NEW YORK – Danny Aiello, the blue-collar character actor whose long career playing tough guys included roles in “Fort Apache, the Bronx,” “Moonstruck” and “Once Upon a Time in America” and his Oscar-nominated performance as a pizza man in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” has died. He was 86.
Aiello (pronounced eye-YEL-o) died Thursday night after a brief illness, said his publicist, Tracey Miller, who runs Tracey Miller & Associates. “The family asks for privacy at this time,” she said in a statement.
In a tweet, Cher mourned the man she called “a genius comedic actor.” The two had starred in “Moonstruck” and she called it “one of the happiest times in my life.” Actor Michael Rapaport tweeted that Aiello was a “huge inspiration” and actor Kirk Acevedo mourned: “We lost a great actor today.”
Recognizable, if not famous, for his burly build and husky voice, he was an ex-union president who broke into acting in his 30s and remained a dependable player for decades, whether vicious or cuddly or some of each.
His breakthrough, ironically, was as the hapless lover dumped by Cher in Norman Jewison’s hit comedy “Moonstruck.” His disillusion contributed to the laughter, and although he wasn’t nominated for a supporting-role Oscar (Cher and Olympia Dukakis won in their categories), Aiello was inundated with movie offers.
“Living in New York City gave me training for any role,” he said in a 1997 interview. “I’ve seen people killed, knifed. I’ve got scars on my face. I have emotional recall when I work; the idea is simply to recreate it. I’ve seen it and experienced it. I’ve played gangsters, teachers but most of my work has been in the police area. And for that I’m adored by the police in New York City.”
The ebullient Aiello became a favorite of several directors, among them Woody Allen, who used him in the Broadway play “The Floating Light Globe” and the movies “Broadway Danny Rose,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and “Radio Days.”
Lee was another admirer and for “Do the Right Thing” cast Aiello as a pizzeria operator in a black neighborhood of Brooklyn, the movie climaxing with a riot that destroys his eatery. “This is my pizzeria!” he cried. Lee had first offered the role to Robert De Niro, but Aiello’s performance brought him an Oscar nomination for supporting actor.
Among his other movies: “Fort Apache, the Bronx” (as a cop who threw a boy from a building), “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Harlem Nights,” “Jack Ruby” (as Ruby) and”City Hall.” He also appeared in TV miniseries, including “The Last Don,” “A Woman Named Jackie” and in the 1985-86 police series “Lady Blue.” It was Aiello who played Madonna’s father in the pop icon’s “Papa Don’t Preach” video.
A child of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, Aiello retained the pugnacity he learned on city streets.
“During the early times in my acting career, I would fight at the drop of a hat,” he said in 1985. “I was very hungry. If there were obstacles, I tried to remove them.” He added that sometimes he engaged in fistfights with actors after work because of incidents during filming or rehearsals.
Daniel Louis Aiello Jr. was born June 20, 1933, to Italian parents. His father, a laborer, left the family of seven children, and Daniel started working at age 9 selling newspapers, working in a grocery store and bowling alley, shining shoes and loading trucks. In his teenage years, he joined a street gang and, he claimed, engaged in burglary and safe-cracking. He dropped out of high school before graduating, got married in 1955 and joined the Army.
After three years in the service, he worked at several factory jobs, landing as a baggage man at Greyhound. The ambitious Aiello rose to become president of the transit union.
“I wanted to become a politician,” he told a reporter in 1995. “I always thought that I could talk, that people liked me, that I can represent them.” But when Greyhound accused him of starting a wildcat strike and the union leaders agreed, Aiello quit his job.
He worked at one job after another, and in 1970 was hired as a bouncer at the New York comedy club, Improvisation. One night, he was asked to act as an assistant emcee. “It was no big deal; it was just ‘Danny, go up and announce the acts,'” he recalled in 1997. “There was a little bantering between acts, and I kept that short. I was terrified.”
Yet Aiello soon branched out, playing small roles in the movies “Bang the Drum Slowly” and “The Godfather, Part II,” and as the bartender lead in a musical play “Lamppost Reunion.” Starting in 1980 he averaged three films a year, plus appearances in theater and television. Off-Broadway, he appeared in “The Shoemaker” in 2011.
Aiello and his wife of more than 60 years, Sandy, lived in Ramsey, New Jersey. He also is survived by three children and 10 grandchildren: Rick, Jamie and Stacy. A fourth son, stuntman and stunt coordinator Danny Aiello III, died in May 2010 of pancreatic cancer.