Danny Aiello, 'Do the Right Thing' and 'Moonstruck' Actor, Dies at 86

Photofest
Danny Aiello

He worked at Greyhound for a decade before appearing on Broadway and in 'The Purple Rose of Cairo,' 'The Cemetery Club' and a Madonna video.

Danny Aiello, the New York actor and former Greyhound bus employee best known for his Oscar-nominated turn as Sal the pizza-joint owner in Do the Right Thing and for portraying Cher's lovelorn suitor in Moonstruck, has died. He was 86.

His rep Tracey Miller told The Hollywood Reporter that the actor died Thursday night after a brief illness in a medical facility close to his home in New Jersey.

Aiello, who didn't start acting until he was 35, often played loathsome types, as in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), where he starred as Mia Farrow's gruff, drunken husband. In a similar vein, he battled with Paul Newman in Fort Apache the Bronx (1981), portraying a crooked cop who tosses a kid off a roof. 

In The Godfather: Part II (1974), Aiello played gangster Tony Rosato (his line, "Michael Corleone says hello," said as he garrots Frankie Pentangeli, was improvised), and he appeared as the neighborhood bookie who takes bets from Allen's character in The Front (1976). 

A real charmer, Aiello also portrayed Lee Harvey Oswald killer Jack Ruby in Ruby (1992), starred for Paul Mazursky as a flailing Hollywood director in The Pickle (1993) and played it for laughs alongside Ellen Burstyn, Olympia Dukakis and Diane Ladd in The Cemetery Club (1993).

The movie he always said he was most fond of was the New York-set 29th Street (1991), in which Anthony LaPaglia played his son.

In a 2016 PBS interview with Rafael Pi Roman, Aiello noted that Spike Lee had been after him to star in Do the Right Thing (1989) for some time. "You got me making pizzas, flipping them in the air, that's a very ginzo thing," he told the writer-director.

"I'm not happy doing that, so I turned it down. But he never stopped. He kept coming to places where I was, seeing me in a restaurant, taking me to a ballgame, taking me to a Knick game.

"I [finally] said to him, 'If you give me an opportunity to add something to this character … I know this character, I may know him better than you." He said Lee listened to his recommendations and allowed Aiello to supply bits of dialogue, like when Sal yells at the African American kids in his pizza place and says, "They grew up on my food."

Lee posted on Instagram: "Just Found Out My Brother DANNY AIELLO Made His Transition Last Night. Danny, We Made Cinema History Together With DO THE RIGHT THING. May You Rest In PARADISE."

Aiello, who never took an acting class, was considered the favorite in the supporting actor race entering the Oscar telecast, but he lost out to Denzel Washington of Glory. Still, the experience made him feel for the first time that he "belonged" as an actor. 

Earlier, Aiello had refused to audition for director Norman Jewison but still got the part of Mr. Johnny Cammareri, he with the itchy head, in Moonstruck (1987). It marked one of the few times he didn't play the tough guy.

"Danny was a Great Actor, But a Genius Comedic Actor," Cher wrote on Twitter. "We laughed so much making #Moonstruck. It was one of the happiest times in my life and he was a part of that happy time."

One of six kids, Daniel Louis Aiello Jr. was born in New York City on June 20, 1933. He was raised on the West Side of Manhattan and then in the South Bronx by his legally blind mother, Frances.

His father was absent more times than he was there — ''It seems he would come home once a year and my mother would have another child,'' he told The New York Times in 1990 — and his family needed welfare checks to make ends meet.

Aiello suffered from eczema as a child and wore gloves in school and to bed so he wouldn't bleed from scratching. Once he got arrested for stealing a chocolate bar from Woolworth's and was taken to the 41st Precinct police station (that would be Fort Apache). At 17, he left James Monroe High School to enlist in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany.

After the service, Aiello landed a job in 1957 as a package handler with Greyhound, then became the public-address announcer at the bus terminal on 50th Street in Manhattan. (When ABC's Naked City came there for an episode in 1963, actor Frank Gorshin told Aiello to bump into him so he would show up on TV.)

He eventually ran for president of Local 1202 of the Amalgamated Transit Union and won, but he was fired after a wildcat strike by employees.

Aiello went to work for Budd Friedman as a bouncer and an occasional emcee at the Improv, where he met a neophyte writer, Louis La Russo II, who asked him to be in a play he had just written. "I said, 'I'm not an actor,'" Aiello recalled. "Yes, you are," La Russo replied, "you just don't know it yet."

Aiello played Biggie, a pop singer from Hoboken, New Jersey, in La Russo's Lampost Reunion, and he and it went from converted churches to Broadway in 1975, when it earned a Tony nomination for best play and the actor a Theatre World award. He then starred in the next two La Russo efforts, 1976's Wheelbarrow Closers and 1979's Knockout (as a boxer); both played on Broadway as well.

Aiello had made his film debut as the ballplayer nicknamed Horse in Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) — he said he taught co-star Robert De Niro a thing or two about how to throw a baseball — and The Godfather sequel marked only his second appearance on the big screen.

He took a crack at starring in a TV series, playing a cop-turned-private eye, but CBS' Dellaventura lasted just 14 episodes in 1997-98. 

Aiello made up for his late start in the profession with a slew of movies, including Fingers (1978), Once Upon a Time in America (1984)The Protector (1985), Key Exchange (1985), The Stuff (1985), Hudson Hawk (1991), Allen's Radio Days (1987), The Pick-Up Artist (1987), Harlem Nights (1989), Jacob's Ladder (1990), Luc Besson's Leon: The Professional (1994), City Hall (1996), 2 Days in the Valley (1996), Prince of Central Park (2000) and Lucky Number Slevin (2006).

On the set of Robert Altman's Ready to Wear (1994), Aiello said "Go fuck yourself" to Lauren Bacall after she told him to shut up while he was practicing his lines. And he could never figure out why Martin Scorsese never cast him. "It hurts me that he didn't paint me on one of his canvases," he said in a 2017 interview. I'm the only Italian American in the country that hasn't been in his pictures."

Aiello sang "Fly Me to the Moon" in Lasse Hallstrom's Once Around (1991), and he wound up releasing a handful of jazz albums, including 2004's I Just Wanted to Hear the Words, which made it to No. 9 on the Billboard jazz chart. He also played Madonna's dad in the 1986 music video for "Papa Don't Preach," directed by James Foley.

His memoir, I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else, was published in 2014.

Aiello was married to his wife, Sandy, for more than 60 years. The couple had four children: sons Rick, Danny III and Jaime and daughter Stacy.

Danny III, a stuntman who doubled for his dad in Do the Right Thing and a stunt coordinator on FX's Rescue Me, died in 2010 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 53.

In a 2011 interview with Backstage, Aiello said acting was "more important than ever" after his son's death. "It's not only what I do to earn a living, but it's a distraction that takes me away from things that trouble me terribly, like the loss of my son," he said. "I suppose I could say acting is medicinal. It gives me a reason to keep living. I can't wait to get up because I'm going to act."

Survivors also include nephew Michael Kay, a former newspaperman and now play-by-play man for the New York Yankees. (Aiello said he "pulled some strings" to help Kay get a job with the New York Post years ago.)

A service for the popular actor is set for 2:30 p.m. Thursday at the Riverside Memorial Chapel at 180 W. 76th St. in Manhattan. It will be open to the public.