Do The Right Thing…albeit late…
Updated: Jul 2, 2020
When Oscar nominated actor Danny Aiello passed away on December 12th, 2019, I posted a little memory of Danny on Facebook. Mine was just one of the thousands of posts from people that Danny had touched through his work in film and theater for the past fifty years. I had a lot more to say than what I posted at the time but it hit me hard and I needed some time to put it all in perspective.
I fondly remember the first time I saw Danny Aiello…I had just moved to New Jersey from Chicago with the promise of a television show and a record deal with it, and I couldn’t get here fast enough. After a long trip cross-country drive with 5 cats and a dog in tow (that is a WHOLE other story for another day), the life-changing opportunity went away as quickly as it was offered and my spirt, ego and confidence took a rather large hit to say the least.
One hot afternoon, my boyfriend and I were in Hoboken, New Jersey (famous for “On The Waterfront” with Marlon Brando and the childhood town of Frank Sinatra) getting Italian ices (as you do when you are in Jersey..it’s what you do..) when my boyfriend says, “Hey….look across the street…it’s Danny Aiello.” Scanning the street, blinded by the afternoon sun, I couldn’t see him and was certain it was a game of, “that guy LOOKS like a famous person but is a rather sad interpretation of them” instead.
Getting frustrated, I snarled, “I don’t see him…WHERE?????”
“OVER THERE!!! Look, the Italian restaurant, Tutta Pasta!!”
He was right. There he sat. A white track suit, eye glasses that get darker in the sun, a cappuccino cup and a sharp eye. Danny Aiello...the personification of NY and NJ and not to mention one of the most iconic actors of my generation.. "Moonstruck", "29th Street", "Godfather 2", "Do The Right Thing"! I could go on and on. We watched him for several minutes as we plowed through our ices and were very entertained as we started counting how many people passed him by and then slowed their gait only to turn around, smile and have Danny smile back, confirming that yes, indeed, you JUST passed an Oscar nominated legend.
“Go say hi…go talk to him..tell him you sing…” he said casually.
“Oh yeah, right…’Hi Danny, my name is Frankie, I sing…nice to meet you.’…I don’t think so…plus he’s eating with someone and I don’t want to be rude.”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t mind….I know he sings as well…you never know…” he said, pushing me more.
“I’m not comfortable bothering him while he’s eating….if I see him again, I might…plus I have nothing to give him anyway, so it would be pointless.”
So we left, went home and I spent the next few days wondering if I should’ve just gone over to see what would happen.
Not long after “The sighting”, my old boss (also from Chicago who had moved to New Jersey) called me to do a styling job for a new show that they were shooting in the Hamptons. I was to do wardrobe and makeup and “handle” the talent…(again, a great story for another day). It didn’t pay a lot, but hanging in the Hamptons for 5 days was just what I needed so I agreed.
After an early morning of shooting, the crew piled into our cars and found the local hot spot for breakfast….I had told my old boss of the “Danny sighting” the day it happened so what were the odds, that within 15 minutes of being seated at our rather long table, in walks...Danny Aiello.
Well now, I’m thinking, this has GOT to be fate. Just weeks before I was across the street from him and NOW, I’m across the restaurant from him. I watched him from afar and actually felt a weird sense of anxiety…like I was getting a “sign” and was openly IGNORING it. And ignore it, I did. Our table was loud and funny and we were on a time crunch and psycho stalking was NOT on the call sheet. After a number of beautiful days in the Hamptons, I again was back home in Jersey, back to the grind.
As an actor/musician/writer…you find that when you’re busy, you’re BUSY…but when it’s quiet, it’s REALLY quiet. Often times, during the dry spells, I would run errands in Hoboken, bring my dog down for a stroll, grab a coffee in a small coffee shop and write lyrics and then go home and try and craft a melody around them.
One afternoon, doing a few of the above, I find myself walking past that same Italian restaurant when who do I see? Yup… that’s right, HIM. Inner dialogue was, “leave him alone”…..”just go say hi”….”don’t be THAT person”...“he doesn’t care who you are”….”don’t regret it this time..just say hi”….
So I slowed my pace, walked up to his table nestled perfectly in the shade, and did it. I said “Hello, Mr. Aiello…My name is Frankie and I love your work…I know you have been working on some music lately, and if you ever need, I’d be more than happy to do vocal arrangements or background vocals on anything you have coming up.”
I was rather proud of myself that I was able to spit it out without tripping over my very nervous words. I was about to hand him my business card when he yelled, “Frankie!!” and then started serenading me with “Frankie and Jonnie were Sweet hearts” and invited me to sit with him and his son and have coffee. Whatever they were discussing was halted and his large and encompassing spotlight split into two as he peppered me with questions. "Where was I from? How do I like Jersey? What have I been doing?” Like we had been long lost friends who were reconnected and filling in the blanks of our lives and where we left off. I must have sat with the two of them for 25 minutes or so and was literally floating when I left them to finish their conversation and head back home to tell the first 10 people on my favorites list on my phone.
Fast forward: 3 years? I get a call from Vinnie Favale, the VP of Late Night Programming for CBS/David Letterman. He saw my resume and head shot on backstage.com and asked me about singing demos for a new musical in the works called, “Hereafter Musical” (a great story for another time). What started as singing a few demos, turned into Vinnie asking me to be his writing partner on the book for the musical as well vocal arranger and song writer. Vinnie and I worked tirelessly on numerous songs that he had already written and found ourselves in the studio a lot recording demos. “Hereafter” was gaining ground and we needed a male vocalist to sing some of the duets in the show.
We were still a long way from casting and just focusing on getting the music perfect. After a number of ambitious conversations of who we’d like to “play” with in the studio, we came up with a list…they had to be older (because of the character), actually be able to sing, and be accessible. I had some picks…Gabriel Byrne being one of them (yes, I have a very funny story here as well-another blog perhaps? I think I shall call that one, “The things you do to get your show off the ground” lol!).
Then Vinnie mentioned he was going to ask Danny to see if he would do it as a favor. They had a nice relationship [Vinnie had worked with him on a show he did for CBS Dellaventura]. Of course I blabbered to Vinnie all about my chance encounters and that I think it was “Meant to be” that he do it...which is exactly what happened!
Shortly thereafter, we were in the studio. I reminded Danny that we had met in Hoboken and he recalled it fondly (although even if he DIDN’T remember it, he would NEVER let me know that…it’s how he was. He always went out of his way to make whomever he was with feel like the most IMPORTANT person in the room).
We were set to work on an uptempo 1940's styled song called, “The Heart and Soul” and we each had our own parts. I fashioned my voice to the “Andrew Sisters” style to match Danny's “Rat Pack” swagger and we were off! But there was just one thing….he kept singing my parts!!! Lol!!! He was so caught up in the song he couldn't help himself. If I had a dollar for every time he said, “Sorry kid!!’ I could pay for the film version of “Hereafter Musical”!! We all found ourselves in fits of laughter it was amazing we ever got the song recorded (we did-there’s proof! Lol…just hit play below).
Danny Aiello with Frankie Keane singing "The Heart & Soul" [February 23rd, 2010]
That was the real beginning of our friendship. Over the course of 10 + years, there were studio times, lunches, rehearsal spaces….random sightings… always with his trusted companion Lou Baldonieri, another Chicagoan transplanted to the East Coast.
I never tired of hearing, “Frankie Baby!!!” or hearing him call me, “Kid”….
He came to opening night of Hereafter at both Theatre 80 in the East Village and The Snapple Theatre on Broadway and 50th-and each time, poured his affections on me and everyone in the cast telling us all how we brought it home and had him crying again.
Our little show had two successful runs off-Broadway but Vinnie and I had greater ambitions and that was to turn it into a movie. So you can imagine our surprise when Danny agreed to star in the “Hereafter Musical” movie (along with MGM film legend Arlene Dahl, Sondra James, Deborah Tranelli, Margaret Kelly and myself.)
We began shooting in August 0f 2016 with some of the filming taking place at our dear friends Brian and Helen’s stunning home in Mamaroneck, NY,. We shot into the late hours every night and Danny never wavered in his performance.
We also shot Danny's big music number ["Talk To Me'] at the landmark Lowe’s Theatre in Jersey City.
Danny at Loews Theater in Jersey City [August 2016]
It was the hottest week of the summer and we were prisoners to it. Breathing was a chore and filming inside a historic theatre from 1929 with no air conditioning was next to crippling. Danny was layered with wardrobe befitting a very cold winter’s day. Thick, brown whale corduroy, a button up shirt, and a very thick, wool grandpa sweater. This outfit he wouldn’t take off because he wanted his body to get used to the heat-he said if he took off the sweater, it would be that much harder to put on again, so he would just suffer with it. Makeup was CONSTANTLY dabbing his head, and neck, and I would take ice cubes (when I wasn’t shooting my parts) and hold them on his neck. The only place there was air was in the dressing rooms upstairs. If we weren’t filming, we were up there. Lots of ideas were hatched up there and lots of conversations.
Between takes, Danny and I talked about the many people in our lives that we lost. Me, with my two brothers, two step-mothers, and my own mother, him and his son who passed from cancer. He talked about all the women he “HAD” to kiss, and some Hollywood tales, as well as other projects he was excited to work on. I treasure this one photo that the set photographer shot of Danny and I sharing our lives late at night..oblivious to everything going on around us.
Working with Danny was a delight. Of course you can’t help but learn so much when in the presence of such a versatile and giving actor. One day on set, in our scene, he supposed to give me something…( I won’t give it away as I don’t want to ruin it if you see the show or the movie once it’s done)…he was having a bit of a problem with one of the moments, so I rewrote it and asked him to try it and see how it felt….he nailed it and said it was what he felt the character needed. He was always wanting to work with both the actors, the crew, the script…all to make it the best it could be.
In our final scene together, his character says, “I love you”…..Danny, with his creative license said, “I’ll love you forever”…..
Franke and Danny's final scene from "Hereafter Musical"
It’s true, Danny. I will love you forever. Sorry this is late, but losing a friend like you left a hole in my heart and anyone who knew you.
Thank you for your spirit. Thank you for being my friend. Thank you for making my friends and family feel special when you met them. Thank you for helping our dream come true. To borrow some of the lyrics from Hereafter, you were "Larger Than Life", but "Goodbye just means goodnight"…"so Rest In Peace."
The "Hereafter Musical" movie is currently in post-production and will be released 2021...it will be Danny's final film appearance.