Actor Danny Aiello attends Crystal Apple Presentation Awards Gala on July 30, 1990 at Gracie Mansion in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
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Remembering Danny Aiello, Golden Globe Nominee, 1933-2019

Danny Aiello, who died aged 86, was a late starter. He was 40 years old when he appeared in his first film, Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), and 56 when he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role-Motion Picture, for his role as the owner of a pizzeria in Do the Right Thing (1989), writer-director Spike Lee‘s take on race relations in the predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Aiello played Salvatore ‘Sal’ Frangione, a role first offered to Robert De Niro, an Italian American who has owned the pizzeria in the black neighborhood for some 25 years. Sal was a villain who was racist but complicated and contradictory: hardworking, decent but short-fused, sentimental about the mostly black youth who patronize his neighborhood restaurant, yet willing to brandish a baseball bat when confronted. In his pizzeria he displays a ‘wall of fame’ with no photos of black celebrities, only whites (including Robert De Niro’s), angering his clients who demand that Sal ‘put some brothers on that wall! As tensions rise, Sal refuses to leave the neighborhood, even after a riot erupts, and the pizzeria is set on fire. Later, however, Sal and his black employee, played by Spike Lee, do reconcile, cautiously. 

Aiello started late as a screen actor, but a string of meaty roles led to his award-winning performance. Following Bang the Drum Slowly, the Robert De Niro baseball-themed movie, Aiello was cast in The Godfather Part II (1974), played a bookie in the blacklist drama The Front (1976), and was third billed in Defiance (1980), and fourth billed in Paul Newman‘s Fort Apache: the Bronx (1981) where he was a police officer, ruthless enough to throw a youngster off a rooftop.

In 1984 he again joined Robert De Niro, playing another police officer in Sergio Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in America, which won two Globe nominations. The following year he was third billed in fellow New Yorker’s Woody Allen‘s The Purple Rose of Cairo, playing Monk, the whiskey-soaked violent husband of Mia Farrow’s movie-mad waitress. “I never just hit you,” he says. “I always warn you first.”  In Radio Days (1987), he again was cast by Allen as a Brooklyn mobster who kidnaps a hatcheck girl (Farrow again) after she witnesses a murder. He takes her home to his mother who serves them dinner while they discuss where he will dump her body.

That year Aiello also played Cher‘s kindhearted but rather clueless fiancé, Johnny Camarerri, in the bittersweet comedy Moonstruck, which garnered five Golden Globe nominations and wins for Cher and Olympia Dukakis. When Aiello’s Johnny haplessly proposes marriage to his girlfriend, Loretta (Cher), over dinner, she insists that he kneel on the floor and he protests:“This is a good suit!”.

Do the Right Thing cemented Aiello’s wide recognition: in addition to the Golden Globe nomination, he was nominated for an Oscar by the Academy, and also by film critics associations in Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago. The Globe competition in his category was formidable: Marlon Brando, Sean Connery, Ed Harris, Bruce Willis, and Denzel Washington who won the Globe for his supporting role in Glory.

Many of Aiello’s movies were set in New York, and he was a New Yorker through and through. He was born Daniel Louis Aiello Jr. on June 20, 1933, in Manhattan, the sixth of seven children in a blue-collar Italian American family. His father was a laborer and a truck driver, who worked during prohibition for bootlegger gangster Dutch Schultz, served time in prison and was an absent parent. Naples born mother Frances was a seamstress. Danny, known as Junior, started earning money for his family when he was nine, during World War II, shining shoes at Grand Central Station, getting 10 cents a pair and a quarter for combat boots. He also ran numbers for a local mobster and dropped out of high school to enlist in 1951, serving in Germany during the Korean War.

He was a blue-collar worker through his 30s: assembly line worker, Greyhound baggage handler, pool hall hustler, and even a petty burglar, just to feed his growing family. In 1955 he married Sandy Cohen, a girl from his old neighborhood, and they had four kids. His transition to the theater was rather unconventional. A fellow player in an amateur baseball club was Buddy Friedman, who owned the Improv nightclub. He hired Aiello as a bouncer, and later as a replacement M.C./backup singer. An Improv patron talked Aiello into joining a showcase production, that opened off-Broadway and ended up on Broadway.

Six other plays followed in 11 years, and early recognition came when he won an Obie for playing the macho South Philadelphia father in the hit comedy “Gemini”.

Following Do the Right Thing, Aiello hit his stride as a leading actor in the 1990s. Along with other Italian American New York actors Paul Sorvino and Joe Pesci, he fit the zeitgeist and became one of the go-to guys for directors casting volatile Italian-American mobsters.

Aiello resented the typecasting. He told a reporter:’ I don’t know anyone who curses the way they do on The Sopranos. Not in an Italian household. I never said the word ‘hell’ in front of my mother. I have sons, and they’ve never said ‘hell’ in front of me or my wife. That’s the truth.’Unlike many of his fellow actors, Aiello did not adopt the Method and never had formal training.

He said in an interview: “People call me an instinctive actor, I used to consider that an insult early on, only because I had never studied acting. Now, when people call me instinctive, I love it.’

Aiello, the late-blooming actor, was even a later blooming singer. In his seventies he started to concentrate on his singing career, releasing albums of mostly jazz standards. He said: ‘An album is such a personal thing. It’s something I always wanted to do. It’s me doing me, singing as me’

 In 2014 he published his autobiography, ‘I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else: My Life on the Street, on the Stage, and in the Movies’.

His last movies returned Aiello to the familiar turf:  tough crime dramas, set in New York: The Neighborhood (2017) and Making a Deal With the Devil (2019). But between the two  there was also Little Italy (2018), a romantic comedy about feuding families who run rival pizza businesses. Aiello-Sal was back again in his element as an embattled restaurant owner, presiding over his domain with well-worn elegance at his corner table, an apt reflection of Aiello himself.