Swinging with a Star

By Denis Hamill

The New York Daily

Believe it: Danny Aiello has a rap video on YouTube. The Oscar-nominated actor will also be doing his popular song- and-dance show of standards at the Blue Note from Tuesday through next Sunday. He has a live album ready for release, and he's working on a new album of "rap/standards." He runs a comedy club in Hoboken. He's got two movies coming out this summer and fall, and he's still suing the City of New York in federal court over his scuttled movie studio deal on Staten Island.

"I'm from New York," he says. "I was born and raised in the city that never sleeps. I've been busy, baby."

Last week, Aiello directed me to YouTube, where I typed in his name and the name of rapper Hasan and the song "Besame Mucho." Up popped a song that should be played on the radio of a hybrid car. Here was Aiello in formal dress, singing the old song in a traditional smoky nightclub setting intercut with Hasan, sporting his baseball cap, rappin' along with Aiello with new-century "hiphopitude," fusing the swagger of two street guys separated by several generations, and, in some gutsy urban way, it just works.

This is a cut you can ask your parents to dance to.

"You gotta take chances," says the co-star of "Moonstruck," "Once Around" and "2 Days in the Valley." "Like an actor, you have to risk failure in order to try to make something fresh and new. So when I was in Chung King Studios [in downtown Manhattan] last year, laying down tracks for a new album - my last one, 'I Just Wanted to Hear the Words,' reached as high as No. 4 on the Billboard traditional jazz list between Tony Bennett and Harry Connick Jr. - I took a break and a couple of rappers approached me in the hall."

Aiello says the rappers riffed with him about his roles in "Do the Right Thing" and Eddie Murphy's "Harlem Nights," and then "this nice kid" named Hasan asked Aiello what he was recording. Aiello told him a new album of standards. He also told him he was putting out three singles in succession - "Save the Last Dance for Me," "Home America" and "Besame Mucho." Hasan told him he was doing a new rap album. "I said, 'No offense, but I hate rap,'" Aiello says. "The kid laughed and asked if he could hear some of my songs. I played 'Home America.' He flipped. He asked if he could go home and figure out a way to rap to it. I gave him a look. But he was serious."

The next day, Hasan showed up and rapped his way into Aiello's songbook. Then Hasan listened to "Besame Mucho" and he wanted to rap on that, too. "So I sat down at a table in Tutta Pasta in Hoboken, where I run the comedy club upstairs, and wrote down on a napkin what we were gonna do," says Aiello. "Frank Nasso, a graduate of the NYU Film School, directed us in our 'Besame Mucho' video. Now Hasan and I are gonna do an album of rap/standard songs, where he perks up some of my old favorites."

Will Hasan appear with Aiello at the Blue Note?

"I'll be doing two shows a night, so you never know if he'll make a surprise appearance," says Aiello. A few years ago, Aiello was set to open a full-blown, five-stage movie studio on city land in Stapleton, Staten Island, when the city pulled the plug. Aiello and his partners filed suit.

"It's a $30 million lawsuit that got thrown out of state court, but we appealed and won and it's now pending in federal court," he says. "We are going to have a jury trial. I can't say too much, but we were treated very unfairly by the Economic Development Corporation, which should be called the Economic Dunce Corporation. They BS'd us and today, instead of a thriving film studio permanently employing 2,000 skilled and entry-level people from a community of 460,000, all they get is chump rent for docking the Intrepid while it's being repaired. It's a shame. But I'll save the rest of what I have to say for the courtroom."

Aiello, 74, seen last year in "Lucky Number Slevin" and "Brooklyn Lobster," is happier talking about his two new independent films. "The first one is 'The Shoemaker: A Broken Sole,' part of a poignant 9/11 trilogy starring myself and Judith Light, to be released in August," he says. "The other film is called 'Stiffs,' starring me and Lesley Ann Warren, a wild comedy about a funeral home in Boston. That should be out in the fall."

Meanwhile, besides the upcoming Blue Note gigs, you can find Aiello every Thursday at 9 staging new comedy talent at Danny's Upstairs at Tutta Pasta, where stars like Jerry Stiller and Robert Klein come to work out material.

"It's the same way the Improv was when I worked there as a bouncer/emcee, before I became an actor," says Aiello. "So, I dunno, like I said - I've been busy, baby."