At one point in researching Olympia Dukakis, or maybe it was John Mahoney, I noted that three of the co-stars of Moonstruck (1987) share a birthday (June 20), including the late Danny Aiello (1933-2019). I have long wondered if the cast and crew presented a big birthday cake for the trio.
Brooklyn born Aiello left this world on Thursday, gone at 86 years old. He was an Academy Award-nominee, and he also stands as an example a late bloomer and an inspiration for anyone who dreams of success, no matter their age.
His first film role was when he was 40 years old, playing one of Robert De Niro‘s baseball teammates in the poignent Bang The Drum Slowly (1973). Things went well after that; he made at least 70 more films.
Aiello lied about his age TO enlist in the U.S. Army at 16 years old. After serving, he returned to New York City and in the 1960s, he served as president of New York Local 1202 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, representing for Greyhound Bus workers. He also was a bouncer at the legendary New York City comedy club, The Improv and other clubs.
He mostly played “the heavy”. He improvised the line “Michael Corleone says hello” in The Godfather Part II (1974), just before his character Tony strangled to death Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo). He was scary intense in Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981) and as the wretchedly abusive husband in Woody Allen‘s The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985), but he didn’t just play a stereotypical bad guy, his characters were complicated men.
Moonstruck showed fans Aiello’s real range. So did Spike Lee‘s Do The Right Thing (1989). During filming Lee at one point told him: “Whatever you wanna do, you do“. Aiello then wrote a pivotal scene he shared with John Turturro ten minutes to it being shot.
That role earned him nominations for a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar, as well as many film critics’ awards. Do The Right Thing shows his commitment and presence as an actor. As Sal, owner of the neighborhood pizza palace that becomes the center of racial conflict, Aiello persuasively evokes the confusion and exasperation of a man hurt by upheavals and transitions he can’t comprehend or accommodate. His Sal shouts “They grew up on my food!” at the African-American kids in the neighborhood who see him and his family as the enemy in the film. That line was Aiello’s idea.
Lee went after Aiello for the role. He was reluctant to take the part because it seemed to too stereotypical. He told Lee:
“You give me an opportunity to add something to this character. I know this character. I may know him better than you.”
Aiello received an Academy Award nomination for Do The Right Thing. He never took an acting class but he was considered the favorite in the supporting actor Oscar race that year, but he lost out to Denzel Washington of Glory.
He was very good in all his projects, sometimes playing the lead role, such as Lee Harvey Oswald‘s killer in Ruby (1992) and in Me And The Kid (1993) and The Pickle (1993).
He was great doing supporting work in Harlem Nights (1989), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Once Around (1991), where he shines as a singer doing Fly Me To The Moon. He also shows off his singing voice in Radio Days (1987), Hudson Hawk (1991) and Prêt-à-Porter. He is the disapproving father in Madonna‘s 1986 video for Papa Don’t Preach, directed by James Foley.
Aiello released several jazz albums, including I Just Wanted to Hear the Words, (2004), which made it to Number Nine on the Billboard Jazz chart.
Aiello’s Broadway theatre credits include gay playwright Albert Innaurato‘s Gemini (1977-1981), Woody Allen‘s The Floating Light Bulb (1981), David Rabe‘s darkly funny Hurlyburly (1984), and John Guare‘s The House Of Blue Leaves (1986) with Moonstruck pal John Mahoney; all of them long-running hits.
Making A Deal With The Devil (2019) is his final film. His smart, highly readable memoir is I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else (2014).
Cher tweeted :
“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 and he was a part of that happy time.”