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Danny Aiello of 'Do the Right Thing' and 'Moonstruck' dead at 86

Aiello broke into show business in the early 1970s, first acting in the Robert De Niro film "Bang the Drum Slowly."
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Danny Aiello, a fixture of movies and television for decades who was best known for his roles in "Do the Right Thing" and "Moonstruck," died Thursday after a brief illness, according to his family and agent.

He was 86.

"Danny was my client and a dear friend. He passed away last night. Danny was a rare talent who triumphed over incredible odds to become one of our greatest actors. He will be missed," literary agent Jennifer DeChiara said in a statement.

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Aiello broke into show business in the early 1970s, first acting in the Robert De Niro film "Bang the Drum Slowly,” and spent the majority of his career playing tough-guy, brooding New Yorker types.

60th Anniversary New York Emmy Awards Gala
Danny Aiello attends 60th Anniversary New York Emmy Awards Gala at Marriott Marquis Times Square on May 6, 2017 in New York.John Lamparski / WireImage file

He went on to costar in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor, losing to Denzel Washington who won for "Glory."

In the 1989 movie, Aiello played Sal, a longtime pizzeria owner in a predominantly black neighborhood of Brooklyn, where racial tensions explode on a very hot day.

Spike Lee posted several “Do the Right Thing” pictures of him and Aiello on Instagram on Friday morning, telling fans he was heartbroken.

“Just Found Out My Brother DANNY AIELLO Made His Transition Last Night,” Lee wrote. “Danny. We Made Cinema History Together With DO THE RIGHT THING. May You Rest In PARADISE.”

Cher, who played opposite Aiello as a dissatisfied girlfriend who dumps him for his fiery younger brother, played by Nicolas Cage, wished him goodbye on Twitter.

“Danny was a Great Actor, But a Genius Comedic Actor. We Laughed so much. Making #Moonstruck,” Cher wrote. “It was one of the happiest times in my life.”

Spike Lee and Danny Aiello on the set of "Do the Right Thing" in 1989.
Spike Lee and Danny Aiello on the set of "Do the Right Thing" in 1989.Anthony Barboza / Getty Images file

In "The Godfather Part II," Aiello ad-libbed the since oft-repeated line: "Michael Corleone says hello!"

Aiello even dipped his toes into pop music, playing Madonna's father in the video for her 1986 hit "Papa Don't Preach."

And in 1996, he appeared on NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

Aiello also graced the stage on and off Broadway, in shows such as "Gemini" and "The House of Blue Leaves."

He also had a leading role in Woody Allen's Broadway play "The Floating Light Bulb" and worked with Allen again in the films "Broadway Danny Rose," "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and "Radio Days."

While most actors center their lives in Hollywood, Aiello refused to move from his native New York, and when CBS wanted him to produce and star in "Dellaventura," the network had to move the production to the East Coast from Los Angeles.

Aiello was born to working-class parents who lived on West 68th Street. His mother was an immigrant from Naples, Italy.

He used a fake identification at the age of 16 to join the Army, and served for three years. After he was honorably discharged, he married Sandy Cohen in 1955, and the couple would have four children.

He supported his family by working at the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Manhattan and then odd jobs after he lost his job for his ardent support of the transit union, which he served as the youngest-ever president.

He eventually landed a job as a bouncer at a comedy club, where he ended up on the stage, eventually gaining attention to land roles in feature films, at nearly 40 years old.

“Damn I’m so sad to hear the great Danny Aiello has passed away,” actor and podcaster Michael Rapaport tweeted. “So so sad. Such a great actor. HUGE INSPIRATION for me personally.”

Billy Baldwin, who appeared with Aiello in “The Preppie Murder,” about the 1986 slaying of Jennifer Levin, also mourned the actor’s passing.

“From Johnny in Moonstruck to Sal in Do The Right Thing. That smile, that laugh, that NY attitude,” Baldwin tweeted. “They don’t make ‘em like Danny anymore. What a talent… a true one of a kind.”

The Aiello family said in a statement, "It is with profound sorrow to report that Danny Aiello, beloved husband, father, grandfather, actor and musician passed away last night after a brief illness."

Aiello is survived by his wife of 65 years, three children and 10 grandchildren. A fourth son, stuntman and stunt coordinator Danny Aiello III, died in 2010 of pancreatic cancer.

CORRECTION (Dec. 13, 2019, 12:29 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the year “Do the Right Thing” was released. It was 1989, not 1990.