In 1979, I worked for the producer of a short-lived Broadway play, Knockout, starring Danny Aiello and David Patrick Kelly (presently Da, in Once the Musical). For several months, we became friendly, hanging out together at the producer's office on Park Avenue. Knockout opened and closed within months, and everyone involved in the production went their separate ways.
Two years later in 1981, Danny Aiello was starring in Woody Allen's play, The Floating Light Bulb, and I was writing comedy for network TV, while also performing at New York City's comedy club, Catch A Rising Star. On busy nights, undiscovered comics like me often worked the entry door to the main room, and one crazy night between sets, I was on "the rope," that magical divide between the bar and the stage.
It was late, and unannounced, Danny Aiello walked in off First Avenue with Robert Duvall, still riding high from starring in the films Apocalypse Now and The Great Santini. I, along with everyone else in the room, was star struck seeing Duvall and Aiello together, and without thinking, and out of sheer excitement, I loudly blurted, "Danny Aiello! You old schmuck!" Translated, in Yiddish, I essentially said, "Danny, you old penis."
The instant the words left my mouth, I knew I had screwed up. Danny grimaced, and to make it worse, as the two passed through the red rope, Duvall nodded toward me and said to Aiello sarcastically, "They obviously love you here." It was a terrible moment.
Management at Catch was upset with me and I was asked to go home for the night. Devastated, I barely slept for several nights. Returning a couple days later, I asked a now-famous comic what I should do. He suggested I write Danny an apology.
In my note to Danny, I expressed remorse for embarrassing him in front of Duvall and others. I wrote that I respected his work, congratulated him on his success. I reminded him of the fun we shared together several years earlier, and profusely apologized for my very public gaffe. Once finished, I personally delivered the typewritten letter to the stage door of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center and waited for a response.
Several days later Danny called. In his typical New York tough guy voice, Danny sweetly let me off the hook. Danny told me his reaction to my inappropriate outburst was more out of his own insecurity for being heckled in front of Duvall because he said candidly, "I was trying to impress him." Danny went on to tell me he had already called "Catch," to make sure they didn't "punish" me, and not to worry about any repercussions. He finished the conversation saying he was "grateful for our friendship," and as his guest, to please come to his play and after the show, come backstage "for a hug."
I thanked Danny for the call; hung-up, and broke down crying out of sheer relief.
Now, more than thirty years later, we've both released our first book. Danny's, I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else: My Life on the Street, On the Stage, and in the Movies (Gallery Books, 2014), is a wonderful memoir of a very special man. Buy it.
And my book, One Less. One More. - Follow Your Heart. Be Happy. Change Slowly. (Storytelling, Inc. 2014), is an ageless solution to solving life's problems, including an entire chapter on the power of gratitude and forgiveness, which Danny Aiello taught me about a long time ago.
Today, whose life can you heal through forgiveness? Who, over the course of your lifetime, inspired you to become a better person? And, who in your life needs to hear you're grateful for their friendship? As no one is perfect, you can at the very least be kind.
With compassion and forgiveness, Danny Aiello changed my life forever. Now it's your turn: Who can you take off the hook?