Acclaimed actor Danny Aiello died this week in New Jersey after a brief illness. He was 86 years old. Best known for playing tough-guy roles, Aiello portrayed the pizzeria owner Sal Frangione in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing—a role that earned him an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor. Indeed, the popular character actor appeared in countless film roles over the span of nearly five decades. In the Academy Award-winning film The Godfather Part II, he played the vicious mobster Tony Rosato, and in the romantic comedy Moonstruck, he portrayed the befuddled Mr. Johnny Cammareri opposite Cher. Aiello gained recognition in Moonstruck in 1987 as the movie went on to be a major critical and commercial success. 

A Rough Childhood

Danny’s father abandoned the family before Danny was born; he fled when his wife lost her eyesight. Growing up poor in New York, Danny started working at the age of nine shining shoes in Grand Central Station to help earn money for his family. As a teenager, he made money as a pool hustler. Aiello went on to serve in the army during the Korean War, but as luck would have it, rather than being required to fight, he was given the job of playing baseball to entertain the troops thanks to his athletic abilities. Afterward, he found employment as a bus station baggage handler, a Greyhound bus PA announcer, and he eventually became the union president of Greyhound. But he was fired from his position after an unauthorized wildcat strike. But when he subsequently worked as a comedy club bouncer, he was given opportunities to MC, and it was then that he realized he had a knack for public speaking.

Becoming An Actor 

With his hulking frame, New York accent, and Italian ancestry, Aiello broke into acting in his mid-thirties. “I knew I could do it; I knew it was within me,” he reflected. “And my mother told me, ‘Danny, you can do anything—she always told me. My mother was legally blind. My mom was my hero in my life. I didn’t have a father at home, so my mother brought seven of us up, and my mother always instilled in me that confidence that apparently I needed as an actor, and certainly as a beginning actor. She said, ‘You can do anything you want to do.’ And I always felt that way,” he recalled in a Bill Boggs interview. 

Even though he never took an acting class, he started his actor’s journey, quickly finding himself cast in theatrical roles. In fact, Aiello performed on Broadway several years before landing his first film Bang the Drum Slowly at the age of 40. Portraying Horse in the 1973 baseball film, he was cast alongside Robert DeNiro. The following year, he appeared in The Godfather Part II

The 1980s proved to be a particularly fruitful decade for Aiello. In addition to his momentous roles in Do the Right Thing and Moonstruck, he paired up with De Niro again in the epic crime drama Once Upon a Time in America, and he appeared in two Woody Allen films, Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days, and acted alongside Eddie Murphy in the 1989 film Harlem Nights. Aiello also played Madonna’s father in her Papa Don’t Preach music video. 

The decade of the ‘90s ushered in roles in the horror thriller Jacob’s Ladder, the biopic Ruby, the thriller Leon: The Professional 1994, as well as the 1997 television miniseries The Last Don.

Danny Aiello & Sandy Cohen

“When I’m playing a character, I know exactly what I’m going to say, who I am, where I came from, and life is a lot easier like that,” Aiello told CBS News. But through the years, one thing remained constant—his marriage to Sandy Cohen. Married for 64 years, Aiello said he’s a firm believer that “Fights don’t end a relationship.” “If there’s a fight, that’s only the beginning of something that has occurred. And hopefully, you’ll learn from that fight and go on. One should only know that a fight does not end a relationship. That you can still get together,” he insisted. The couple had three sons and a daughter.

Cher tweeted, “Danny was a Great Actor, But a Genius Comedic Actor. We laughed so much. Making #Moonstruck. It was one of the happiest times in my life & He Was a part of that Happy time.”

Mia Farrow tweeted, “He was a superb actor and lovely person. It was a joy and an honor to work with him (in Broadway Danny Rose). Condolences and love to his family.” Aiello had an uncredited role in the 1984 film.

Arrow actor Kirk Acevedo tweeted, “We lost a great actor today. BUT more importantly we lost a great person! First day I met Danny he took me under his wing and gave me advice on the business and life all the while driving me home in his Cadillac.”

Rest in peace, Danny Aiello!