UPDATE, with memorial service plans Danny Aiello, whose roles in Do the Right Thing, Moonstruck, The Godfather Part II and other films made him one of the most familiar and admired character actors of recent decades, died Thursday in a New Jersey medical facility following a sudden illness. He was 86.
His death was confirmed by spokesperson Tracey Miller, who released this 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.”
A memorial service, open to the public, will be held on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2:30 p.m., at the The Riverside Memorial Chapel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Aiello’s film breakthrough came 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 played mobster Tony Rosato in Francis Ford Coppola’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Godfather Part II.
He’d also appear in four Woody Allen projects: 1976’s The Front, in which Allen starred as a man hopelessly 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 miniseries 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 Spike Lee’s 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 on June 20, 1933, in New York City, Aiello endured a difficult childhood. His father Daniel abandoned the family, and his mother Frances, a seamstress, would later lose her eyesight. Aiello falsified his age to enlist in the U.S. Army at 16 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 awas police chief in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, which 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 lost to Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington, respectively). Aiello played against type in Norman Jewison’s 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.”)
Although 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 made several Broadway and Off Broadway appearances. 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.
Aiello’s nephew, ESPN radio host and New York Yankees play-by-play announcer Michael Kay, tweeted “RIP, Uncle Danny. And say hi to my mom for me.”
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