Danny Aiello, who has died aged 86, was a stout, dependable character actor who came to prominence in middle age, lending a doughy humanity to paternal or avuncular, typically Italian-American parts.
His enhanced visibility from the mid-1980s onwards was in part down to Madonna. In the promo for the singer’s 1986 chart-topper “Papa Don’t Preach”, Aiello played the patriarch agonising over his daughter’s life choices; within this somewhat stock melodramatic role, he conveyed mixed emotions – weariness, rage and, at the last, understanding – with consummate economy. The video proved impossible to avoid that summer: casting agents were reminded of what a bedrock Aiello could be, leading to roles in two very different productions.
In the enjoyable romcom Moonstruck (1987), Aiello was cast as Johnny Cammameri, the devoted albeit conservative fiancé Cher’s Loretta Castorini leaves behind for a fling with Johnny’s livewire younger brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage). Though much of the considerable critical praise went the way of his colleagues, Aiello brought a genuine poignancy to the part of Johnny, a mamma’s boy so devoted to the woman who raised him that he was willing to sacrifice his own shot at happiness.
In Spike Lee’s altogether more confrontational Do the Right Thing (1989), Aiello played Sal, owner of a Brooklyn pizzeria that becomes the locus for a vicious race riot on a sweltering summer’s day. Aiello was Lee’s second choice after Robert de Niro, and he expressed reservations about the implications of playing a heavy-set, pizza-slinging Italian. Yet empowered by the freedom to improvise scenes, he gave an indelible performance as one of several lives changed over a frazzling 24-hour period, earning Best Supporting Actor nods at both the Golden Globes and Oscars.
He was born Daniel Louis Aiello Jr. on June 20, 1933 in Manhattan, the fifth of six children raised almost singlehandedly by their seamstress mother Frances Pietrocova after her labourer husband, himself known as Danny, abandoned the family. It was a rough upbringing. The young Danny was sent out to shine shoes at Grand Central Station after his mother lost her eyesight; according to the actor’s 2014 memoir I Only Know Who I Am When I’m Somebody Else, he drifted into running numbers and robbing cigarette machines to help make ends meet.
Aiello found greater stability after three years of military service, marrying his teenage sweetheart Sandy Cohen in 1955. He found employment with the Greyhound bus company – working his way up from baggage handler to local president of the Amalgamated Transit Union – before finding his way into the spotlight in circuitous fashion.
Standing at 6’2”, with a bulky, Army-honed physique, Aiello was working nights as a bouncer at New York comedy club The Improv when he was asked to fill in for an emcee who had been taken ill. It inspired him to try out for acting roles, including that of an embittered barman in Lamppost Reunion, an off-off-Broadway production that grew in reputation as it toured through the 1970s.
Aged forty, he made his screen debut in the baseball drama Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), before popping up in several noteworthy films: he was the assassin Tony Rosato, adlibbing the line “Michael Corleone says hello” as he garrottes Frank Pentangeli, in The Godfather: Part II (1974), the police chief in Once Upon a Time in America (1984), the useless husband Mia Farrow escapes in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and the gangster Rocco in Allen’s Radio Days (1987).
Aiello was never as prominent after his mid-Eighties moment in the sun, though he continued to compile credits. He won a rare lead role as JFK’s assassin in Ruby (1992) and his own Brando moment in the Mario Puzo-derived miniseries The Last Don (1997), but settled into secondary roles, appearing in Robert Altman’s Pret-a-Porter (1994) and alongside Rik Mayall in Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis (1997).
Increasingly, his creative energies were focused on a singing career. Proximity to Madonna imbued Aiello with renewed confidence: in 1987, he recorded a “Papa Don’t Preach” answer song called “Papa Wants the Best for You”, and he revealed a smooth facility with older standards in both the romcom Once Around (1991) and Hudson Hawk (1991), where he duetted with Bruce Willis on “Swinging on a Star”.
In 2004, his swing album “I Just Wanted to Hear the Words” hit #4 on the Billboard jazz chart; four subsequent LPs followed, including 2011’s “Bridges”, a collaboration with the rapper Hasan, on which he covered “Lady in Red” and “Let It Be”.
He was grateful for the opportunities that had come his way, however belatedly: “I was 40 when I did my first movie. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. My interpretation of acting at the time, because I didn’t know how to build a character, was pure energy. People call me an instinctive actor. I used to consider that an insult early on, only because I had never studied. Now... I love it.”
He is survived by Cohen and three children, Rick, Jaime, and Stacey. A fourth child, the stuntman Danny Aiello III, died of pancreatic cancer in 2010.
Danny Aiello, born June 20, 1933, died December 12, 2019.