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RIP Danny Aiello — 'Moonstruck' Actor Dead At 86

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Danny Aiello Dead At 86 — New Details About The Death, Life And Career Of Moonstruck Actor

One of the most prolific actors of the twentieth century has passed away. Danny Aiello, known for his roles in films like Moonstruck and Do The Right Thing, died this week at the age of 86.

His family said only that he had a brief illness before his death. 

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Danny Aiello hadn't dreamed of being an actor until he became one. He spent time in the Army and working at a Greyhound station before finding work as a bouncer and occasional MC at the Improv in New York City. From there, he got his first role in a play and started a stage acting career.

Just three years after that, he got his first movie role, where he worked with Robert DeNiro. He never stopped making movies after that, working right up until his death in 2019.  During his career, Aiello was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe and he won an Obie Award for his off-Broadway performance in a play called Gemini.

In honor of Danny Aiello's incredible life we look back on his career, achievements, family and death. 

1. Danny Aiello's early life

Daniel Louis Siello, Jr. was born in New York City on June 20, 1933. He was one of six children, raised primarily by his mother. His father was frequently absent while he was growing up and the family struggled to make ends meet. 

At 17, he dropped out of high school to enlist in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany. 

2. A strange path to an acting career

In 1957, Aiello left the military and got a job as a package handler at a Greyhound Station, which led to a job at the same station working on the public address system. He eventually became president of the local chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union but was fired position by other workers during a wildcat strike.

After that, he left transit work and went through a rough patch where he didn't have steady work and did things like hustling in a pool hall to make money. He got occasional work helping an uncle unload a truck at the Coliseum convention center on Columbus Circle in New York, where he made the acquaintance of some show business folks playing in a softball league.

He started playing on the Broadway Show League where he met Budd Friedman, the owner of the Improv. Friedman offered him a job as a bouncer. In a parallel to his work at the bus station, he moved from bouncing to MC at the famous club and started performing as well, sometimes singing back up for acts like Bette Midler. 

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3. He went from bouncer to Broadway.

It was his work onstage at the Improv that led to his first acting job. Louis La Russo II, a writer who saw Aiello on stage, asked him to be in a play he had just written.

"I said, 'I'm not an actor,'" Aiello recalled. "'Yes, you are,' La Russo replied, 'you just don't know it yet.'" He agreed to do the play, called Lamppost Reunion, in 1970 and later reprised his role when the show opened on Broadway in 1975. 

4. His first film role was when he was 40 years old.

Aiello's first film role came in 1973. He worked with Robert DeNiro in Bang The Drum Slowly. After that, he worked constantly, sometimes making several movies or TV shows per year. In 1974, he had a small role in The Godfather II where he played a thug who murdered a rival mobster.

As he garotted the other character, he said, "Michael Corleone says hello." The line was improvised, but director Francis Ford Coppola likes it so much he left in the final cut. 

5. Aiello was nominated for an Oscar for Do The Right Thing.

Aiello didn't originally want to play the pizza parlor owner in Spike Lee's 1989 film Do The Right Thing. He told PBS that Lee asked him to do it but he didn't like the way the role was originally written. "You got me making pizzas, flipping them in the air, that's a very ginzo thing," he told Lee.

The writer-director kept asking him and he finally agreed if he could have some creative input into how the character would be portrayed. "I [finally] said to him, 'If you give me an opportunity to add something to this character... I know this character, I may know him better than you.'" he recalled. The role got him his only Oscar nod, which he lost to Denzel Washington in Glory

6. He had an incredible acting career.

Looking over his list of film and TV credits is nothing short of amazing. He played Cher's fianceé in Moonstruck (the guy she dumped for Nicholas Cage in the film), a film for which she won an Oscar. He played Mia Farrow's husband in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo in 1985. He even played the father in Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach" video in 1986.

He was still working as an actor up until the time of his death. His IMDB page lists two different projects in post-production, including a film called One Moment, where he played an aging father. 

Cher posted a tribute to her late co-star.

7. He died on December 12. 

On December 13, 2019, Aiello's family announced that he had passed away. “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,” his family said in a statement. “The family asks for privacy at this time.” 

A memorial service, open to the public, will be held on Thursday, December 19th at 2:30 p.m. at the The Riverside Memorial Chapel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Danny Aiello is survived by his wife Sandy Cohen, whom he married in 1955, and three children. His son, Danny Aiello III, died of pancreatic cancer in 2010.

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Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. She is the creator of the blog FeminXer and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.