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Danny Aiello, whose roles in The Godfather Part II, Moonstruck and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing made him one of the most familiar and admired character actor of recent decades, died yesterday in a New Jersey medical facility following a sudden illness. He was 86.
His death was confirmed by spokesperson Tracey Miller, who released the following statement: “It is with profound sorrow to report that Danny Aiello, beloved husband, father, grandfather, actor and musician passed away last night after a brief illness. The family asks for privacy at this time. Service arrangements will be announced at a later date.”
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Aiello’s film breakthrough arrived in 1973 with a supporting role in baseball drama Bang The Drum Slowly starring Robert De Niro. A signature role came the following year when he mobster Tony Rosato in The Godfather Part II.
He’d also appear in four Woody Allen projects: 1976’s The Front, in which Allen starred as a man haplessly caught up in the Hollywood blacklist; 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo; 1987’s Radio Days; and, in 1981, Allen’s Broadway play The Floating Lightbulb, in which Aiello co-starred with Bea Arthur.
Additional notable film credits include Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Harlem Nights (1989), Hudson Hawk (1991), Ruby (1992), Léon: The Professional (1994), 2 Days in the Valley (1996), TV mini-series The Last Don (1997), Dinner Rush (2000), and Lucky Number Slevin (2006).
Aiello was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as pizzeria owner Sal Frangione in Do The Right Thing, Lee’s groundbreaking 1989 tale of race relations in Brooklyn. Aiello’s Italian-American character sets in motion the neighborhood race riot when he refuses to place photos of black celebrities on his pizzeria’s Wall of Fame.
Born in New York City, Aiello endured a difficult childhood – his father Daniel Louis Aiello abandoned the family and his mother Aiello’s mother Frances, a seamstress, would later lose her eyesight – Aiello enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 16 – he falsified his age – and served for several years before returning the city and bouncing from job to job before turning to acting.
After his roles in Bang the Drum Slowly and The Godfather Part II, Aiello found himself in demand, with a career that remained busy and high-profile for decades. Often playing roles that reflected his working class, Italian-American urban upbringing, Aiello played a racist New York police officer in 1981’s Fort Apache, The Bronx (co-starring Paul Newman), and three years later a police chief in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, a film that reunited Aiello with De Niro.
His performance as the stubborn Sal in Do the Right Thing brought even greater acclaim, garnering nominations for a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar. He played against type in 1987’s Moonstruck, playing the lovestruck – and eventually jilted – fiancé of Cher’s Loretta.
In 1992, Aiello played the title character in Ruby, a chronicle of Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassin Jack Ruby.
Aiello, who wrote a 2014 autobiography titled I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else: My Life on the Street, on the Stage, and in the Movies, was a devotee of big band music and American standards, recording several albums in the early 2000s. He once recorded an answer song to Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” called “Papa Wants the Best For You.” (Aiello had appeared in the music video of “Papa Don’t Preach.”)
Though more widely known for his film career, Aiello also had extensive TV credits (including the lead role in the 1997 detective series Dellaventura, and a Daytime Emmy winning role in a 1981 ABC Afterschool Special entitled A Family of Strangers) and Broadway and Off Broadway performances. Among his notable stage performances were roles on Broadway in Gemini (1977), Hurlyburly (1984), and The House of Blue Leaves (1986).
A longtime resident of New Jersey, Aiello is survived by his wife of 64 years, Sandy, and three children. A fourth son, Danny Aiello III, died of cancer in 2010.
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