Actor Danny Aiello died Thursday night after a brief illness, per THR. Aiello was a native New Yorker who began his acting career at age 35 when he met writer Louis La Russo II, who asked him to perform in a play he had written. Aiello told La Russo “I’m not an actor,” to which La Russo replied, “Yes you are. You just don’t know it yet.”
La Russo ended up being right, as that play, Lampost Reunion went on to be nominated for best play at the Tonys. Aiello’s and La Russo’s working relationship continued in Wheelbarrow Closers and Knockout, which both played on Broadway as well.
Upon his transition to film, Aiello is perhaps best known for his roles as pizza-store owner Sal in Spike Lee’s classic Do the Right Thing and Cher’s suitor in Moonstruck. Aiello earned Golden Globe nominations in the best supporting actor categories for Do the Right Thing, and stayed connected with Spike Lee through the years after the 1989 movie. Lee posted the following picture, along with multiple other posts, in remembrance of the actor:
This Was The Last Time Danny AIELLO And I We’re Together. Danny Blessed Us With His Presence At The 30th Anniversary DO THE RIGHT THING Block Party -June 30th,20019.
A post shared by Spike Lee; (@officialspikelee) on
Despite a late start in the industry, Aiello also notably appeared in Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional, The Godfather: Part II, which marked only his second onscreen appearance, The Front, Ruby, The Pickle and The Cemetery Club. He also played Madonna’s dad in the 1986 music video for “Papa Don’t Preach,” directed by James Foley. Shockingly, Aiello never took an acting class; his talent seemingly coming entirely from practice and natural instinct.
In addition to acting, Aiello also released a few jazz albums, the singing bug seemingly catching him in Lasse Hallstrom’s film Once Around, in which he sang “Fly Me to the Moon”. Aiello’s 2004 album I Just Wanted to Hear the Words made it to No. 9 on the Billboard jazz chart.
Aiello was married to his wife, Sandy, for more than 60 years. The couple had four children: sons Rick, Danny III, and Jamie, along with daughter Stacy. Danny III, a stuntman and stunt coordinator, died in 2010 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 53.
In 2011, Aiello told Backstage that acting was “more important than ever” after his son’s death. “I suppose I could say acting is medicinal. It gives me a reason to keep living. I can’t wait to get up because I’m going to act.”