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Oscar-nominated star of Do the Right Thing Danny Aiello dies aged 86

Aiello died last night after a brief illness.

Image: AP/PA Images

DANNY AIELLO, THE blue-collar character actor whose long career playing tough guys included roles in Fort Apache, the Bronx, The Godfather, Part II,  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 aged 86. 

Aiello died last 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.

Recognisable, 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. 

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.

Aiello became a favourite 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.

obit-danny-aiello Director Spike Lee and Danny Aiello attending a special 20th anniversary screening of Do the Right Thing in 2009. Source: Peter Kramer/AP/Press Association Images

Spike Lee was another admirer and for Do the Right Thing cast Aiello as a pizzeria operator in a black neighbourhood 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.

A child of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood, 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.

obit-danny-aiello In this April 28, 1981 file photo, Aiello hugs actress Beatrice Arthur at a party following their opening performance in Woody Allen's play, The Floating Lightbulb, in New York. Source: AP/PA Images

Daniel Louis Aiello Jr was born 20 June 1933, to Italian parents. His father, a labourer, 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 theatre and television. Off-Broadway, he appeared in The Shoemaker in 2011.

Aiello and his wife, Sandy, lived in Ramsey, New Jersey. He also is survived by three children: Rick, Jamie and Stacy. A fourth son, stuntman and stunt coordinator Danny Aiello III, died in May 2010 of pancreatic cancer.

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