Danny Aiello — the Oscar-nominated character actor who featured in films like Do the Right Thing, Moonstruck, and The Purple Rose of Cairo — has died at the age of 86.
Aiello’s literary agent, Jennifer De Chiara, confirmed to Rolling Stone that Aiello died Thursday night; Aiello’s family said in a statement that he died following a brief illness.
“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,” Aiello’s family said. “The family asks for privacy at this time. Service arrangements will be announced at a later date.”
“Danny was a rare talent who overcame incredible odds to become one of our greatest actors,” De Chiara said. “He also was a wonderful person with a huge heart. The world loved Danny, and he loved them right back. He will be missed.”
Over a career that spanned five decades, Aiello built a reputation for his portrayal of mob heavies, tough-talking New Yorkers and flawed husbands. After making his debut alongside Robert De Niro in the 1973 baseball film Bang the Drum Slowly, Aiello earned a brief but memorable role the following year in The Godfather: Part II; the actor reportedly ad-libbed the line “Michael Corleone says hello” when his character, Tony Rosato, takes part in the hit of a mob rival.
A former comedy-club bouncer who claimed to have never taken an acting class, Aiello would continue to be cast in Mafioso and tough-guy roles throughout the Seventies before he was cast as a corrupt police officer in the Paul Newman vehicle Fort Apache, the Bronx, which Aiello considered his breakout role. He later reunited with De Niro in Sergio Leone’s 1984 epic Once Upon a Time in America, scored parts in Woody Allen films (The Front, Broadway Danny Rose, Mia Farrow’s abusive husband in The Purple Rose of Cairo, the gangster Rocco in Radio Days) and played Cher’s estranged boyfriend in Moonstruck before landing his most memorable role, Sal the pizzeria owner in Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing.
As Aiello revealed in a 2016 PBS interview, he was reluctant to play the role of Sal, telling Lee, ” ‘You got me making pizzas, flipping them in the air. That’s a very ginzo thing. I’m not happy doing that.’ So I turned it down. But [Lee] 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.’ ”
The actor was given latitude to improvise some of his own dialogue and infuse himself and his lower-class New York upbringing into the role; Aiello’s wife, Sandy, told The New York Times in 1990 that Sal “was Danny,” and the actor himself estimated that the character was “85 percent” modeled on his own persona.
Aiello received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Do the Right Thing, as well as a 1990 Golden Globe nomination in the same category. On Friday, Lee paid tribute to the actor on social media: “I’m broken. 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 notably (and begrudgingly) also appeared as the titular overbearing “Papa” in Madonna’s iconic 1986 music video for “Papa Don’t Preach.”
“You know, that came about in a very strange way,” Aiello said of his appearance in the video. “I had no idea who [Madonna] was, so I said to [daughter] Stacey in passing, ‘They want me to do this music video with this girl named Madonna.‘ She said, ‘Dad, Dad, you have to.’ I went back and said I’ll do it if my daughter is permitted on the set taking pictures with Madonna. . . . Madonna sort of backed up and told her representative that ‘I don’t do that.’ My daughter has hated her ever since. I’m a movie actor doing this piece of crap!”
Following the single’s success, Aiello, a talented singer in his own right, released a response song titled “Papa Wants the Best for You” that same year:
Aiello continued to work steadily the ensuing decades, appearing as Bruce Willis’ criminal and singing cohort in 1991’s Hudson Hawk, Lee Harvey Oswald killer Jack Ruby in Ruby, a sympathetic hitman in 2 Days in the Valley, a cross-dresser in Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear, and a corrupt politician alongside Al Pacino in 1996’s City Hall.
“Today, we remember the great Danny Aiello,” the Academy tweeted Friday. “His career spanned nearly five decades and included roles in films such as “Moonstruck” and “Do the Right Thing,” which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He will be missed.”