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Actor Danny Aiello, Best Known For 'Do The Right Thing', Dies At 86

Dec 13, 2019
Originally published on December 13, 2019 8:09 pm
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Actor Danny Aiello has died at the age of 86. He started his onscreen career with Italian American sagas like "The Godfather: Part II" and "Once Upon A Time In America." Aiello also got an Oscar nomination for his role in Spike Lee's 1989 film "Do The Right Thing." NPR's Neda Ulaby has our remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Danny Aiello played a pizzeria owner in "Do The Right Thing" who helps inflame a racial conflict and murder that results in the burning of his business. He uses a profanity-laden tirade to express his displeasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DO THE RIGHT THING")

DANNY AIELLO: (As Salvatore Frangione) You see this [expletive] place? I built this [expletive] place with my bare [expletive] hands. Every light socket, every piece of tile - me.

ULABY: On WHYY's Fresh Air in 1992, Aiello said he added heart and lines to show why his character made pizza in a black Brooklyn neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AIELLO: He likes the people. He saw them get older. He enjoys the fact that they love his food.

ULABY: Bringing pride to white working-class characters was something Aiello did before acting. He was the New York-born son of a Teamster who grew up to be a union president himself. He got fired for organizing while working for the Greyhound Bus Company. To support his family, he said he turned to petty crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AIELLO: And I'd break into cigarette machines, jukeboxes. I used to pay rent with quarters and nickels.

ULABY: Working as a bouncer in a comedy club got Aiello interested in acting. He played lots of tough guys with names like Frank, Tony and Harry.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO")

AIELLO: (As Monk) Beat it. Beat it.

ULABY: And he played Mia Farrow's abusive husband in "The Purple Rose Of Cairo." But Danny Aiello brought a subversive tenderness to many of his characters, no more than in "Moonstruck" from 1987. He played Cher's nervous fiancee, who takes her to a fancy restaurant to propose.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOONSTRUCK")

AIELLO: (As Ronny Cammareri) Have some dessert.

CHER: (As Loretta Castorini) No, I shouldn't.

AIELLO: (As Ronny Cammareri) Will you marry me?

ULABY: It's one of the most awkward proposals in film history as she makes him get down on his knees...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOONSTRUCK")

AIELLO: (As Ronny Cammareri) This is a good suit.

CHER: (As Loretta Castorini) I know that. I helped you pick it out. It came with two pairs of pants.

ULABY: ...And finally stumble through the words.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOONSTRUCK")

AIELLO: (As Ronny Cammareri) Loretta Castorini Clark, on my knees, in front of all of these people, will you marry me?

ULABY: Who could resist his appeal? Not audiences or directors. Danny Aiello, who did not even start as an actor until he was 35, died a beloved one yesterday after a brief illness.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.