Danny Aiello
Born: June 20, 1933, in New York City
Died: December 12, 2019
Lived in: Ramsey and Saddle River, New Jersey
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2019-20: Performing Arts

Call him the ultimate late-bloomer. Danny Aiello didn’t have his first acting role until age 37, but ultimately appeared in more than 70 films, plus countless TV shows and several theatrical productions over the course of a five-decade career.

The son of a laborer father and seamstress mother, Aiello grew up mainly in the South Bronx. According to his obituary in The New York Times, the young Aiello shined shoes in Grand Central Station, delivered laundry and ran numbers for the local mob. In 1951, he dropped out of high school and, lying about his age, enlisted in the U.S. Army.

After his discharge from the Army, Aiello worked at an aircraft assembly plant in New Jersey and as a baggage handler for Greyhound. He served briefly as a union official and later as a bouncer at the Improv, a New York comedy club that helped steer him toward show business.

Aiello made his acting debut in 1970, portraying a Hoboken bar owner in the off-Broadway play “Lamppost Reunion.”  His first film role came three years later in “Bang the Drum Slowly.” The following year, 1974, he had a small part in “The Godfather: Part II,” for which he ad-libbed the memorable line “Michael Corleone says hello” during a mob hit.

Throughout his career, Aiello played an impressive variety of characters, but was most frequently cast as a tough guy in movies such as “Fort Apache, The Bronx” (as a racist cop) and Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” (this time as a corrupt cop).

Major recognition for Aiello’s skills as a character actor came in 1987, when he portrayed the clueless Johnny Cammareri opposite Cher in the romantic comedy “Moonstruck.” Two years later came his most memorable role as Sal, the combative but sentimental pizza man in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” The movie earned Aiello an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

Among his many other roles, Aiello appeared in two films directed by Woody Allen (“The Purple Rose of Cairo” and “Radio Days”); the bio-pic “Ruby” (as Lee Harvey Oswald assassin Jack Ruby); and the detective TV series “Lady Blue.” In 1986, Aiello made a memorable appearance in the widely seen videoclip for Madonna’s hit song “Papa Don’t Preach,” in which he portrayed the pop star’s father.

Aiello also appeared in seven Broadway productions, including the hit comedy “Gemini,” for which he won an Obie Award in its previous Off-Broadway run. Aiello also loved to sing. He recorded four albums showcasing his vocals and sang in several movies. After appearing in “Papa Don’t Preach,” he recorded an answer song, “Papa Wants the Best for You.”

Perhaps no one was more surprised by Aiello’s success than Aiello himself. “The funny thing is, I never had a dream to be an actor, because I didn’t think that could ever be a part of my life,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2004.

Intro/Acceptance Video