Danny Aiello, ‘Do The Right Thing’ and ‘Moonstruck’ Actor, Dies at 86

Danny Aiello in Do the Right Thing. (Credit: Universal)

Danny Aiello, a veteran character actor who received an Academy Award nomination for his role as pizzeria owner Sal in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, has died. He was 86.

Aiello passed away Thursday night after a brief illness, his publicist told The Associated Press.

Known for playing a tough guy, Aiello had roles in the films Fort Apache, the Bronx; Moonstruck; and Once Upon a Time in America. He also had parts in Harlem Nights; Hudson Hawk;  Ruby; and the TV miniseries The Last Don.

Lee, who directed Aiello in the 1989 film Do The Right Thing, wrote a tribute to the late actor Friday on Instagram.

“I’m heartbroken. Just found out my brother Danny Aiello made his transition last night. Danny, we made cinema history together with Do The Right Thing. May you rest in paradise,” Lee wrote.

Cher, who worked with Aiello in the 1987 movie Moonstruck, called him 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,” she tweeted.

Aiello was born to Italian parents in New York City in 1933. His father was a laborer and left the family of seven children. Aiello worked as a child, selling newspapers, doing odd jobs in a grocery store, and shining shoes.

In interviews, he said he joined a street gang in his teenage years and committed some petty crimes. He dropped out of high school, got married in 1955 and joined the Army.

Later, Aiello landed a job as a baggage man at Greyhound, he told the New York Times in a 1990 interview. He loaded baggage and later became a public address announcer shouting out bus routes. He was suddenly let go after ten years and his family struggled. Some days the family couldn’t afford milk to go with their cereal, the Times article said.

Aiello eventually got a job as a bouncer at a New York club and sometimes acted as an emcee. As he worked on his performing skills, he began to pick up bit parts in films, including The Godfather, Part II.

Aiello and his wife, Sandy, lived in Ramsey, New Jersey. He also is survived by three children, Rick, Jamie and Stacy, and 10 grandchildren. His son, stuntman Danny Aiello III, died in 2010 from cancer.