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Danny Aiello (1933–2019), character actor known for “Do the Right Thing”

Getty Images / FilmMagic / Isaiah Trickey

Aiello's dozens of film credits include "The Godfather Part II," "The Purple Rose of Cairo," and "Lucky Number Slevin"

Danny Aiello was a prolific character actor best known for his role as pizzeria owner Sal Frangione in Spike Lee’s 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.” He had a small but notable role in “The Godfather Part II” (1974), for which he ad-libbed the memorable line, “Michael Corleone says hello!” Aiello’s dozens of other film credits include  “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984), “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985), “Moonstruck” (1987), “Harlem Nights” (1989), “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990), “Pret-a-Porter” (1994), and “Lucky Number Slevin” (2006). He played Madonna’s father in her 1986 award-winning video for “Papa Don’t Preach.” Aiello’s most recent film was 2017’s “The Neighborhood.”

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Died: December 12, 2019 (Who else died on December 12?)

Details of death: Died at a New Jersey medical facility after a sudden illness at the age of 86.

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Late bloomer: Aiello didn’t set out to be an actor — in fact, he didn’t even start acting until he was in his 30s, and his first movie role came when he was 40. He served in the U.S. Army for three years and came home to a job as a bus driver. He was rising in his career, serving as president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, when he lost his job and his life pivoted. He found a gig working as a bouncer at New York comedy club The Improv. His acting career grew out of occasional stints emceeing at the club, where he was seen by the right person, playwright Louis La Russo II, who gave him a role in his Broadway play “Lamppost Reunion.” Aiello moved from the stage to the screen with his 1973 film debut, “Bang the Drum Slowly.”

Do the Right Thing: Though Aiello had been in films for more than 15 years by the time he got his role in “Do the Right Thing,” it was a turning point for his career, a prominent role that gave him a chance to exhibit his talents at both acting and improv. Aiello was proud to note that Lee gave his blessing for Aiello to bring his own interpretation to Sal’s character: “Anything you wanna do. Whatever you wanna do, you do,” he remembered Lee saying when he talked to the Chicago Tribune about the film in 1989. Aiello ultimately wrote in a scene between himself and John Turturro that added backstory and a sympathetic note to his character. He received Oscar and Golden Globes nominations for his performance and won best supporting actor awards from the Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago film critics’ associations.

Aiello on his acting style: “What method? I talk to myself and I say, ‘Mama, don’t let me make a fool of myself.’ When I’m acting I’m me. The only thing that changes is the rhythm of my speech. I walk around, I look in the mirror, I speak softly, I shout. And then the character comes out. It’s instinctive.” —from a 2011 interview with Backstage

What people said about him: “Damn I’m so sad to hear the great Danny Aiello has passed away. So sad. Such a great actor. HUGE INSPIRATION for me personally.” —actor Michael Rapaport

“From the Army to Greyhound labor rep to bouncer at the Improv to Hollywood stardom!! From Johnny in Moonstruck to Do the Right Thing. That smile, that laugh, that NY attitude. They don’t make ‘em like Danny anymore. What a talent… a true one of a kind.” —actor Billy Baldwin

“RIP Danny Aiello, a great character actor of the old school, memorable in everything he did.” —writer Farran Nehme

“God bless Danny Aiello. His Oscar nom was for Do the Right Thing but watch Jacob’s Ladder to see him as a literal angel.” —comedian John Fogelsang

Full obituary: The New York Times

Related lives:

  • Danny Aiello III (1957–2010), Aiello’s son, who was an actor and stuntman
  • Ossie Davis (1917–2005), prolific actor and activist costarred in “Do the Right Thing” with Aiello
  • Richard Pryor (1940–2005), legendary comedian starred in “Harlem Nights” with Aiello