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Danny Aiello, actor who excelled as blue-collar heavies and hotheads, dies at 86

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 13, 2019

In this July 28, 2001 file photo, Danny Aiello poses for a photo at Gigino restaurant in New York. 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. He was 86. Aiello died Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019 after a brief illness, said his publicist, Tracey Miller. (JIM COOPER / AP)
In this July 28, 2001 file photo, Danny Aiello poses for a photo at Gigino restaurant in New York. 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. He was 86. Aiello died Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019 after a brief illness, said his publicist, Tracey Miller. (JIM COOPER / AP)
By Adam Bernstein The Washington Post

Danny Aiello, a late-blooming actor who memorably portrayed blue-collar heavies and hotheads in films such as “The Godfather: Part II,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and “Do the Right Thing,” and who played against type as a middle-aged mama’s boy in “Moonstruck,” died Dec. 12 at a hospital in New Jersey. He was 86.

His literary agent Jennifer De Chiara confirmed the death but did not provide further details.

Raised in poverty during the Depression, Aiello grew up inthe South Bronx with six siblings. His father, he said, “took a hike.” Learning to hustle for work at age 6, he became a high school dropout, a gang member, a thief and safecracker, a pool shark, a Greyhound bus line bag handler and a troublemaking transit union president.

Burly, husky-voiced and gregarious, Aiello was also a natural showman whose work as a bouncer at an improv comedy club provided his entree into acting. Some nights, he took a chance at emceeing and singing.

“It was no big deal,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “It was, ‘Danny, go up and announce the acts.’ I don’t know how I did it, though. There was a little bantering expected between the acts, and I kept that short. I was terrified. But then, no one’s shooting bullets at you, and you do it. It gave me my first ounce of strength in that direction.”

Encouraged by the club owner, he began attending casting calls and landed stage roles that he described as “off off off off” Broadway. He had a small part as a ballplayer in the movie drama “Bang the Drum Slowly” (1973), starring Robert De Niro. But he got his breakthrough the next year in “The Godfather: Part II,” playing a hit man. As Aiello garroted a mobster, he improvised a message to his victim that director Francis Ford Coppola kept in the film: “Michael Corleone says hello.”

It was the start of a nearly five-decade career spanning more than 100 roles, with Aiello often cast as boisterous toughs on both sides of the law. In the police drama “Fort Apache, The Bronx” (1981), he had a supporting role as an psychopathic police officer who throws a young man off a rooftop, and he was the abusive husband of Mia Farrow in Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985).

Meanwhile, he showcased his broadening range in a series of acclaimed theater performances, including an Obie-winning turn in 1977 as a macho working-class father of a sexually confused son in Albert Innaurato’s popular comedy “Gemini” and a thug in David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly” in 1985.

Amid a hectic career on TV, he won a Daytime Emmy Award for the ABC after-school special “Family of Strangers” (1980), playing a widower with two children. He also was Madonna’s worried, disapproving father in the pop singer’s 1986 music video of the song “Papa Don’t Preach.”

Aiello became one of the busiest character actors in movies, notably as a contract killer with a soft streak in Allen’s “Radio Days” (1987) and as a man torn between his engagement to Cher and his devotion to his dying mother in “Moonstruck” (1987).

In casting “Do the Right Thing” (1989), Spike Lee tried to persuade De Niro to play Sal, a pizzeria owner, but the actor steered him to Aiello.

“I think it makes a big difference that Danny has lived a real life,” Lee told the Los Angeles Times.”With most actors, they’ve been to acting school, they’ve been to Juilliard. That’s all they know. But Danny’s been out here. He’s lived a little.”

Aiello’s Sal, the last white business owner in his Brooklyn community, was a tragic figure, nurturing and racist and proud, unwittingly provoking the destruction of his life’s work amid simmering racial tensions. “He is the film’s richest, most complex character, his downfall as harrowing as the events that bring it about,” wrote New York Times film reviewer Vincent Canby.

Aiello drew an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in the film and later told the program “CBS Sunday Morning” that losing to Denzel Washington in the Civil War drama “Glory” was the best possible outcome. He aggressively diminished himself, saying he had no classical training and was undeserving of such a prize. His nomination “cheapened the award,” he said. “If I got it, how good could it be?”

Daniel Louis Aiello Jr. was born in Manhattan on June 20, 1933. He was the sixth of the seven children of a womanizing truck driver and a mother who worked as a seamstress and eventually went blind. Before he turned 10, Danny began shining shoes and hawking newspapers at Grand Central Terminal.

He quit high school after two weeks and, as a gang member, stole from the grocery stores and bowling alley where he worked. “I was getting into a lot of trouble,” he told Parade magazine. “I never held anyone up, but I once got hit in the thigh with a zip gun. It was only a matter of time before things got really bad.”

After three years of Army service, he returned to the Bronx and married Sandy Cohen in 1955. In addition to his wife, of Ramsey, New Jersey, survivors include three children, Rick, Jamie and Stacy, and several grandchildren. His son Danny Aiello III, a stuntman, died in 2010.

Aiello spent several years working for Greyhound bus lines, first as a baggage clerk and eventually as a public address announcer.He was elected president of his local transit workers union and, in 1967, was blamed for leading an unauthorized strike. The international union sided with management and fired him.

He spent the next two years working at after-hours saloons on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he recalled finding himself more than once”between two guns” when violence erupted. When he could not make his rent payment, he resorted to burglary.

“The only thing I knew was that the rent was due, and I had to find a way to pay it,” he told Parade. “Do I regret stealing? Absolutely. But I still think it was the right decision if it kept us from being out on the street.”

In Hollywood, his background gave him the right look and temperament to play a range of malefactors. His presence enlivened even the most risible films, from Eddie Murphy’s gangster comedy “Harlem Nights” (1989) to the Bruce Willis action spoof “Hudson Hawk” (1991).

He was a police officer in Sergio Leone’s gangster epic “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984). He was the Dallas strip club owner Jack Ruby, driven to kill alleged presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, in “Ruby” (1992). He also played his share of mob bosses in productions including the movie “Léon: The Professional” (1994) and the CBS miniseries “The Last Don” (1997).

Aiello wrote a memoir, “I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else: My Life on the Street, on the Stage, and in the Movies” (2014).

“Because of everything I went through, I really appreciated it when the good life happened,” he told Parade. “I think of the hard labor done by postal workers, construction workers, sanitation workers, police - all honorable jobs - and then I look to heaven and say, ‘Thank you.’ To wake up and know that the next thing you have to do is remember lines and say them as realistically as possible and create someone outside yourself - there’s nothing better. Young actors who become famous quickly don’t always understand that.”

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