These days, Danny Aiello is pouring his personal tragedy into a national one.
The Academy Award-nominated actor, still reeling from the death last year of his 53-year-old son from pancreatic cancer, has found solace in the strangest of places: Sept. 11, 2001.
The star of such films as "The Godfather, Part II" and "Do the Right Thing" is currently appearing off-Broadway in "The Shoemaker," an emotionally charged play about loss and grieving set on 9/11.
"I've been looking for distractions," the 78-year-old actor says during an interview where he showed flashes of both his tenderness and his frustration. "I've found a vehicle that permits me the opportunity to vent my anger."
His son, stuntman and stunt coordinator Danny Aiello III, died in May 2010. His parents are still shocked by how quickly the disease took him. "My wife won't get out of bed," Aiello says.
In the play, written by Susan Charlotte, Aiello plays an Italian-Jewish cobbler who worries about a young World Trade finance worker who became his customer when she brought in a pair of high heels to be mended.
The shoemaker feels certain she must have just died at ground zero, a loss that reminds him of his strained relationship with his absent daughter, the memory of his long-deceased father and the Holocaust.
It is a wrenching performance, leaving Aiello drenched in his own tears. He says he draws on his memories of the terrible day when he saw the twin towers fall and from the staggering loss of his son.
"I don't know why it happens. I don't bring him up, but he comes up and I'm crying. I'm not fake crying. The tears are coming out," he says. "I don't draw on it. It's just there."
Directed by Antony Marsellis, the two-act drama is being presented at the Acorn Theatre in Midtown, with Alma Cuervo and Lucy DeVito — daughter of Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman — in the supporting cast.
Aiello first appeared in the original one-act version of "The Shoemaker" in 2001, which became the movie "A Broken Sole," featuring Margaret Colin and Judith Light. He did the one-act version again last year in New York and encouraged Charlotte to expand it into two acts.
Aiello says his performance is influenced by "Network," the 1976 movie written by Paddy Chayefsky, in which a fictional news anchor, Howard Beale, decides that he is "mad as hell," and that he is "not going to take it anymore!"
"I want to express — not necessarily in an articulate way, which almost sanitizes the event — but to scream at the top of my lungs, 'I'm mad and I'm not going to take it anymore,'" he says.
Aiello would love to take the play to Broadway and hopes actors across the globe will play the shoemaker, including his friend Harvey Keitel. "An actor's got to be crazy not to want to play this part," he says.
Charlotte isn't sure just anyone can play it, though, citing Aiello's skills at conveying both tremendous power and gut-wrenching vulnerability, evident in films including "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and "Moonstruck."
"There's nobody else who could hit every note of that character — no body that I can think of," Charlotte says. "From the vulnerability, to the toughness, to the humor. I can't think of an actor who can go to every note and make it so believable."
After "The Shoemaker," Aiello plans to escape into music: He's working on a one-man musical about the gangster Al Capone and has a new CD called "Bridges" coming out in which he teams up with the rapper Hasan to give old songs a hip-hop flavor.
"I hate rap," he says, laughing. "I want to introduce great classic standards to kids who've never heard of them. How do you do it? You attach it to something that's happening now."
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits