, we
can talk off the record. He has a sincerity and an
ease which makes him a warm host at that table. I'm
not talking to
a character, or a movie star. I'm talking to a man
named Danny. And, off the record, we let loose
opinions, some passions about politics, about being
Italian American, the state of affairs in XYZ, the
Korean war. He tells me how he enlisted at seventeen
years old and how two times when bound for Korea on a
ship, his name was pulled out of a hat, and he, out of
thousands of guys headed for war, got sent back.
"I guess it wasn't meant to be," he says.
The few dishes on the table get moved to
a couple of neat heaps. I keep moving his water
glass from the edge of the table, to get it out of
range of his long arms which wave and reach to touch
my shoulder to emphasize some thought or to soften a
disagreement. But he keeps moving the glass back to
the edge of the table. I bring up a sore spot of mine,
about how Italians are viewed in this country and how
we are depicted. I say things to him which I won't say
in public in a society which sings so loudly to allow
and then barks quickly to condemn. I mention his role
in DO THE RIGHT THING and how Spike Lee chose Italo-Americans
in his movie as a kind of bridge between the races.
Danny sighs. He looks at me and puts up both hands.
"Italians," he says, "are men of the
earth. They work with their hands. When I worked with
Spike Lee on DO THE RIGHT THING I wrote those things
that the character, Sal, says. When he says, after
they burn down his pizzeria, 'this isn't about money.
I built this with my own hands,' I wrote that. And, to
Spike's credit, he allowed it in the script."
We move to ethics, to Tony Soprano. We talk freely,
"I would love to see a Tony Soprano in the
senate," I say.
We all laugh a big one at that.
After a while, I say, "Don't you have to get
"Yes. You're right," he says. "We
have to be on the set."
We shake hands. I get up to leave.
"Thanks for breakfast," I say.
"You're welcome. Hey," he says.
"Wait. I'll walk you out."
In the taxi, I feel this sense of well being, of
good energy. Danny Aiello is a generous host. He also
seems to be an exception in the Land of Make Believe
as a star who stays grounded- a man of the earth - I
think about it, here's a guy who's been with one woman
all of his life, who started acting at the age of
thirty-six, who has brought characters alive onto the
screen such as MOONSTRUCK and RUBY and then goes home
to his family with nine grandchildren who is now
singing at this stage of his career. He's a guy who
loves his country, who is passionate and direct, yet
still excuses himself politely for disagreeing with
someone in the heat of a table debate.
I love it when I'm inspired because that's what I
Oh, yes, about the tomato sauce...
I was wrong about my first impressions. Serves me
right. It was his childhood allergy which created the
aversion. Yet, I know other guys, too, other than my
uncle Anthony, who hates seeds, skins, or things lumpy
in their sauce.
Maybe there is this archetypal thing after all...
Vin Fraioli, born in Providence, is an author of
numerous articles and the book, "Change of
View." He still lives in Rhode Island with his
wife and two kids when not traveling around the world
giving lectures and concerts as a classical guitarist.
He is also a sometimes actor.