Danny Aiello, Actor in ‘Do the Right Thing,’ Dies at 86

A memorable character actor on both stage and screen, Mr. Aiello won an Academy Award nomination for his role in Spike Lee’s 1989 film.

The actor Danny Aiello in 2001. He started his acting career on the New York stage and didn’t make his movie debut until he was 40.
The actor Danny Aiello in 2001. He started his acting career on the New York stage and didn’t make his movie debut until he was 40.Credit...Jim Cooper/Associated Press

Danny Aiello, the burly New York-born film and stage actor who was 40 when he made his movie debut and 16 years later earned an Academy Award nomination for his role as a pizzeria owner in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” died on Thursday. He was 86.

His death was confirmed by Jennifer De Chiara, his literary agent, in an email. No other details were provided.

In “Do the Right Thing,” Mr. Lee’s 1989 film about a white business in the predominantly black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, Mr. Aiello was a morally complicated racist villain, willing to wield a baseball bat but sentimental about the young people in the neighborhood having grown up on his food.

He won the role after having established himself as a memorable character actor in films including “Moonstruck” (1987), in which he played Cher’s kind but clueless fiancé; “Fort Apache: The Bronx” (1981), as a ruthless police officer who throws a young man off a rooftop; Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984), also as a police officer; and three films involving Woody Allen.

He was cast as a bookie in the 1950s blacklist drama “The Front” (1976), in which Mr. Allen starred, and as Mia Farrow’s short-tempered husband in “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985) and a Mafia hit man in “Radio Days” (1987), both of which Mr. Allen directed. He also played a frustrated 1940s waiter and family man, opposite Bea Arthur, in Mr. Allen’s 1981 play, “The Floating Light Bulb.”

In “Do the Right Thing,” Mr. Aiello’s character, Sal, has owned his pizzeria in the neighborhood for 25 years and refuses to leave, even as tensions rise over the wall of fame in his restaurant that includes no photos of black celebrities. The pizzeria is set on fire during a riot, but in the end he and Mr. Lee’s character, an employee, cautiously reconcile.

His performance brought him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Though he lost to Denzel Washington (for “Glory”), he firmly established his stardom that year and was named best supporting actor by the Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston film critics’ associations.

Many of his fans never knew he had begun his acting career on the New York stage, appearing in seven Broadway productions in 11 years. His roles included the macho South Philadelphia father in the hit comedy “Gemini” (1977), for which he had already won an Obie Award for the play’s Off Broadway run; a violent tough guy in “Hurlyburly,” in which he replaced Harvey Keitel in 1985; and a Hollywood director clinging to his past in “The House of Blue Leaves” (1986). He also appeared as himself in “Home for the Holidays,” a songs-and-stories revue that had a limited run during the 2017 Christmas season.

He never studied acting and was often described by critics as a natural — a description, he said in a 2015 NPR interview, that he considered “some sort of insult.” “To me,” he recalled, “it meant I was unlearned.”

In a 1990 interview with The New York Times Magazine, he appeared to dismiss Method techniques and preparation. “You know what I do backstage?” he said. “One minute before I go on, I look up at heaven and say, ‘Mama, don’t let me make a fool of myself.’”

Daniel Louis Aiello Jr. was born on June 20, 1933, in Manhattan, the sixth of seven children of Daniel and Frances (Pietrocova) Aiello. Danny, known as Junior until adulthood, grew up on West 68th Street, before gentrification, and then in the South Bronx. His father, whose occupational experience included driving trucks for the bootlegger Dutch Schultz and who served time in prison, was largely absent. His mother worked as a seamstress, an envelope stuffer and a toy-factory supervisor.

Junior was a wage earner from the age of 9 — first shining shoes at Grand Central Terminal during World War II (10 cents for regular shoes, 25 cents for combat boots), then delivering magazines and laundry and, by his own admission, running numbers for the local mob. He dropped out of high school to join the Army in 1951 and was based in Germany during the Korean War.

Mr. Aiello was a blue-collar worker until his mid-30s. He worked on an assembly line at an aircraft plant in New Jersey, was a baggage handler for Greyhound in Manhattan and gave the public its first taste of his raspy voice when he started his job there as public address announcer, calling out the names of the stops for departing buses. He also became a union official but lost his job after a wildcat strike, reducing him to pool-hall hustling and eventually to burglary to feed his growing family.

In a way, he owed his show business career to his baseball talent. Doing occasional work for an uncle unloading trucks at the Coliseum convention center on Columbus Circle, he wandered into an amateur softball group, the Broadway Show League, just across the way in Central Park. One player, Budd Friedman, who owned the Midtown nightclub the Improv, offered him a job as a bouncer.

Soon he was filling in as M.C. at the Improv, singing backup for unknowns like Bette Midler and Robert Klein and doing late-late-night readings from “The Godfather” (the book, that is; the movie hadn’t been made yet). A playwright patron from Hoboken, N.J., Louis La Russo, persuaded Mr. Aiello to be in a showcase production of his play “Lamppost Reunion,” about a Sinatra-like singer.

The play opened Off Broadway in 1970, with Mr. Aiello making his New York stage debut as a Hoboken bar owner at the age of 37. When the play finally made it to Broadway, in 1975, Mr. Aiello was back in the role.

His first film role was in the baseball drama “Bang the Drum Slowly” (1973), with the young Robert De Niro. His last was in “Making a Deal With the Devil,” a 2019 F.B.I. drama.

Mr. Aiello married Sandy Cohen, a girl from his Bronx neighborhood, in the mid-1950s. She survives him. His other survivors include two sons, Rick and Jaime; a daughter, Stacey; and 10 grandchildren. His son Daniel III, a stunt coordinator, died in 2010.

He often told the story of his very brief appearance in “The Godfather: Part II” (1974), when he improvised a remark as his character strangled a rival mobster (“Michael Corleone says hello”); Francis Ford Coppola liked it and left the line in the movie.

Mr. Aiello never claimed to have inspired the signature line in “Taxi Driver” (1976), but, according to his 2014 memoir, “I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else,” he could have. When he and his wife saw the film and Mr. De Niro’s character first said, “You talking to me?,” he recalled, she turned to him and said, “Danny, he’s doing you.”

Derrick Taylor contributed reporting.