Danny Aiello, the veteran character actor known for his Oscar-nominated supporting turn in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," died Thursday night in New Jersey. He was 86.
Aiello's death was confirmed by his publicist on Friday.
"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. The family asks for privacy at this time," Tracey Miller said in a statement.
Daniel Louis Aiello Jr., a familiar face if not a brand name to many audiences, was also known for his roles in "Moonstruck" and "The Godfather: Part II." He often played the part of the Italian tough guy, criminal or father and was famous for turning bit parts into larger-than-life character studies.
A late bloomer, he didn't get his union card until he was in his 40s. Then his career stretched from the early 1970s until the present day.
Born in Manhattan, Aiello was raised in the Bronx with his five siblings, then dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Army when he was 16. After that, he had various blue-collar jobs around New York until breaking into acting. He started with a role in the 1970 play "Lamppost Reunion," which he later reprised on Broadway, and did the 1973 film "Bang the Drum Slowly," which starred Robert De Niro. He worked on stage and screen.
As Sal in the 1989 movie "Do the Right Thing," he played an embattled pizzeria owner trapped in the midst of a racial conflagration sparked by a wall of fame in his restaurant that featured only white stars in a mostly black neighborhood. The role was initially written for De Niro, Aiello said, but "when he couldn't do it, I believe he recommended me."
Lee, who directed the film, played Mookie, a pizzeria employee. Aiello lost the Oscar for supporting actor the next year to Denzel Washington for his work in "Glory."
In an oral history on a 20th-anniversary DVD release of the movie, Aiello said, "I didn't think Sal was a racist, but I don't think he was a nice guy all the time either. Spike has said that I tried to make Sal lovable, which isn't true."
"I'm (heart) Broken. 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 said in one of a number of tribute posts Friday morning.