Danny Aiello, beloved character actor and Oscar nominee for ‘Do the Right Thing,’ dies at 86

Danny Aiello, shown in 2001, died Thursday after a short illness.
(Jim Cooper / Associated Press)

Danny Aiello, the veteran character actor known for his Oscar-nominated supporting turn in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” died Thursday night in New Jersey. He was 86.

Aiello‘s death was confirmed by his publicist on Friday.

“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,” Tracey Miller said in a statement.

Daniel Louis Aiello Jr., a familiar face if not a brand name to many audiences, was also known for his roles in “Moonstruck” and “The Godfather: Part II.” He often played the part of the Italian tough guy, criminal or father and was famous for turning bit parts into larger-than-life character studies.

A late bloomer, he didn’t get his union card until he was in his 40s. Then his career stretched from the early 1970s until the present day.

Born in Manhattan, Aiello was raised in the Bronx with his five siblings, then dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Army when he was 16. After that, he had various blue-collar jobs around New York until breaking into acting. He started with a role in the 1970 play “Lamppost Reunion,” which he later reprised on Broadway, and did the 1973 film “Bang the Drum Slowly,” which starred Robert De Niro. He worked on stage and screen.

Olympia Dukakis and Danny Aiello in a scene from 1987's "Moonstruck."
Olympia Dukakis and Danny Aiello in a scene from 1987’s “Moonstruck.”
(Getty Images)

As Sal in the 1989 movie “Do the Right Thing,” he played an embattled pizzeria owner trapped in the midst of a racial conflagration sparked by a wall of fame in his restaurant that featured only white stars in a mostly black neighborhood. The role was initially written for De Niro, Aiello said, but “when he couldn’t do it, I believe he recommended me.”

Lee, who directed the film, played Mookie, a pizzeria employee. Aiello lost the Oscar for supporting actor the next year to Denzel Washington for his work in “Glory.”

In an oral history on a 20th anniversary DVD release of the movie, Aiello said, “I didn’t think Sal was a racist, but I don’t think he was a nice guy all the time either. Spike has said that I tried to make Sal lovable, which isn’t true.”

“I’m [heart] Broken. Just Found Out My Brother DANNY AIELLO Made His Transition Last Night. Danny, We Made Cinema History Together With DO THE RIGHT THING. May You Rest In PARADISE,” Lee said in one of a number of tribute posts Friday morning.

Lee said he had been “blessed” by Aiello’s presence at the 30th anniversary block party for “Do the Right Thing” this past June. It was the last time they were together.

“Danny Aiello is one of the few actors who has won an Emmy and an Obie, worked with Spike Lee and Sergio Leone and can teach you how to build a zip gun,” The Times wrote in 1989. Aiello had drawn a diagram for a reporter of how to build his favorite boyhood weapon, and then he flashed a scar he got from one when he was 13.

The Obie, incidentally, came in 1977 for his off-Broadway performance in the play “Gemini,” and the Daytime Emmy for an ABC Afterschool Special.

Aiello never trained as an actor but learned on the job.

“I’ve become, well, not an expert, but I know about movies. I see things in total form. The whole shape. I don’t just see it from the actor’s point of view,” he told The Times in 1993.

“I used to look through a script like this,” he said, leafing through an imaginary sheaf of papers, running his finger down an imaginary page. “Let’s see. Me . . . me . . . me . . . me . . . That’s how I used to do it. Now I look for the overall scheme. I’m interested in the relationships between the characters, not just my own stuff.”


Aiello was Cher’s hapless dumped boyfriend in 1987’s “Moonstruck,” worked extensively with Woody Allen in “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and the play “The Floating Light Bulb” and won a Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle award for his role as a coked-up TV actor in an L.A. production of “Hurlyburly.” Sergio Leone directed him in “Once Upon a Time in America,” where he played opposite De Niro.

“Goodbye Dear #DannyAiello,” Cher tweeted Friday, dropping in a broken-heart emoji. “Danny was a Great Actor, But a Genius Comedic Actor. We Laughed so much. Making #Moonstruck ..It was one of the happiest times in my life,& He Was apart of that Happy time. Goodbye #JohnnyCammareri.”

At 71, the performer found himself on stage again, this time as a solo vocalist. Singing had been his first love, and he’d just recorded an album.

“I did it now simply because life was passing by, and singing is a dream I’ve had for a long period of time,” he told The Times in 2004. “The funny thing is, I never had a dream to be an actor, because I didn’t think that could ever be a part of my life. I thought that actors all came from the other coast.”

Aiello’s singing, “at its core, was far more than an accumulation of influences,” Don Heckman wrote. “It was a pure manifestation, instead, of his own rich persona, of the abundant life experience he brings to his art.”

The actor also appeared in TV shows including “Dellaventura” and “Lady Blue” and the miniseries “The Last Don” and “The Last Don II.” His dozens of film credits included parts in “Fort Apache: The Bronx,” “Lucky Number Slevin,” “Dinner Rush” and, most recently, “Making a Deal With the Devil.” In 1986, he was hired for Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” music video.


Aiello met wife-to-be Sandy Cohen when they were in their mid-teens and married her in 1955. They remained together until his death, and she survives him. Together they had sons Rick, Jaime and Danny Aiello III and daughter Stacey. Two sons followed their father into the industry: Rick as an actor and Danny as a stuntman and stunt coordinator. Danny III died in 2010 of pancreatic cancer.

A memorial service that is open to the public will be held at New York City’s Riverside Memorial Chapel on Dec. 19.